Christian Liberty and Religious Freedom

A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.
                                                                                              Martin Luther

Christian liberty is not about making others subject to us.  It is not about making others behave the way we want them to behave.  It is, especially, not about promulgating hatred for any person God has made.

In the account of creation in the first chapter of Genesis, God looked at ALL that God had created and said “it is good,” and at humanity, in particular, saying, “It is very good.”  This means that God did not create the adherents to any specific code or creed and call only those folks “good.”

God created humans in God’s own image.  This means that EVERY person is created in the image of God.  When we look at each other, we see God looking back at us through the other person’s eyes, through their very soul. When we understand this, it makes it much more difficult to look at someone whose skin is a different shade, or who worships differently, or who loves differently, or who disagrees with us politically without seeing God in them.

It feels that the push for Religious Freedom in our country wants to take the first part of Luther’s statement and run roughshod through the countryside, the typical American rugged individualist.  “You’re not the boss of me!” we cry.  “I can treat you this way because of my moral superiority.”

But it is the second part of the statement that we are conveniently ignoring. It is the second part that defines the “freedom” of the first part. Christian liberty calls us to be servants to one another, recognizing with humility that we are ALL humans and equal in God’s eyes, in God’s heart.  Luther says that we are free to be the most dutiful servant of all, subject to every one.  The freedom of a Christian necessarily causes us to serve others with love and compassion.  Especially those others who are different from us.  Hatred and contempt are not the ways we spread the good news of Christ.

In his book When Religion Becomes Evil, Charles Kimball writes, “At the heart of all authentic, healthy, life-sustaining religions, one always finds this clear requirement:” love of God and love of neighbor.  He continues, “Whatever religious people may say about their love of God or the mandates of their religion, when their behavior toward others is violent and destructive, when it causes suffering among their neighbors, you can be sure the religion has been corrupted and reform is desperately needed.”

I have observed the political events of the last few weeks: refusal of refugees in the name of “security;” killing of civilians, including children, in Yemen being dismissed as acceptable collateral damage; deportation of a mother in Arizona whose crime was, at its most fundamental level, attempting to work to support her family; and, the attempts at legitimizing hatred and discrimination surging forward in legislatures across the country in the guise of Religious Freedom.  I have observed the leader of my country use social media and public policy to bully judges, lawyers, leaders of other countries, reporters, businesses and business leaders.

We as citizens of this country have to admit our complicity in causing suffering and violence and destruction.  And for those of us who profess to be Christians, I have to believe that this is a strong indication that we are desperately in need of Reformation.

We need to recognize that violence does not birth liberty, violence engenders fear and animosity and hatred. Martin Luther knew the secret. Servanthood through love, compassion, understanding and shared grace ultimately bring about liberty.  It is a secret shared by others: Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Jesus.

Freedom of a Christian has nothing to do with legalistic, dogmatic morality. It is not about using the political and legal system to force that morality on anyone.

Jesus asked his disciples a pivotal question, “Who do you say I am?” The answer to this question is just as important for modern Christians as it was for those first disciples.

In the gospel according to Luke, Jesus tells us to look in the prisons, at the hungry and the thirsty, at those who have no clothing. We should look for Jesus in those with the least, those with nothing, those without value to society, those on the margins, those labeled worthless or disposable by society, those who are the target of hatred, those most in need of care and compassion.  And when we find those folks, and we serve them, we have seen and served Jesus.

John’s gospel has a lot to say on this topic too.  Where Matthew, Mark, and Luke have their parables, John tells of Jesus’s teachings in terms of “I am” statements.  In today’s political climate, it is hard to ignore one particular “I am” statement from Jesus. In John 14, Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” If you want to see the way to live, look at Jesus. If you want to see what truth is, look to Jesus. If you want to see what life looks like, look at Jesus. How did Jesus treat the poor, the moral outcast, those considered unclean by the religious leaders of his day? And then realize that this is the truth that indeed makes us freed. The truth of service in love.

In his essay “Faustian Economics,” Wendell Berry writes that the word “freedom” is etymologically related to the word “friend.”  He notes that the Germanic and Sanskrit roots “carry the sense of ‘dear’ or ‘beloved,’” and “we set our friends free by our love for them, with the implied restraints of faithfulness or loyalty. This suggests that our identity is located not in the impulse of selfhood but in deliberately maintained connections.” Freedom comes from treating others like dear and beloved friends, making connections, acting selflessly.

The hard truth is that we feel threatened by people who are different from us.  Disney’s Beauty and the Beast had it right when the villagers attacking the Beast sang, “We don’t like what we can’t understand, it kind of scares us!” Different can be scary. And it is so much easier just to try to make a law to make that scary different thing or person just disappear.  Christian Liberty says “no” to this.  Christian Liberty says reach out, understand, care for, include, respect, love.

So if some feel a need to force others, by the laws of this country or state or city, to adhere to some form of life-crushing dogma, they may attempt to do so.  And they can call this “Religious Freedom.”  But understand that this is not Christian Liberty. And I would chose Christian Liberty over Religious Freedom any day.

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