Liberty and Justice for All part two: Liberty

Last month, I wrote about a Christian approach to American justice through the lens of Martin Luther King Jr’s Isaiah 40 references in his “I have a dream” speech. There, I argued that justice involves completely upsetting the status quo so that “all flesh” may see God’s glory. This month, I’m tackling the liberty part that our pledge promise. We proclaim that our flag stands for “liberty and justice for all.” What does that mean for the American Christian?

Liberty and Justice are values both for Americans and for Christians, but the terms don’t necessarily mean the same thing in each context. Nevertheless,  American Christians — especially Evangelicals —  tend to conflate American values with Christian ones. First Baptist Dallas’s “Freedom Sunday” tradition is just one highly visible example. My own evangelical childhood was full of similar celebrations of America as part of the church service. I have twice recounted here the story of how, when a man stood in front of my childhood congregation to sing the Lee Greenwood song, “God Bless the USA,” I heard him replace the word “men” in the line, “I won’t forget the men who died” with “man,” as he pointed his finger to the sky, implying to all assembled that the purpose of Jesus’s death was to give America her freedom.

Few evangelicals today are quite as zealous in their patriotism these days — at least not in worship services, and certainly not to the extent of First Baptist Dallas’s near-idolatrous display. Still, I frequently notice, in my conversations with other American Christians, that concepts like free will, free thought, or free speech get lifted above a simple human right to the status of divine mandate. The more extremist examples of these ideas spilled from the mouths of some Floridian anti-maskers, who called mask mandates “satanic” because they go against “freedom of choice” and represent an attempt to usurp God’s authority to “regulate human breathing.”  

We laugh at these extreme examples, but even in more moderate ways, Evangelical Christians in America routinely conflate American freedom with Christian freedom.  And because we conflate American values and Christian ones, our definition of “freedom” takes on the unmistakable tinge of individualism. When many Christians in American think of freedom, they think of it in terms of personal liberties: the individual’s right to self-determination, self-expression, and self-interest.

Self-denial gets overlooked.

This problem with defining freedom gets compounded by our own imprecise discussions of Christian freedom. We love to quote Jesus’s words, “If the Son has set you free, you are free indeed,” but we seem to struggle with understanding just what it means to be “free.” As I’ve written previously in a post over a small study of worship music, freedom/slavery metaphors dominate our most popular songs:

The terms “free” or “freedom” occur sixteen times in the twenty-five songs. Variants of the word “ransom” occur three times, versions of the word “chain” occur five times, and the words “slave” or “captive” appear three separate times, for a total of eight references to enslavement offered in contrast to Christ’s freedom. […] Although one might suspect that singing about broken chains could lead to a robust theology of atonement or overcoming sin, our worship songs rarely specify what “freedom” means… “freedom” is a kind of catch-all term for victorious Christian living. Just what that freedom entails is left up to the individual worshipper’s interpretation.

Left without a robust theology of freedom, it seems that many Christians have filled in the gap with the American quest for individual liberty.

This question of Christian freedom is a pretty old one. The Galatians struggled with it, of course. In the Galatian church, someone convinced the young Christians that they still needed to be circumcised in order to truly follow God. When Paul spoke of freedom in response, he meant freedom from a law that made a relationship with God a matter of meeting certain physical requirements. It’s in this context that he wrote:

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” (Gal. 5:1)

So it upset me to see one of my facebook friends post that exact verse in response to masking mandates. A mask is certainly not a “Yoke of slavery!”

Here’s what Paul goes on to say instead:

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. (Gal 5:13-16)

Freedom is always about love. Yes, that includes loving God and enjoying his love that frees us from slavery to our sinful struggles. But it also extends to loving our neighbors as ourselves.  We are no longer bound by selfishness, by self-preservation, by envy, anger, or lust. Instead, freedom for the Christian is characterized by the fruit of the spirit: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” (Gal 5:22-23)

We’ve taken Paul so far out of context in our desire to open businesses and not wear masks and sing in large church choirs that already contained known cases of Covid-19 that we’ve forgotten that the whole point of our freedom is that we are free to love one another.

Not only are Christians free to love, but they are free from some things too. Sin is one of them, of course. But we are also free from social or political expectations that would bind us to certain friend groups or certain political affiliations. We are free from the need to constantly defend our individual liberties since we can trust in God to provide for all our needs. We are free from slavery to selfish ambition or power. We are free from the worry that lifting someone else up means our own demotion.

Many of my vocal Christian friends online who oppose mask wearing trot out the line that wearing a mask is a sign of living in fear. But love is anti-fear. The Christian, motivated by love, puts others’ needs ahead of his or her own.

So what does it look like for a Christian to value liberty and justice for all as both an American citizen and a citizen of God’s kingdom?

I looks like humility.
It looks like personal and corporate repentance.
It looks like providing for “the least of these.”
It looks like lifting up those who have been oppressed and fighting to change the systems that oppressed them.
It looks like freedom from particular party lines or ties.
It looks like freedom from the quest for power and influence.
It looks like the freedom to consider others’ needs before our own.
It looks like love.

Read Liberty and Justice for All Part One here