Grace Emerges

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Forward Progress 5: The Fight for Freedom

Forward Progress: 
Lessons and Trends in Progressive Christian Faith
by Brad Duncan

A 6-part series on the church, faith and theology,
and how they can move forward into the next generation. 

The Fight for Freedom

There's something wrong with our view of love when it leads to control and doesn't stand up against injustice.
In the previous four articles, I started with the notion that good things come from the gospel, one of those good things being "Freedom".  I contrasted this view with traditional theology that grafts the bad news of judgment to the gospel.  This notion of judgment permeates how we view God, how we seek to worship him and serve him, and how we view ourselves as inherently fallen.  I also talked about grace and what that could look like in the church when judgment is eradicated.  In this article I return to a fundamental concept that to me is often overlooked by the traditional gospel message.  The word is Freedom.

In fact I can't find this word anywhere in the traditional Articles of Faith (see Figure 3 in Progress 1) .

Freedom is a very broad word, so I would like to define it more specifically in the context of the gospel and the church, with three (somewhat overlapping) views of freedom:
  • Freedom, definition 1: Liberation/release/salvation brought by the Messiah, especially described in Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah as one who would come and liberate the captives.  Salvation is a common word in the traditional gospel message, but is not often defined as freedom (even though I think these words mean the same thing).  Freedom = Salvation brought by Jesus.  The state of being saved.
  • Freedom, definition 2: Opposite of and release from control or systems of control.  Liberty.  The ability to make your own choices without being coerced by others or by your participation in a group culture that limits your choices.  Living so that you are responsible for your own choices rather than someone else.  Release from expectations and the ambitions of others.  Free will.  Free will supported by human relationships, free will as a spiritual condition.  Freedom to choose selfishness vs. unselfishness, good vs. evil, God authority vs. self authority.  Freedom = Human Liberty and Free Will.
  • Freedom, definition 3: Release from physical or emotional bondage inflicted by another person or institution, society or the government.  Release from prejudices, divisions and hatred inflicted by social norms, class systems, and pervasive attitudes.  Opposite of freedom:  modern-day slavery (human trafficking), exploitation, oppression, coercion, indentured servitude, abuse, elitism, sexism, racism, discrimination, etc.   Ask anyone who has suffered from prejudices and they will tell you that such treatment is the opposite of freedom. Discrimination is an attitude that enslaves others, so we can equate freedom with equality, respect for differences and justice for those that are wronged by others.  Freedom = Equality and Human Justice.
How does our good news, the message of the Messiah, lead to these types of freedom?  Does salvation lead to liberty?  Does the Great Commission lead us to fight for equality and justice?

Pointing Out the Flaws
Is God honored when we use spiritual principles and religious practices to criticize and control others?  Can love be expressed through pointing out sins?  Is our highest calling to be right and to pressure others to conform to our rightness?  When we do this, don't we contradict the purpose of the Messiah to liberate sinners, to save them, to redeem them, to provide new life to them?  And yet the traditional gospel, helped by centuries of church structure and history, de-emphasizes individual freedom.

But didn't Jesus teach us to value freedom more than control?   How are we measuring up on this concept?  Does our community of faith, do our family relationships, our ministry projects lead more to freedom or control?  Do we fight injustice and value the liberty of others? How concerned are we when people struggle under oppression , when people are exploited for the selfish gain? What about discrimination: prejudices, elitism, favoritism, sexism, racism, do we fight against those?  Do we release captives from our expectations and prejudices?  Do Christians take a loud and aggressive stand against modern-day slavery and exploitation in general, and fight for equality of minority groups? 

For many of us Christians these questions are surprising because freedom is not a big spiritual concern for us. We do consider how Jesus frees us from specific things that bind us, like addictions and sinful habits, or how he answers prayer when we are in need. But much like peace, joy and hope, freedom is a state of the spirit that we don't really approach with any depth. And we don't take it very seriously to liberate others, bringing them this type of spiritual blessing. In fact I could suggest we actually feel more comfortable with structures that provide control, stability and predictability, than ones that provide liberty, flexibility, and unpredictability.  We feel more comfortable teaching people to behave than to be free.

