Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid...but not of Moderates.

First, an observation from Brian McLaren in Jim Wallis’ blog, God’s Politics ,(May 16, 2008).

“First, there are the fearsome -- those who like to make others afraid.
Second, there are the fearless -- those who refuse to be intimidated by the fearsome.
Then in the middle are the fearful -- those who are afraid to associate with the fearless because they might incur the ire of the fearsome.”

Intuitively, this rubric for understanding personalities seems right to me. I feel as if I know people who fall into all three categories. Like any organizational scheme I’m sure it has its flaws, tough cases that do not slide easily into one category or another, but when I first read these lines they struck me as insightful.

It also struck me that I don’t know very many fearless people, or at least anyone who is fearless all the time. I am especially aware that I usually fall into the fearful category, and when I do make the heroic leap to fearlessness it tends to be at inopportune times—I admit to you that I am usually most fearless when I’m on the road. When taxis drive aggressively or SUVs act as if they own the pavement, I immediately become a crusader for justice. I’m not so much mad that they cut me off, but that they have never been taught how inappropriate their behavior is. Someone must stand up for the rule of law and for etiquette and if not me then who!? It is at these times that my wife repeats her mantra while tapping my knee, “Wife in the car…Wife in the car” until I back down from my crusade. So, though I may occasionally rise to the heights of fearlessness (and in the process become potentially fearsome) I am not generally one for sticking my neck out. I’ve met very few people who act differently. 

I raise this issue here to pose the following question, are Christian moderates and Liberal Evangelicals simply fearful? Are our convictions so weak that we are unwilling fight for them? Are we simply afraid of provoking the ire of the fearsome on the left or the right? Do we shirk our duties to use fear as a tool of evangelism when fear is appropriate? Are we moderate because we fear reprisals if we risk being radical? Is there any sense in which moderation can be understood as a bold, brave, or fearless act?

Fearsome Moderates?

Frequently documentaries on Evangelical groups are condescending and heavy handed, but there is a film from 2002 called Hell House that presents a balanced portrayal of the growing phenomenon of conservative Christian “haunted houses.” These depictions of hell are one part fundraiser, one part entertainment, and one part evangelistic tool and they have become extremely popular in the past decade. At one point the minister in charge of organizing Hell House speaks to the gathered youth who put on the production and tells them that yes, one of the purposes of Hell House is to create a fear of hell. He is unapologetic about this, because he thinks that hell is real, hell is scary, and it is important that people know the truth. I do not agree with his assessment—I think it is far too simplistic—but I admire his honesty and his frank appraisal of the occasional religious utility of fear. “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (see Job 28, Psalm 111, and Proverbs 1, 9, and 15).

Fear is not always bad, but the fear caused by “the fearsome,” to which I think McLaren is referring, is not the fear generated from an honest portrayal of religious things—what sane person, after all, would not respond as did Moses with fear and trembling when faced with I AM? The fear of the fearsome—the fear that they generate and spread—is a fear of what the fearsome themselves might do. It’s fear of blackmail, of character assassination, and of innuendo. It’s fear of lynching, of extortion, and of racketeering. The fearsome who roam the streets of so many towns beating girls who want to attend school or burning stores that sell the wrong books or serve the wrong people (Let us please recall that these were commonplace in the southern United States less than fifty years ago.), are only quantitatively different from the fearsome who intimidate through graffiti, bullying, and the carefully crafted ballot initiative. The fearsome in American discourse operate in red and blue states, on both sides of the aisle, and on both ends of the political spectrum. Not all couples feel safe walking together hand in hand in all parts of our country, and in many of the most elite universities intelligent and thoughtful religious people do not feel free to live openly as religious practitioners for fear of reprisals and discrimination. The immoderate among the liberals and the conservatives can be quite fearsome, and it is not especially toward their ideological opposites that they target their intimidation tactics, but toward the moderates whom they inform, “You are either with us or you are against us.”

There can be so such thing as a fearsome moderate, though perhaps it is time for moderates to reclaim and utilize fear in a truthful way.

Fearful Moderates?

Are most moderates fearful?  Perhaps.

Perhaps there are moderates who occupy the “muddled middle” only because they lack the energy and motivation required to have an actual position, theology, or ideology. Perhaps many moderates are moderate only by default. Perhaps many Americans in the religious and political middle are only moderate as a strategy for avoiding outright conflict with conservative and liberal immoderates. (Who really wants to spend every family holiday arguing with the uncle who has Rush Limbaugh on all of his car-radio’s preset buttons or the aunt who watches only Michael Moore movies?) I do not doubt that the moderate wheat has been invaded by moderate tares, and I have a suspicion that this is the form of lazy moderation for which the writer of Revelation chastised the church in Laodicea. (Revelation 3:14-22) But let’s make the much needed distinction between thoughtful Christian moderation and milksop moderation.

