On Faith and Freedom
March 18, 2021
by Autumn Dawn Galbreath, MD, MBA
Freedom. It’s an important word to us in the United States—arguably the most important word to the founding of our country.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” — U.S. Declaration of Independence
Our American forefathers left what they saw as a yoke of oppression by monarchy to live and work for their own gain in a new world an ocean away. When the reach of that monarchy extended to their lives in the new world, they fought back to free themselves from it. They refused to submit to taxation by the British without representation in the British government. They even dumped that precious British tea into Boston Harbor, thumbing their collective noses at the British demand for taxes on the imports. And this fierce independence carries down the centuries to us today who live in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” We still hold that freedom dear to our hearts and prize it as a national treasure. Freedom, in many ways, is what it means to be an American…what it means to live in this land where democracy was born, where the grand experiment actually succeeded and continues today.
Freedom is an important word to us as Christians as well.
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1a, NIV).
“So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36, NIV).
Our forefathers of faith left the yoke of oppression by the Law, as imposed by the Pharisees and the religious establishment of their day, to follow an itinerant preacher who was purportedly the son of a Nazarene carpenter yet claimed to be the Son of God. Some of them thought they were working for their own gain. Some of them thought they might be the greatest in the kingdom of God (Luke 9:46). Some of them struggled with why their Leader didn’t rise up and fight against the Roman rulers and the religious establishment (Mark 8:32). Some of them even tried to get the fight started (Luke 22:47-52). But ultimately, they saw that the freedom their Leader offered was freedom of an entirely different kind.
Jesus offered freedom to sacrifice. Freedom to forgive. Freedom to love others and consider their needs as important as our own. As they exercised the freedom of their Leader and Savior, history tells us that 10 of the 11 faithful original disciples ended up martyred for their faith, with John dying a natural death in exile. This is not the freedom we Americans envision when we use the word. In fact, we in America are much more likely to define our freedoms with regard to our rights rather than our responsibilities, while the freedom Christ offers is invariably defined by our responsibility to remain faithful, to be willing to sacrifice and to take up our crosses and follow Him (Matthew 20:16, 26-27; Mark 8:34). If, as you read that sentence, you think I am describing the opposite of freedom, you are using the word in the political, rather than the spiritual sense. And therein lies the confusion—the same word in two different contexts has such very different meanings.
The last year or so provided countless opportunities for us in the U.S. to evaluate our definitions of freedom, to consider whether political freedom or spiritual freedom is our highest value and to consider whether or not we truly understand the difference. Christians in many parts of the world have never had to consider these questions, because the vocabulary of country and faith do not overlap for them. It is a curious paradox that the political and religious freedoms offered by our country, designed to encourage our faith, muddy it in some ways. I have watched this play out in real time in Texas, where I live, as many Christians have been at the forefront of the debate against wearing masks, arguing that a mask mandate infringes on their freedom. The very fact that church congregations have been allowed to gather without masks at times, when other gatherings have not been allowed to do the same, demonstrates the conflation of politically-defined freedom and spiritually-defined freedom in this country, since objectively a large group of people without masks in a church building is no less likely to spread a contagious virus than a large group of people without masks in any other building.
My point is not about freedom of religion—that inalienable right of every person to worship God as he or she chooses. That is a legal right that should be defended, for Christians and non-Christians alike. My point is not directed toward lawmakers at all. My point is directed toward us as Christians. Is it a legitimate exercise of our freedom to take certain actions? And are we pursuing the right kind of freedom when we do? I think Paul really gets to the point when he says, “I have the right to do anything…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” (1 Corinthians 10:23-24, NIV). If, as a Christian, my motivation is to defend, exercise or prove my own freedom, am I following in the footsteps of Christ? I think not. I think I have, as writer David French so eloquently says, “confused selfish defiance with faith and moral courage.”
In my long experience, Christians are generous, compassionate and self-sacrificing. A recent article I read expressed this eloquently: “America’s Evangelical Christian communities are often full of the most radically generous people you’ll ever meet—just watch my Southern Baptist friends activate when a natural disaster strikes. And they’re hardly the only ones. My father-in-law volunteers for the Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Effort, and it’s truly impressive.” My own life prior to COVID-19 and the 2020 election reflected mostly this experience with my fellow Christians. However, somehow over the last year, I have seen a different side. I have seen political signs with a candidate’s name next to signs with Jesus’ name together in a neighbor’s yard. I have seen Christians defiantly refuse to wear a mask when mandated by the local authorities, citing their personal rights and freedoms as paramount to the biblical command to submit to governmental authority. I have heard Christians denigrate and demean large groups of people who disagreed with them on political issues. I have seen people with Christian symbols participating in a crowd that erected a gallows on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol and stormed the Capitol building. In “the arena of law and culture, all too many Christians are adopting a posture that declares ‘Don’t tell me what to do’ far more than it asks ‘How can I serve you?’”