A simple question for each of us: Do we value freedom more than control?   If we take to heart the Messianic message of good news, we must take a stand on the side of freedom.

What We Can Learn
Figure 2 shows how the good news translates to freedom rather than control.

God's Heart for Freedom
The story of man's interaction with God is one of freedom and rescue. Man was created in God's image to be creative and able to make independent choices. Man was given complete free will about whether to believe in and follow God or not, in spite of the consequences (man would reject God and follow his own plan).

God promised freedom to Abraham and to the people of his descent. He promised to bless all mankind through Abraham.

Through Joseph, God rescued the house of Israel from drought and starvation.

The whole story of Moses is one of liberating the Israelites from Egypt, eventually leading them to the promised land (where they could live in freedom).

The prophet Isaiah again promised that mankind would be blessed through the seed of Abraham, and taught about the Messiah that would come and liberate the captives.

When Jesus came, his mission was clearly understood by those that were looking for the Messiah to be the liberation of Israel and all mankind. In Luke 4, Jesus confirmed that mission by quoting Isaiah, and then he proceeded to fulfill that description of the Messiah through his ministry of healing and the message that the kingdom of God had arrived.

In his teachings, Jesus led a revolution of kindness. A revolution of loving enemies and peaceful resistance. A revolution of equality of the poor and rich. A revolution against religious systems of control. His revolution was a war for freedom, but fought with kindness.

When Jesus died on the cross he sacrificed himself for our ultimate freedom.

The theology is clear: God is passionate about freedom. He made us this way, with free will. Then he intervened with mankind in a way that revealed himself without reducing our freedom. By studying the teachings of Christ we can see what that freedom looks like, and follow him to true life.

The Enslavement of Mankind

What enslaves us? If we were made to be free, why do we need rescue, and how did we find ourselves enslaved?

First I should ask: who opposes freedom? If we look to the above outline of the story of God and man, we see the opposition. Freedom is in contrast to enslavement. Freedom to make good choices that honor God, means that some will choose instead to grab all the power for themselves. The "freedom system" we live in means that we continually need God and need to be rescued, because enslavement is running rampant in the world. Mankind is enslaved because there are people who choose to exploit others. We can blame the devil, but he is just the deceiver, offering power and selfish gain to people who follow his advice. It is well-known that our selfish desires and seeking of power over others, actually enslave us like an addiction. The promises of the deceiver lead to slavery. So, who opposes freedom? We do. Or rather, we tend to oppose the freedom in others, and we tend to enslave ourselves through selfishness. Thus the need for the revolutionary message of Jesus. Following his words, the example of his life, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit can literally set us free of this cycle of slavery.

Through our own need for power, we humans have historically corrupted the purpose of the gospel and the church to build a kingdom for ourselves, where some people are elevated and others controlled. Those that don't fit into this structure are ostracized, outcast, excluded.

The institutions and governments of the world suffer from corruption, and so systemize the enslavement of the masses by supporting dictators, unjust laws, and class systems.

Even our beloved capitalism, our "dollar votes" of economics, and the laws that ensure free competition, can easily promote exploitation. Capitalism favors the lower price, and offers great riches to the lowest bidder. This creates a system where exploitation of the poor or powerless somewhere in the supply chain will be favored (due to lower costs) over the competition that insists on fair business practices. The solution to this type of complex organic global cause and effect is to modify the demand. Make consumers aware of exploitation and change public demand so our dollar votes are put toward freedom instead of exploitation, even at the expense of higher prices. Further protect the powerless through trade laws, tariffs and sanctions.

Our human selfishness has always led to the worst types of human injustice, namely outright exploitation for human pleasure and greed. The modern-day slavery problem is becoming more evident and more clearly publicized. There are more human slaves in the world today than ever in history. These slaves predominantly support the sex trade, organized crime and illegal labor practices in developed countries. In developing countries it also allows entire industries to rest on the backs of slaves (like chocolate, coffee and sugar, some types of mining, manufacturing, farming). It is happening to the poor and powerless in every society, rich and poor. This problem must be fought on every level, from grassroots awareness, local organizations and safe houses, consumer outcry, trade policies, humanitarian organizations, governments, military and police. Who in this world is NOT affected by this problem? Clearly the church can have a role to rescue the downtrodden, in our neighborhood and across the globe. First we have to care about this issue -- do we care more about the spiritual condition of these slaves or do we care that they sit in literal chains? Will we bring the true gospel to them? The good news of literal freedom before spiritual freedom? Will we fight to get the lowest price for our goods, while taking advantage of slave labor that produces those goods? Will we sing and preach, praising God, while ignoring the cry of slaves?

