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Every time we tune in to a TV news broadcast, attend worship, or hang out with neighbors, it isn’t long before a familiar, soul-wearying subject rears its head:
It’s Left vs Right. Liberals vs Conservatives. Progressives vs Reactionaries. What are the two sides fighting about now?
And who decided that liberals should be called the Left and conservatives would be known as the Right?
Those designations go all the way back to the seating arrangements at the French National Assembly, or Estates-General, in the turbulent year of 1789. King Louis XVI was literally and figuratively at the center of everything. Those who supported Louis and his stay-the-course policies sat on the monarch’s right. Those who believed that the times were ripe for radical change sat on the king’s left.
A few short months after the Assembly first gathered, France was plunged into violent revolution. The king and queen were ultimately guillotined. Since then the Left has represented change, while the Right aligns with the status quo.
Over the centuries, historians have lumped an amazing number of groups into the Right. They include fascists, imperialists, fundamentalists, traditionalists, the Religious Right, racists, Nazis, and conservative reactionaries.
The Left, on the other hand, has historically included anarchists, communists, socialists, anti-capitalists, PETA, the Radical Left, greens, progressives, and libertarians.
There’s a strong likelihood that one of those two lists makes you shudder. It’s also possible that both lists make you want to curl up under the kitchen sink and chew on a raw potato.
What can’t be doubted, however, is that a human society, in order to be healthy, needs the best of both the Right and the Left.
The Right seeks continuity, clarity, predictability, and authority. Without such order, there is chaos. That’s the gift that conservatives give to society. But if the pendulum swings too far to the right, freedom is stifled and people begin to throw their support towards those who promise change.
The Left seeks movement, transformation, and revolution. Without continual reform, society stagnates. That’s the gift that liberals give to society. But if the pendulum swings too far to the left, freedom devolves into chaos and people begin to applaud those who will restore order.
In general, leaders on the Right are trying to protect something. Leaders on the Left are trying to transform something. Both sides claim to be the true patriots. Both claim to represent America at Its Best. On a much broader scale, both sides claim to represent the Good Life and the pathway to true happiness for all of humanity.
All too often, however, the Middle is neglected. Centrist perspectives and common ground are overlooked. That especially happens when the Left and the Right demonize each other.
Think, for instance, how two perfectly decent words have for all intents and purposes become expletives.
“Liberals” are people who value essential freedoms – freedom of worship, freedom of thought, freedom of the press. Every healthy conservative should want to be a liberal. “Fundamentalists” were originally the devotees of a series of booklets published between 1910 and 1915 called The Fundamentals of the Faith, which outlined the convictions of mainstream Christianity – first principles worth honoring. No healthy liberal should feel slighted to be called a fundamentalist, in the proper sense of the term.
But in our current black-and-white, winners vs losers climate, liberals and fundamentalists are declared to be irreconcilable opposites. It’s easier to lob grenades into the camp of the “enemy” and use fear and anger to motivate the “good people” – that is, those who are on our side – instead of working towards a healthy balance.
In the end, the best solutions to these Grand Canyon-sized divides are not Either/Or. They are Both/And.
So where is Jesus on this spectrum? As you might expect, he is claimed by everyone.
According to the Gospels, Jesus clearly identifies with the deepest wisdom of both Left and Right – transformation and order. Yet he unhesitatingly calls out the sins of each extreme, as well.
He makes it perfectly clear that God’s Law isn’t going anywhere (Matthew 5:17). That warms the hearts of conservatives. But then he uses the strongest possible words to blast the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees (see Matthew 23:1-39), throwing the supporters of the status quo back on their heels.
In Matthew 25:31-46, he embraces such a powerful social justice ethic that pastor James Forbes once said that according to Jesus, “no one gets into heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.” But just one chapter later, he strongly reprimands Peter when he lunges with a sword at a cadre of soldiers (Matthew 26:50-52). Jesus’ revolution will be one of love, not armed resistance.
In the end, no one can credibly claim that “Jesus is on our side.” As soon as you start reading the Gospels, you will quickly discover that he compels you to look at the blind spots in your own life – and to see the goodness in those who are standing on the other side.
What, then, is our call?
For most of us, it’s never simple or easy to rethink our most cherished beliefs. But here’s something we can always know: There is room at the Center if we choose to listen to every voice. To pursue the common good. To value partnerships and collaboration. To turn down the flames of incivility. To refuse to become prisoners of any ideology.
After all, the true King is still very much at the center of everything.
And his named isn’t Louis.
To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.