American Freedom or Christian Freedom?
Always a lover of history, currently I’m partway through Ron Chernow’s excellent biography of American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton – the book, incidentally, which son of Puerto Rican immigrants Lin-Manuel Miranda turned into the hit Broadway musical. With a decent dose of Scot in my blood, I can get into any story of a struggle for freedom easily. Why else would I own a t-shirt emblazoned with “Boadicea: Warrior Queen of the Celts“?
While I do not lack in feistiness, the principle, reality, ideal or goal of freedom has preoccupied my thinking lately, because my feistiness can serve Christ in different ways. And feistiness doesn’t always serve its own desire for personal freedom.
Consider the Apostle Paul: a feisty disciple of Christ if ever there was one – after all, “I confronted Peter to his face,” and Dr. Luke tells us in Acts of Paul and Barnabas’ sharp dispute and parting. But the feisty Saul-turned-Paul was not allowed to fight for himself – “to live is Christ, to die, gain.” He went from breathing murderous threats and arresting Christians to a great deal of suffering (imprisonment, harsh travel, shipwreck, beatings) and dying for his faith. Saul was feisty; Paul was feisty. Saul was feisty for a cause. Paul was feisty for Christ.
Anyone who follows international news (and North Americans have to discipline themselves to do so, because our news sources focus on North American news or “news” almost exclusively) is quickly acquainted with the varying degrees of political and religious freedom around the world. Recently Russia has been debating religious freedom, possibly putting the most restrictions on it since the fall of the Soviet Union (outlawing evangelism online or even invitations to a private residence for the purpose of religious meeting). Recently ISIS burned 19 Yazidi women alive in a cage for refusing to have sex with ISIS fighters. Reading these headlines should rekindle gratitude for freedom in the hearts of those who, at least for the time being, have it. After all, freedom is not and has never been a guarantee.
Yet as proud as I am that a great-great-relative fought and was injured in the Civil War, specifically against slavery – as proud as I am that great-great-relatives fought in the Revolutionary War – as grateful as I am for young men who retched into their helmets as they prepared to land on the beaches of Normandy – as grateful as I am for a nation that is maddeningly imperfect but still remains a hope, an ideal, a far-off luxury in the minds of millions – Christians are called to exercise their freedom for others. If there is any great divide, it may be the difference between Americans who, in general, exercised their freedom for others, and Americans who, in general, exercised their freedom for themselves.
How ought Christians to steward our freedom, wherever we live in the world, whether we live in relative abundance of freedom or whether we live in restrictive, closed countries with censored internet?
“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.
Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”
If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience.But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the one who told you and for the sake of conscience.I am referring to the other person’s conscience, not yours. For why is my freedom being judged by another’s conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?
So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. – I Cor. 10:23-33
Paul writes here about personal freedom to do something in good conscience that someone else may have qualms about. The principle is similar to not drinking in front of a recovering alcoholic: you may have no problem with addiction, but out of concern and love and even basic politeness, you give up your “freedom” to drink when you are with that person, because the person is worth more than your right to exercise that freedom.
In a society compulsively obsessed with individual rights, this is revolutionary. Of course, in North America, I have the right to post something on Facebook. But maybe I shouldn’t as someone called to be feisty for Christ more than feisty for my nationality. In another nation, of course, I have the right to report my neighbor for something. But maybe I shouldn’t as someone called to be feisty for Christ more than feisty for my government. For Christians, all causes must be submitted to Christ, viewed through Christ, sanctified to be Christlike. I cannot love my cause more than my Christ. I cannot define myself more by my cause than my Christ. I cannot give more for my cause than I give my Christ.
Patriotism isn’t a form of faith; it’s a form of being a good citizen. Patriotism, then, is always subservient to Christ (as Europeans who illegally hid Jews in their homes in the 1940’s practiced at great sacrifice). Our citizenship does not define us, though: we are pilgrims, as John Bunyan pictured, pilgrims, travelers, strangers, foreigners – refugees… The author of Hebrews paints this reality beautifully in chapter 11:
“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, ‘as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.’
All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth,for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.”
All the citizens of earth hunger for “a better country;” we know that the best country on earth still suffers natural disaster or disease, war or poverty. But for Americans, for Iraqis, for Russians, for Nigerians, for Tibetans, for all from pole to pole who “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one,” God is not ashamed of them. There is no shame in refusing to exercise individual liberty, for the sake of others; it is the way of Jesus.