By Terry Maples
Language naturally evolves over time. I’ve observed the evolution of many words since my childhood.
One example is the word “mouse.” When I was young the word referred to an undesirable furry rodent or the more winsome Disney character Mickey. With the advent of computers, a mouse became a pointing device. The word continues to change, because now most new computers don’t require an external mouse.
I’m fascinated by the evolution of vocabulary, but sometimes it frustrates me when perfectly good words lose their positive meanings. In my opinion, understanding of the word “liberal” has suffered greatly the past few decades.
Liberal is a very good word that means generous. Who among us doesn’t want to be generous with our lives, gifts and resources?
In our current congregational and political climates, however, the word liberal is often assigned negative definitions and is used as a sword to wound. How many times lately have you heard the word liberal used in a positive way at church or in political discourse? More often the word is used to berate people who are different, to condemn ideas or to incite fear.
I probably heard the word liberal used negatively during my childhood, but I didn’t wake up to the deeply wounding misunderstanding of the word until my first year in seminary. Because of growing discomfort with diversity within the denomination, theologically conservative SBC pastors felt Southern Baptist Theological Seminary had become too “liberal.”
They used the word liberal in an effort to convince people some professors did not believe the Bible. Using the word in this emotional way was strategic in fueling the so-called conservative resurgence, firing committed faculty members and taking control of seminaries. How ironic that teachers who were called to open the minds and hearts of seminarians were fired for their willingness to practice their craft.
I think it is time to reclaim the essential definitions of the word liberal in the Christian context. Surely, believers and congregations desire to embody, embrace and exercise Webster’s definition of giving freely, giving more than is necessary — behavior exhibited by Jesus during his time of earthly ministry.
Jesus was liberal in his love for people. Jesus modeled extravagant love as action and ultimately submitted to the indignity of the cross to prove his sacrificial love. That love evidenced itself in special concern and compassion for the hurting, excluded and impoverished.
How often in the New Testament do we find Jesus sharing his time, energy, attention and insight with others? Jesus’ love for people prompted him to invest generously in the disciples who followed him and people he encountered during his ministry.
Jesus was liberal in offering forgiveness. This was the part of Jesus’ liberal nature that got him into deep trouble with first-century religious leaders. From their perspective, only God could forgive sin. They didn’t believe that Jesus, as God’s Son, had authority and power to forgive sins while on earth.
He forgave the very people who seemed to be the most unforgivable: prostitutes, tax collectors and other “notorious” sinners. Jesus knew all needed love, grace and forgiveness, including the religious leaders.
Jesus’ capacity to offer forgiveness is our model for generously extending grace and forgiveness to our brothers and sisters. Our awareness of how much we have been given fuels our capacity to forgive others.
Jesus was liberal in his rejection of legalism. Jesus was in constant conflict with religious and political leaders on a number of subjects. Why? Jesus would not play by their rigid rules. He consistently colored outside the lines.
Tradition demanded one thing, Jesus did another. He said things like, “You have heard it said, but I say….” Jesus healed on the Sabbath. He touched a leper. His disciples “worked” on the Sabbath. They ate with unwashed hands.
Jesus didn’t arbitrarily break rules to unnerve people. He consistently moved beyond cultural barriers and self-limiting ideas in order to show that the higher law is love as expressed in the Great Commandment.
Can you imagine how different our lives would be today if we were as liberal as Jesus? We would experience the joy of being Jesus’ loving and compassionate presence. We would relate to all people as equals in the sight of God, and we would work for justice for all.
We would reject relating to people based on others’ assessments of them. We would experience freedom to move toward forgiving those who hurt us. Love would trump legalism and cultural expectations.
Do you agree the time has come to take back and re-empower the word liberal? We must not allow this strong, descriptive and God-honoring word to be co-opted by those who myopically perceive liberal as negative or bad. Let’s enthusiastically become liberal as we practice generosity and cultivate openness to new directions in which the Holy Spirit blows.