Systems of Control and the Revolution of Kindness

When it comes to the church, what do we think we are doing? Are we pleasing God by forming close-knit groups and organizing for discipleship and worship? We have been deceived. What is the deception? We adamantly fight for building a kingdom that suits us, standing on our soap-boxes of proper worship, righteous behavior, and standards of belief. But this is not the kingdom of God. We think it is, because it seems that by organizing to please God, we can be a pure bride for Christ, holy and ready for his work. We think we can shine a brighter light into the world by focusing our individual lights into a bright center, inside brick walls with cathedral domes and a cross on the top. We think that by standing up for God and insisting on conformity while fighting sin, that we are making the body of Christ better, more suitable for its king. We think that by announcing our creeds to the world so that they can "hear the gospel", that we are doing God's work, and at the same time growing the numbers inside our walls. What about our traditions, our liturgies, our celebrations, our feasts, our baptisms and communions? Are these oriented toward celebrating the kingdom of the church, or celebrating the kingdom of God? Simple question: do we ever celebrate freedom or equality? Do we ever fight slavery more than sin? Do we offer literal salvation to people? Salvation, meaning rescue into a state of freedom? If our church system is not doing that, we need a new vision for the church.

This is not the type of purity that is demanded of Christ-followers. Jesus led a revolution of kindness. Of focus on other rather than self. He fought to liberate people from the kingdoms of control, and to teach that none of us is judge or master of another in the kingdom. Jesus is the king and authority. He rules, and by his decree all are to be free!

Certainly we can have traditions and practices - but these should celebrate kindness and compassion, not control and conformity. Can we explain to our church and the world that the practice of communion means the practice of compassion? Jesus cared about us and freed us from Earthly chains with his body that was broken for us, and from Spiritual chains with his blood that was poured out. Can we explain to the church and the world that baptism means transformation? Death of selfishness and corruption, so we can embrace love and kindness, participating with God in a kingdom of his design? Can we feast and sing and celebrate for the liberty that is brought to the downtrodden, rather that for our gratitude that the downtrodden is not us? Can we sing praises to God for his redeeming work instead of worshiping for seeking his favor? Certainly we can have traditions and practices, and some of them are already oriented toward the kingdom of God -- others can be re-oriented or exchanged. The practices of the church must be modified to actively avoid being controlling -- we must embrace the practice of actively liberating every person that comes into our walls.

The fight for freedom and the revolution of kindness has the biggest direct impact on one-on-one relationships. When people actively liberate others, they elevate the person to be more important than their behavior and beliefs. We care for the whole person, making a difference in their lives, living kindness and compassion. What kind of spouses, what kind of parents, what kind of Sunday-school teachers, what kind of pastors, will we be if we embrace the gospel of freedom in one-on-one relationships first, then apply it to social contexts.

The fight for freedom and the revolution of kindness should also transform the outreach vision of the church. We should engage with Christians everywhere to alleviate suffering. Change our church mission to reach out to the world making it a better place before making it conform to our faith. What does the vision, the mission, the statement of core values and article of faith look like for our churches if we join the revolution of kindness?


Justice for the Poor Participant's Guide: Love God. Serve People. Change the World. by Jim Wallis and Sojourners (Aug 17, 2010)

The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America by Jim Wallis (Jan 22, 2008)

Forward Progress: "I am the way, the truth and the life.  Come to the Father through me!  Find the good life at home in my kingdom, where God's will is done, where your needs matter, and where forgiveness reigns." -- Jesus

Other Articles in This Series:

Figure 1.  The gospel should be based on the authority of Christ rather than a mix of grace and judgment.

Figure 2.  The story of salvation is about freedom, in fact salvation literally means liberation.  The Messiah has brought freedom, we have received it, and offer it to others.

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