When I was growing up kids would do this thing where they’d be mean to somebody, try to push ‘em around or get a rise out them. And then if the other kid stood up for themselves and told them to cut it out, the bully would act all offended and say, “What?! It’s a free country!”
“It’s a free country!”
Did kids say that when you were growing up? Do they still say it? I’d be surprised if they don’t, because plenty of adults do, in as many words.
“It’s a free country! You can’t tell me not to do what I want to do.” Kids are little philosophers, and little lawyers. And I remember thinking about this and arguing about this with my friends, and with my enemies – “Yeah, it’s a free country, but you still can’t treat people however you want. And when you do, they are free to tell you to cut it out and back off.”
That made an impression on me, it was an early lesson in how people can twist the idea of freedom to justify their bad behavior, and in fact justify behavior that deprives other people of their life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. The worst examples of this have been people who literally enslave other people who then complain about their freedoms being taken away when someone tells them they need to stop enslaving people. I mean, really!? Freedom means the freedom to steal other people’s freedom!? That’s not about freedom, that’s about power. You just want to keep your power.
That’s the most extreme example of this kind of hypocrisy, this kind of cynical twisting of the idea of freedom to diabolical ends. But there are a lot of small daily ways most of us do this.
It’s called being self-absorbed. Sin has a subtle influence on us in making us feel offended when someone else’s needs get in the way of our own feeling that we’re entitled to do whatever it is we feel like doing regardless of how it impacts other people. You see, absolute freedom is not the highest good. As Christians, especially, that should be clear to us. Because as Christians we take seriously that we have sin in our nature, as well as we have the image of God in our nature. Left to our own devices, if we are truly free to do whatever we feel like doing, whenever we feel like doing it, other people be dammed, well, that’s what happens, you got hell on earth, you got a whole lot of weeping and gnashing of teeth. And that damns you too. “Freedom” ends up looking a lot like being chained to a merry-go-round of vicious cycles of desire, violence, retribution.
We need ethical boundaries. True freedom is the free play within ethical boundaries.
Now, as Christians we know that our salvation doesn’t depend on how perfectly we keep within the boundaries. We are not saved by our good behavior. Salvation is a free gift of Grace manifest through Christ.
We are free to receive or reject or reject this gift. The test of our freedom is what we choose to say “Yes” to and what we chose to say “No” to.
As the Apostle Paul makes very clear, the fact that salvation is a free gift of God does not mean that we should just run around doing whatever we want, knowing that at the end of the day we can just run back to God and get forgiven for it all. (Galatians 5:13-14)
This is called “cheap grace.” That misses the whole point. The deeper we get to know God’s Grace, the more our entire being becomes reformed in that image of God within us, the more we become agents of that grace, witnessing and honoring that image of God within each person. We naturally grow little more merciful, a little more humble, a little more tough and courageous as agents of God’s lovingkindness. It turns out, that does lead to better behavior.
“You have no obligation to each other, except to love one another, because the person who loves the other has fulfilled the Law… Love does no wrong to the neighbor. Therefore, love is what fulfills the Law.” – Romans 13:8,14 Living in that love is the greatest feeling of freedom. We are freed from the biting limitations of a petty little sense of self.
This is why, in the United Church of Christ we talk about “Freedom with Responsibility.” And I should remind us that the United Church of Christ has deep, strong, and scarred American roots, in as much as an immigrant church can. Our ancestor church communities helped to shape the very ideas of freedom in our country. This is hard won wisdom about freedom, and a strongly Christian ethic: “Freedom with responsibility.”
This is why our churches, along with the vast majority of churches in our country, are not joining the mad clamor to reopen in the name of “religious freedom” in the middle of a pandemic that has claimed almost 100,000 lives so far in our country, and is now the leading cause of death.
This is an irresponsible abuse of the idea of freedom.
We know that gathering in large groups inside and breathing the same air for a long time and doing a lot of singing and talking and touching stuff is a great way to spread this respiratory virus.
Already several churches who have triumphantly reopened have quickly reclosed because the virus ripped through their people. Predictably.
Our God does not demand human sacrifice.
That’s idolatry, cut and dry. I’m not going to sacrifice anyone on this altar. And to tell other pastors that you shouldn’t either – sorry, that’s not oppressing your religious freedom to be reckless with the lives you are supposed to be caring for. The Prophet Isaiah, The Prophet Amos, tell us that God despises the sounds of our worship if we are not practicing justice (Isaiah 1:12-17, Amos 5:21-24).
Our worship is empty if we are not caring for the people that the Prophets and Jesus are unrelenting in telling us that we need to care for: Those who are most vulnerable, those who are sick, those who are elders, those who are poor, those who are on the margins. These are the dear, precious souls who are the majority of those 100,000 dead in our country.
And these are not those people over there, this is us. If we ourselves are not vulnerable, we know and care for people who are. And, we may actually be more vulnerable than we think. That’s what these churches are learning the hard way when Covid-19 tears through their communities. Oh, this is a bad thing. We don’t want this to happen. We need to keep responsible boundaries.
Our God does not demand human sacrifice. What our God demands is that we bear our crosses. When we truly live out the heart of our faith, there will be hardship.
But there is more than that: tremendous Grace and love and, indeed, true freedom. Most people get this. The most extreme and deluded voices should not dominate our attention. I am so inspired by how strong and caring and creative and hopeful and open and tough you all in our church community have been through this.
We’ll get through this together. We are getting through this together. But we aren’t through it yet. The church has survived and thrived through much, much worse. So let’s keep on keeping the faith, my friends.
God is on the move with you and within you. God is on the move among us and beyond us. For that I am so grateful. Thanks be to God.