In the last few years, I've made a conscious and active attempt to stop using ideological labels (conservative, liberal, etc.), especially for myself. You can probably find them in my earlier writing, and you may have heard me do it. I confess my past guilt on this front. But today, I avoid assigning an ideological label to any person, organization, or resource, including myself. Or, even if I do assign a label, I try to engage their content instead of using an ad hominem attack. And today I take much pride in a word that appears on my voter registration card: "unaffiliated."1

Others can put me where they want me, and I can't control that. But for me, being "unaffiliated" and label-less has become a vital aspect of my writing as well as my pastoral ministry, for three main reasons.

1) Labeling myself invites you to ignore what I say. If I start writing or get up to speak and begin by telling you that I'm about to give you the conservative/moderate/liberal viewpoint on something, I have just told you to ignore me. If you share my label, you'll be happy and satisfied before you even hear what I say, and you'll only pay attention to stuff that supports your view. If you don't share my label, the hair on the back of your neck will stand up and you'll be suspicious of me before hearing me, and you'll only pay attention to the stuff you disagree with. But if I don't use a label, you might have to listen to what I say, consider my supporting evidence, and make a merit-based judgment. And I as the speaker/writer have to make sure I've done my homework. On occasion, I've been called out because I did not examine all the relevant facts, and I appreciate that, but it makes me a better researcher. This is harder than just rallying your base. It is easier and safer to play to one's "itching ears" (2 Timothy 4:3), something corporate media and politicians are very good at.

Of course, the not listening stuff happens anyway, whether I like it or not. Recently, when a gentleman in my congregation came up to me to express disagreement with a sermon, he prefaced his remarks by saying, "Clearly, you're a _______" (insert supposed political party affiliation). After informing him that I have no political party affiliation, I listened respectfully to his critique. What he revealed is all too common and something I've gotten used to: he had heard me say a bunch of things I didn't say. I used a word or phrase that apparently tipped him off to which camp I belonged to and he didn't really listen to anything I said after that. This is where labels have gotten us. So though I can't control others' thought processes, I'm not going to contribute to the problem by using labels for myself.

2) Refusing loyalty to a group or ideology encourages critical thinking. Outside familial relationships or close friendships, the value of unconditional loyalty is questionable. Tying ourselves to a particular ideological brand or political party is like getting a tattoo of a love interest. What if the relationship goes sour? Anyone who knows something about political or religious history can attest to how drastically things can change...and have changed. It seems more prudent to weigh facts and circumstances in each situation...and each election. Comedian Chris Rock once made it clear what he thinks of ideological loyalty: "Anyone who makes up they [sic] mind before they hear the issue is a damn fool." I'm particularly puzzled by the ways in which I've seen loyalty make people forego ethical distinctions that they would make in any other area of life. For example, take the United States' uncritical support of and loyalty to Israel. I watched in May of 2011 as members of Congress on both sides of the aisle stood and applauded Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu as he made statements that directly contradicted previous statements and broke previously made promises...which Congress had also applauded at the time. Hello?! I've got a better idea. Let's try to get a little closer to what God did in the Old Testament: support Israel when they behave well, and oppose them when they behave badly. That's how fair minded people operate. Even if Israel is a "friend" of the U.S., every solid friendship involves accountability, not just "multiplying kisses" (Proverbs 27:6). Our society is so polarized into camps based on loyalty that people who see nuance and try to look at all the issues are often ideological misfits. One of the best examples for me is the abortion debate. I see many problems with both of the major "camps" and once wrote an "open letter" to them.

3) Refusing other labels leaves room for the only one that truly matters. I am a follower of Jesus Christ and a citizen of the Kingdom of God. All other labels fall subordinate to that identity. "But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well" (Matt 6:33). I am shocked by how often we Christians go along with the policies and positions of a political party while giving scant consideration to what our faith speaks to the issue. Do we have different interpretations of scripture and things we choose to emphasize over others? Of course. There is no such thing as an objective view. But people of faith must at least start the conversation there. When a political issue or policy decision has no clear right and wrong (which is often), we at least need to be mindful that we are choosing between the lesser of evils out of necessity, and that what is "American" is not necessarily "Christian."
  • "It costs too much money," while potentially true, is not a biblical2 reason for opposing something (Matt 6:24).
  • "This person is not here legally," while potentially true, is not a biblical reason to treat someone as if they don't matter (Ex 22:21; 23:9).
  • "This person is poor and needs help," while potentially true, falls short of the biblical distinction between the poor who are oppressed and the poor who have "idle hands" (Proverbs 6:6-11; Ecclesiastes 10:18).
As I carefully analyze the facts and circumstances of each situation, being aware of my own interpretive lenses, my stance may very well fall in line with or come out opposed to that of a particular leader or party. But the important part is that I start with the question, "What action is more faithful to the Kingdom of God?" Or, if you like, we can use the very important and poignant question that was unfortunately made into a fad: "What would Jesus do?"

That is the platform from which I speak. From there, if you need your labels, put me where you want me.

1 Not to be confused with the recently formed organization called Unaffiliated Party. 
2 For insight into what I mean when I say "biblical," see my previous post: Being Biblical: Principle or Precedent?

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