A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Let Freedom Ring!
July 3, 2014
Freedom! Liberty! Independence! This trio of ideals, which we celebrate every Fourth of July, led our pilgrim forebears to hazard treacherous cross-Atlantic passage in search of relief from the religious intolerance and subjugation they suffered in their native European lands. These values eventually formed the foundation of the American experiment. Of course, the dark side of this European-American quest was the price many Native-Americans and African-Americans had to pay in the process – not to mention the price paid by minority European-American immigrants such as Jews, Catholics, and Mormons. It seems that whenever some segment of the population asserts its freedom, it comes at the expense of others.
This is why western liberal democracy has traditionally constrained the quest for freedom with a parallel insistence on equality. “Everyone doing what is right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25) is no better a recipe for a just peace today than it was for our ancient Middle Eastern forebears. Yet when push comes to shove, Americans have typically opted for liberty over equality if the two collide, while Europeans have more often tilted the other way. No American hero is quoted saying, “Give me equality, or give me death.” This disparity helps to explain, among other things, the far greater proliferation of handguns in America, and the more widespread socialization of health care in Europe.
The New Testament proclaims both liberty and equality in Christ, virtues rooted in the fundamental identity of all human beings made in God’s image – a God who is utterly free, yet bound in the koinonia of three equal Persons. Both themes resound through the little book of Galatians. On freedom: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1) Christian freedom is imperiled when we make rule-keeping a condition of salvation after having been justified entirely by the grace of God in Jesus Christ. On equality: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) In Christ, all distinctions between classes of people are definitively broken.
The second of these Galatians passages underscores something critically important for understanding freedom and equality in specifically Christian terms – Christians are truly free and equal precisely because “all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Unity in Christ is the basis of Christian liberty and fellowship.
For Christians, “freedom” is not the absence of accountability to others, but deliverance from the compulsion of “me-first” living. Similarly, “equality” is not simply the assertion of equal consideration and opportunity for everyone, but the embrace of our calling to serve and prefer one another in love. (Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10)
Genuine love is what makes true freedom and equality possible as distinctly Christian virtues. Christian freedom and equality in fact knit us together, rather than disencumbering us from each other. They move us not toward independence (the name of our national holiday notwithstanding) but into interdependence. Christian freedom is not freedom from each other, but freedom for and with each other.
Our church holds freedom and equality precious, and rightly so. We are wholeheartedly committed to being a community of non-coercion, and to equal opportunity and voice for all. Alas, sometimes we have cited these commitments to justify moving away from each other, as though freedom and equality granted us independence.
A non-theological account of freedom has crept into the typical American understanding of what constitutes the “church” at core. Many of us have construed the church more as a freewill association of likeminded people – more like a political party – than as the family of God whose members enjoy freedom and equality precisely because they do not need to determine who is in and who is out of the realm of God’s grace. Theologically speaking, the church’s freedom is not a freedom of association with or separation from whomever we wish, but a freedom to serve and love God and neighbor without condition or obstruction.
As we celebrate the gifts of freedom and equality that we have inherited from the generations that have gone before us, let us devote ourselves to nurturing even deeper freedom and broader equality in our world. And may we begin doing so first of all within the household of faith.
Your partner in the quest for true freedom and equality,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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