Liberal Christians are undergoing a renewal

The Rev. William Barber speaks during “Moral Monday” protests on Halifax Mall in Raleigh, N.C., Monday, July 22, 2013.
The Rev. William Barber speaks during “Moral Monday” protests on Halifax Mall in Raleigh, N.C., Monday, July 22, 2013. ehyman@newsobserver.com

Conversations about the recent emergence of America’s Christian left have been exaggerated. By that I mean they have been here all along.

Faithful people whose actions and beliefs have been rooted in justice predate this moment. They have been called to stand among abolitionists and Civil Rights activists, advocates for immigrants and refugees, protestors against militarism and supporters of peace. They are repairers of God’s creation who recognize that belief in science can coexist with faith and that humans have not been good stewards of the earth gifted us.

Parents in this shared ideology have called others into account. In “Jesus and the Disinherited,” the theologian Howard Thurman wrote, ““It cannot be denied that too often the weight of the Christian movement has been on the side of the strong and the powerful and against the weak and oppressed — this, despite the gospel.” That was 70 years ago.

Perhaps the faithful left’s willingness to be part of a collaboration rather than co-opting the message has made their work less distinctive. In a movement that recognizes we all do better when we all do better, no single mindset needs to dominate.

National Public Radio reported earlier this year that recent electoral events had given rise to the religious left in our political realm, but these efforts go back much farther than a couple of election cycles. I have worked for much of the last 20 years for organizations that view faith through a lens of justice and equity. At the NC Council of Churches, where I served for more than a decade, the approach focuses on advocacy and policy. The Council has been breaking down barriers through churches for almost 85 years. Some are confounded when I describe this work or my personal beliefs — that we are all equally beloved children of God and that God’s face is reflected in each of us. Not everyone realizes there is more than one kind of Christian.

Such voices have not been missing, but perhaps they have been too often out-shouted, and that’s why they are being challenged to grow louder. In a recent televised interview, Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg spoke about faith as part of the national conversation.

“I think the time has come for more of a religious left to emerge in our country that lets people know that they’re not alone when they look at faith and think that it teaches us to reach out to others, to humble ourselves, to take care of the immigrant, and the prisoner, and frankly the sex worker.”

Buttigieg continued, “And here we have this totally warped idea of what Christianity ought to be like when it comes into the public sphere that’s mostly about exclusion which is the last thing that I imbibe when I take in scripture in church.”

You cannot follow the preaching and teaching of home-grown theologians like Michael Curry and William Barber and come away with a limited vision for God’s kingdom. They, and like-minded leaders, call us into expansiveness, and our response to that, although sometimes imperfect, reflects a fundamental commitment to abundance and love rather than scarcity and fear. By some definitions those messages are progressive, but they are also deeply faithful.

As the end of the holy season of Lent approaches, maybe what the Christian left is undergoing is a season of renewal. Really nothing new, but louder this time.

Community columnist Aleta Payne of Cary is executive director of Johnson Service Corps, a community of young adults committed to social justice and spiritual growth.