Friday, May 20, 2005

Why Kristof is right -- and Spong doesn't cut it...

In a recent New York Times Op-Ed piece, entitled Liberal Bible-Thumping, Nicholas Kristof reviews a recent book by Bishop Spong, and argues that Spong's approach shows liberals how to confront conservative Christians on their own terms. Kristof seems to be calling for a more civil response to conservatives by liberals, and in itself, that would be good. Espeically among Christians, we need more civil dialogue and less unprovoked animus. As Kristof reminds liberal readers: "It's entirely possible to honor Christian conservatives for their first-rate humanitarian work treating the sick in Africa or fighting sex trafficking in Asia, and still do battle with them over issues like gay rights."

Nicholas Kristof is right -- not only as a working strategy for liberal politics, but also for liberal/conservative Christian dialogue. In fairness to Bishop Spong, I have only read Kristof's review of his work. I'm sure it would appeal to a particular kind of Christian, but I'm probably not one of them. Based on what I know of Spong's earlier work, and on Kristof's account, Spong doesn't cut it. Insinuating that Jesus had an affair with Mary Magdalene, and that Paul was a self-hating homosexual doesn't help dialogue, but Spong isn't really the issue, he's just a symptom. The larger issue is that liberal Christians usually cannot acknowledge the "first-rate humanitarian work..." of conservative Christians, let alone honor it (at least in my experience), and when confronted with the socially positive results of conservative Christianity, many liberal Christians try to find ways to dismiss even social improvement as "naive focus on individuals," at the expense of "the systemic evils that cause these problems." If it's not pie-in-the-sky Christianity, its worse -- it's self-help Christianity!

Until we, as Christians, can find a way to talk to each other over the great divide, we will be ineffectual in our mission to speak to the world about issues where the majority of both sides agree -- like the importance of human dignity, love, compassion, and the centrality of God for a fulfilling human life; or like the degrading power of poverty, addiction, disease, and inaction by those who have the power to change things. In the end, despite our differences, we claim to have faith in the same God revealed in the flesh in Jesus Christ -- if we cannot model how disagree, often from across vast chasms, and do it without unneccessary vitriol, we have failed to hear Christ's call to be peacemakers.

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