Category: Pondering Peace
For freedom, Christ has set us free…
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters;
only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence,
but through love become slaves to one another.
For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment,
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
(Galatians 5:1, 13-14)
Freedom is a cherished American value. Along with its synonym liberty, there were many opportunities to mention freedom during last week’s July 4th Independence Day celebrations. Quite likely some of us sang, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee, Sweet Land of Liberty,” including the words: “Let freedom ring.” We may have said the Pledge of Allegiance which ends “with liberty and justice for all.” We may have heard reference to the Declaration of Independence and its assertion that we are endowed by our Creator with “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” We may have experienced gratitude for our First Amendment freedoms, including that of religion, speech, the press, peaceable assembly, and petitioning the government for a redress of grievances.
Unfortunately, this past week’s celebration of American liberty was marred by events that highlight the ways in which freedom has often been distorted in this country by overemphasizing individual freedoms while discounting the importance of the common good. Across the country, the Fourth of July long weekend was punctuated with 16 mass shootings in which 15 people were killed and nearly 100 were injured. According to the Gun Violence Archive, that brought the number of mass shootings (in which four or more people are killed or injured) to 350 so far this year. The United States has the unique distinction among developed nations of having an extremely high gun death rate while fierce defense of the right to bear arms has prevented enacting sensible gun regulations. In fact, many consider any such government regulations as being a form of tyranny.
Defending an individual’s freedom of gun ownership has been at the expense of the life and liberty of countless others. Fearing gun violence and mass shootings, there are many who now restrict their presence at large crowded events, including Independence Day celebrations and parades. In his book America and its Guns, James Atwood recounts a conversation with a gun owner who opposed gun regulations and who was asked if he had any compassion toward the tens of thousands of people killed by guns each year. The unsympathetic response was, “That’s the price we have to pay for freedom. Freedom is not free” (p. 133).
This past week was also marred by the effects of climate change due to continued greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels. July 3-5 were the Earth’s hottest days on record, as temperatures surged across many areas of the globe. Admittedly, El Nino contributed to this, but global warming was also to blame. Deadly heat wave domes settled over Texas, Mexico, and India, while ocean temperatures for the North Atlantic were warmer than ever before. In addition, smoke from wildfires burning in Canada blanketed much of the northeastern and northern mid-western states, bringing with it conditions detrimental to health.
Significant amounts of greenhouse gases are emitted by fossil fuel and other large companies. Yet many fight against these industries being further regulated in the name of free enterprise. This is again prioritizing the freedom of individuals within companies to earn large profits over the common good, for such industries are destroying our shared earth home.
When the understanding and outworking of freedom result in such dire circumstances, it is time to relook at how we view freedom. J. Paul Sampley defines freedom in his commentary on 2 Corinthians in this way. “Freedom is a gift that liberates us to be what God created us to be” (New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol. XI, p. 78). So, we can think of freedom as experiencing the conditions that allow us to flourish and become all that God intends.
Freedom, from a Christian perspective, has both external and internal dimensions. External aspects include freedom from slavery, oppression, and other environmental factors that greatly constrict the possibility of living life fully as is divine intention. The biblical narrative of the Exodus portrays God as greatly concerned about the suffering, enslavement, and oppression of the Israelite people and as empowering Moses to lead them out of slavery into freedom so that they can worship and serve God. Many in Jesus’ day were imprisoned because of debt due to the exploitative and unjust economic practices of the wealthy and powerful. According to Luke 4, Jesus chose a text from Isaiah 61 to inaugurate his ministry that includes these words. “God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives…to let the oppressed go free” (v.18).
But there is also an internal dimension to freedom that Paul especially stresses in his writings. He understands the salvation we have in Christ as setting us free from being slaves to sin and freeing us from having to follow religious law as a means of gaining acceptance with God. This freedom in Christ is a gift, but it is not a freedom to do then whatever we want to do. Paul warns us that freedom is not to be used as an opportunity for self-indulgence. In fact, freedom in Christ is freedom from our own selfishness and ego needs so that we have the capacity to love and serve others. Genuine freedom is not doing whatever we want to do and saying whatever we want to say. Rather, it is the freedom of not having to have our own way and gratify our own desires.
Such freedom enables our being able to live by the Spirit of Christ and is demonstrated in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Christian freedom voluntarily restrains its own desires for the common good. People of faith use their freedom from the internal compulsion to think only of themselves to instead love, serve, and better the lives of others. This internal spiritual freedom liberates them to engage in the work of justice to bring about the external conditions of freedom for others.
I believe it is with such freedom that we can live out more faithfully the privileges and responsibilities of being Americans. We can gratefully practice our religious freedom while respecting the rights of others to follow different religious paths. We can speak and write freely, but in ways that are respectful of the opinions and personhoods of others. We can publically assemble and protest that which is wrong but do so nonviolently while practicing love towards those against whom we stand. We can gladly embrace policies and regulations that curtail gun violence, pollution, and exploitation, even if it requires us giving up something ourselves. With this inner spiritual freedom, we can fully love others and work for the common good of all.
Rev. Ruth Rosell, Ph.D.
Director of the Buttry Center for Peace and Nonviolence
Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology Emerita
Central Seminary, Shawnee, KS
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.