Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Is there a nice way to say "Liberal"?

"It's telling that even liberals don't use the word liberal any more." Leonard Pitts

Some Bible verses use that "L" word in a flattering way. I first consulted the New Revised Standard Version on this, but even the venerable King James Bible makes, well, liberal use of the word in renderings like Isaiah 32:7-8,

The instruments also of the churl are evil: he deviseth wicked devices to destroy the poor with lying words, even when the needy speaketh right.

But the liberal deviseth liberal things; and by liberal things shall he stand.

Here liberal stands in direct contrast to evil. Liberalism is a defining quality of the righteous, a way of thinking and acting, and a source of divine reward.

The Hebrew word translated "liberal" is rooted in the word for "blessing." A liberal provides material blessing to others, expressed memorably in Proverbs 11:25,

The liberal soul shall be made fat: and he that watereth shall be watered also himself. (KJV)
A generous person will be enriched, and one who gives water will get water. (NRSV)

The New Testament Greek word that appears as "liberal" in English expresses simplicity or sincerity. The Apostle Paul uses the word in his Letter to the Church in Rome, 12:1-8,

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity[KJV - "simplicity," New American Standard Bible - "liberality"]...

The liberal here is someone blessed by God with material abundance, and transformed spiritually to share it for the common good. The liberal giver is but one God-given part in a complex body of interdependent parts doing Christ's work.

What degrades the word liberal in our current use (or, as Pitts pointed out, our current non-use)?

1. Liberalism is associated less with personal, sacrificial generosity than with coercion, through confiscation and redistribution of others' means.

2. Liberalism is associated less with simplicty than with elitism. To use Paul's idea of the body - liberals are perceived as bored with being the hands, and are trying to take over as the head. They want to take Christ's place and run the body, not be just one part among many. They consider themselves better than the other parts.

3. Liberalism is associated less with common good than with interest groups and entitlements.

Whether or not you agree with those perceptions, they exist and certainly some well intentioned liberals slip into degraded thoughts and deeds. But there's always hope:

As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous [LIBERAL], and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life. I Timothy 6:17-19, NRSV

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