The new legislatures in Indiana and Arkansas over the past few weeks have raised a lot of questions about the topic of religious freedom. Any time political issues cause Christians to go up in arms and say mean and nasty things, I think we should stop, take a breath and do two things:
One, realize being mean and nasty is never a Christian response.
Two, explore the issue a little deeper so we can root out some of our assumptions and not be carried along on the tide of the larger culture or an emotional reaction to a Facebook post.
We live in a world built upon knee jerk reactions, and there is great need for deeper reflection on difficult issues. So that is what we hope to do this week. Today we want to think about freedom. Tomorrow we will look at religion. And then we will follow up with what we think our responsibility as Christians should be when we explore religious freedom a bit deeper.
First of all, let’s start with the American perspective and current conflict. Religious freedom in America means one should be able to practice his or her religion without having the government interference. The laws recently passed say that if a Christian who believes homosexuality is a sin, he or she should not have to offer their goods and services to LGBT ceremonies.
From an American standpoint, this presents a clash of freedoms. Christians have the right to believe homosexuality is a sin and not want to be involved in the practice of it, and the LGBT couple has the freedom to be married and purchase goods and services for their wedding. The issue is a lot more complex than this and the language is very nuanced in the federal and state laws, but the conflict boils down to a clash of freedom.
Our culture tends to define freedom as the ability to do whatever one believes is right for them to do. The one caveat is that your exercise of freedom cannot stop other people from exercising their right to do whatever they want.
So what happens when what I want to do clashes with what you want to do? There is not a solid way to negotiate this conflict on an interpersonal level or political level when freedom is defined as being able to do whatever I want to do. Therefore clashes of freedom create a good deal of controversy, and we are in desperate need for better ways to talk about freedom.
So how would a Christian define freedom? Christians often don’t talk about freedom, because most of us don’t really know what to do with it. Part of this comes down to the bad definition of freedom (being able to do whatever you want) and the other part comes from wanting to be in control. If people have freedom, how can we control what they think and do all the time?
Christians need better definitions of freedom.
This week, we see that Easter offers all people freedom from darkness and death. Freedom for a Christian is freedom from the ways of living which make us less human. Darkness and death are the forces which try to keep us from living the fullest life possible.
Therefore freedom from a Christian perspective is not the ability to do whatever we desire, it is the ability to be fully human. Freedom is about living in the world in the ways God intends for us to live. The ability to be fully human means there are certain things which aid our freedom, and certain things which do not. True freedom comes with boundaries.
Innovative business, artists, and musicians have found this kind of freedom to be the most successful in producing creative products and problem solving. When there is a due date and a few parameters without any other kinds of rules being imposed, people create more innovative ideas. Without boundaries, the freedom suffers. Without freedom within the boundaries, the innovation suffers. Freedom within the boundaries allows me to be more creative and adaptive and able to deal with things that don’t fit my current paradigms.
Freedom which actually sets people free always has boundaries.
For Christians, we look to Jesus to define these boundaries. And he does.
The Jewish religion of his time had gotten concerned with control and rule giving. There were 613 laws that governed Jewish conduct and hundreds of extra rules added to these. When Jesus is asked how to interpret all of these laws and rules, he gives two boundaries:
Love God with your entire being. Love your neighbor as yourself.
Another way to interpret “Love your neighbor as yourself” is to say that our freedom is used for the sake of other people’s freedom. Our use of freedom is bound by making sure we are extending freedom to other people. We use our freedom so others can flourish.
Further, on one occasion when Jesus specifies these boundaries, he also defines who our “neighbor” is. For Jesus, our neighbor is the one who is the most despised by the religious leaders of the day. The ones who were marginalized because of their “otherness.”
Rather than imposing hundreds of laws, Jesus defines two. He creates the borders for freedom, but these borders actually increase the amount of freedom in the world. By limiting my freedom to the service of others, I am actually creating more freedom and flourishing in the world.
The 613 laws were not about freedom and flourishing but about control. This is the nature of religion, which we will explore tomorrow.
For today, we want to land here: A Christian perspective of freedom is always about using our freedom and energies for the freedom and flourishing of others, even (or perhaps especially) those who are despised, “other,” and pushed to the margins.