As American Christianity allows itself to be defined by what it is “against,” it strays further and further from Jesus’ mandate:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:43-48, NIV).
I find a modern-day paraphrase might be: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love those in your political party and hate the other party.’ But I tell you, love the other party and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the gay and the straight, and sends rain on the pro-life and the pro-choice. If you love those who vote the same as you, what reward will you get? Are not even the pro-maskers doing that? And if you greet only those who look like you, what are you doing more than others? Do not even other races do that? Love for your enemy is the purest imitation of Jesus.”
Somehow the incredible political freedoms our American forefathers afforded to us 200 years ago seem to have had a strange, unintended consequence. They came here to escape persecution for their religious practices. What they did not realize was that complete freedom, and even cultural advantage, for Christianity can remove any need for the very deepest of the things to which Christ called us—that is, sacrifice, responsibility, the bearing of our own crosses. The very things those original disciples balked at. They, too, wanted rights and political freedom. They wanted Jesus to whip up an army and fight off the Romans. But instead, Jesus healed the centurion’s severed ear and willingly walked out of Gethsemane with the Roman soldiers, knowing He was headed to the worst death imaginable. That wasn’t politics or any defense of personal freedom. That was the deepest and most unshakeable faith in something far bigger and grander than politics, freedom or anything else this world has to offer. And that faith is the same faith He calls us to as well.
I heard a sermon illustration recently which dovetailed perfectly with the ideas that were percolating for this blog post. The Queen Mary was a British cruise ship commissioned in 1936 whose “unprecedented luxury and forward-thinking technology (made her) popular with British royalty, Hollywood celebrities, and dignitaries alike,” according to the Queen Mary website. Beginning her career during the Great Depression, she provided a luxurious, one-of-a-kind experience for the world’s wealthiest who wished to cross the Atlantic between Great Britain and the U.S. Her career as a luxury cruise liner was quickly cut short when World War II began in 1939. She was retrofitted as a troop transport ship due to her “record-breaking speed and size,” and she was used to transport a total of 15,000 troops during the course of the war. After the war, she was restored to a cruise liner and used for a time, but as air travel quickly displaced trans-Atlantic cruises as the preferred means of transport from the Americas to Europe, she retired from cruising again. She has been docked in Long Beach, California since 1967, where she serves as both a hotel and a historical attraction. I have not visited the Queen Mary myself, but the illustration I heard described a historical tour in which the visitor gets to see the luxurious staterooms of the original cruise liner that was designed to carry the luminaries of the day across the ocean in the lap of luxury, contrasted with the bare bones barracks which carried troops to war. The same ship, but two very different lives and two very different purposes: the lap of luxury versus the transport of troops.
Which is more a more accurate picture of the Christian life you are living?
Which is a more accurate picture of the Christian life Jesus taught?
The Word of God commands us: “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Philippians 2:5-7, NIV). And when I read these words, I find them incredibly convicting, because I am culturally conditioned to think that life revolves around me. However, that is the exact opposite of what Jesus taught…the exact opposite of taking on the nature of a servant.
As we consider freedom, I pray that we, as Christians, will consider the freedom Christ taught and lived as paramount to any freedom that comes from a political structure, for our minds should not be set on earthly things since our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:19-20). While we do need to advocate for right of conscience, to vote our consciences and to support candidates with whom we agree (all things a democracy allows its citizens to do), we also need to examine our own hearts.
Proverbs cautions, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it” (Proverbs 4:23, NIV). What kind of freedom is my heart seeking after? The freedom to stand for Christ, share my faith and practice healthcare according to my conscience? Or the freedom to have my own rights and prove that no one can take them from me? One is a spiritual freedom that is always accompanied by service and sacrifice as we love and serve others as Christ commanded. The other is political liberty that simply masquerades as spiritual freedom—and when it is demanded, it can even be the opposite of spiritual freedom. For spiritual freedom is having the same mindset as Christ Jesus, who never once demanded His rights as part of the Trinity and the Creator of the Universe. Instead, He willingly lowered Himself to death on a cross to save “a wretch like me.” If I truly understand that, insistence on my own rights becomes ludicrous and I am set free to become a servant, free to empty myself, free to love my enemy, free to take up my cross. As each of us continues to navigate the unusual challenges that 2020 ushered in and 2021 continues to host, I hope we will deeply consider whether our most reliable authors are the founding fathers or the Father, and our most reliable text the Declaration of Independence or Holy Scripture. Both authors and their texts talk about freedom, but their definitions are not the same. Whose calling will you follow in your life?