There is a place in the ideological middle that is only accidentally moderate. This is where many people land because in the course of their lives they happen to hear a few sound bites from the left and the right. They mistake conventional wisdom for critical and hard won wisdom. I believe that this holds true in the church as much as in politics, and when these middling moderates land in a new city they may look for a church with a pleasant façade, and a regular one-hour service, but they are especially careful to avoid churches that seem to ask too much of them. We might almost call these Christians (And I am one of them more often than it is comfortable to admit!) “keep your head down Christians” because they are most concerned with avoiding trouble.

I read back over the previous paragraph and it sounds a bit shrill and judgmental. Let me reiterate that I frequently must count myself among the fearful moderates. It is genuinely difficult to take a principled moderate stand because when one does so, one suffers slings and arrows from both sides. So many of us have learned to keep our heads down, recognize our surroundings and blend in. When we are among conservatives and fundamentalists we go along, nod our heads in agreement during the sermon, and try to avoid arousing suspicion. When we are among immoderate liberals we studiously avoid “Jesus talk” because we don’t want to be outed as “holy rollers.” As “keep our heads down Christians” we have done a huge disservice to moderation, and we ought to nudge ourselves and encourage one another to embrace and articulate a fearless brand of moderation. 

Fearless Moderation?

If we are to be fearlessly moderate Christians then we have at least three fears that we must address and overcome.

The first and most obvious fear that fearless moderates must overcome is a fear of attack from immoderate conservative and liberal Christians. This is all the more difficult for moderates because we must resist the temptation to villainize and caricature those who criticize us from either end of the spectrum. In this case, turning the other cheek means granting to immoderate liberal and conservative Christians the recognition that they remain our Christian sisters and brothers. We cannot adopt the strategy, frequently adopted by others, of calling Christians who disagree with us non-Christians. Too frequently we hear the immoderate left castigating the right as not really being Christian since the right does not rigorously pursue Christ’s call for social justice, and just as frequently we hear calls from the right denouncing the left as non-Christian because they do not take the Bible literally as a law book for modern society.

As fearless moderates, attacks and criticism hurt us all the more because we recognize those who attack from the left or right as fellow Christians. How much easier would it be to negate such criticisms by attacking those who generate them as less than fully Christian? By refusing to do this, moderates accept the burden of recognizing Christ in the other. This does not mean that we cannot debate, argue, and stand up for moderation and tolerance in our churches and congregations, but it does mean that we must accept fellowship with those we disagree with. This is akin to the need for advocates of tolerance to tolerate the intolerant. As moderates who practice inclusive discipleship we must include those who seek to exclude us. The immoderate right can cordon itself off from the left and the left from the right, and thereby insulate themselves from attack. We must be so fearless that we refuse this kind of insulation by isolation. This is a radical form of fearlessness.     

Second, fearless moderates must stop fearing difference. This fear is obviously related to the first. By refusing to “purify” our churches and congregations and remake them in our images so that they might be places where we feel comfortable, we create more challenging environments. Let’s be clear; by most standards this entails building congregations that will not “work.” We must be fearless in creating congregations and places of worship where we are not surrounded by people of the same color, age, orientation, ideology, and background. This may mean forming and reforming churches to include those who lean left and right politically.   

Third, fearless moderation requires that we overcome our fear of the unknown. Fear of the Lord and of mystery is good, and insofar as fear of the unknown is related to divine awe, it can be a helpful and authentic response or even a kind of worship. In this case fearlessness does not necessarily indicate a lack of emotional fear or trepidation. In this case, fearlessness entails not allowing our fear of the unknown to stifle action. One of the things that draws many of us to church (and it is important that we be honest about our motivations) is our need for surety and certainty. After a tough work week, a fight, or aneconomic trial, it is comforting to join with others like us in the pew and hear reassuring words. We like to know that everything is in God’s hands and there is a balm for our wounds. This is one of the great gifts that God gives us through churches and ministers, but it is not the only gift and we must guard against turning the church into a mere balm. We value the consoling role of the church, as we should, but too often we allow the church to become only a consoling force in our lives. This is a mistake.

When we come to think of church only as a refuge, we grant ourselves tacit permission to create congregations and worship that reflect us and our comfort zones. If the church is only a refuge, then why shouldn’t I go to a church that has only black people, or middleclass people, or liberals? If I only need a rest from the world, then why shouldn’t I insulate myself on Sunday mornings with others who believe, and pray, and vote as I do? If the church is only to be a spiritual R&R retreat that I visit once a week for succor, then in order for it to operate effectively it is important that it be what I expect it to be. If we are to be fearless moderates we need to face up to a fear that many of us have: we fear that our churches, if they are thoughtfully and intentionally moderate and genuinely inclusive, will stop being places where we can relax and recoup. We fear losing our comfort zone at “our” churches. This fear is real, and we should acknowledge it, but I think that becoming fearlessly moderate will have to entail acting to build inclusive churches despite this fear. 

Fearless moderates differ from “keep your head down Christians” not in our lack of fear, but in our commitment, like Moses, to recognize that sometimes fear is necessary if we are to encounter God more fully. We become fearless moderates insofar as we face our fears and stop fearing them.