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Tuesday
Jul032001

Liberty, Death, or Something Else?

[Beliefnet, July 4, 2001]

Give me liberty or give me death. Or give me something else. Staying alive, but under the rule of another nation? Yeah, that sounds all right, too.

Scandalous thoughts, especially this time of year. I’m a conservative Christian, born an American, born into the idea of faith intertwined with freedom. But I’ve been thinking over something I read recently. During the Jewish rebellion against Rome in the first century, religious leaders were the last to join the cause. They worked for peace and opposed revolution because, as one historian put it, “Roman rule presented no serious threat to Jewish religion.” In other words, overthrowing an oppressive government wasn’t a requisite of the faith.

This was a startling idea to me. But as I looked in my Bible concordance, I saw that the terms “freedom” and “liberty” are much rarer than I had thought and usually refer to freedom from sin or the Law. Political freedom is not presumed to be an unmixed good. Self-governance could lead to carelessness with the faith, while life under oppression could bear spiritual fruit.

Perhaps the Jewish priests’ resistance to war against Rome was mere pragmatism; as it turned out, the rebellion was suicidal and Jerusalem was destroyed.

But Jesus, speaking at the same time, took it further. He taught his followers radical detachment from earthly power: “My kingdom is not of this world.” He taught them not just to endure but to love their enemies.

America under the control of England, Israel under the control of Rome—how do they stack up? On one side, we see Patriots mowing down rows of Redcoat soldiers; on the other, we hear Jesus saying we should obey a Roman soldier and even offer to carry his pack a second mile (Matthew 5:41). On one side, Patriots are tossing tea into the harbor in defiance of British taxes; on the other, Jesus miraculously produces a coin to pay his Roman taxes (Matthew 17:27).

Yes, the Revolutionary War and the teachings of Jesus: They go together like a cake and a bowling ball.

I’m not saying that there isn’t much to admire in the story of our nation’s birth. The liberation of our nation required great courage, and the establishment of our unprecedented government required genius. I’m very grateful that I was born in this land in freedom. No, I don’t want to go back to England, where everything, even toast, is cooked by boiling, and babies are afflicted with those wispy names, like Nigel, that were too feeble to cross the Atlantic.

However, it looks like the biblical teaching is that liberty is not necessary to the spiritual life—not even all that important in the larger scheme of things. The establishment of the American democracy isn’t an illustration of biblical principles. It’s rather an illustration of “the course of human events”—the kind of thing that happens in human history. At regular intervals, people have wars, and somebody wins and somebody loses. The one who wins gets a bonus prize: He gets to interpret what just happened. From his point of view, of course, what happened was just plain wonderful. Justice was served. Everyone on our side was heroic, and everyone on the other side was dastardly.

We are taught these views early and absorb them without question. It seems right for Yankees to rebel against England but wrong for Confederates to rebel against Yankees. It seems right to fight to set slaves free, but wrong for Native Americans to resist our taking their land. From the perspective of the winner, however things turned out is exactly the way they should have. A naive reader of history would find it a delightful story, because there is a happy ending every time.

Perhaps the way things turn out is always the way God wants it. More likely, things turn out the way God permits it, though his plan may not be comprehensible to us until the end, like that of a master chess player. But beyond that, we can’t draw conclusions.

A person living in liberty, and one living under oppression, has full access to the same God. Each has the same potential for spiritual growth. A person who has power or wealth is not necessarily a better disciple than one who does not. In fact, given the tendency of power to corrupt and wealth to smother, the one who has less may be more spiritually free, even in chains.

It was clear to the early Christians that the great danger is attachment to these things, not the things in themselves. The love of money—not money itself—is the root of all evil. A rich person hoarding wealth and a poor person enviously craving it run the same spiritual danger. Instead, detachment is the key: “I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound,” said St. Paul. A steady heart can be maintained despite turbulent outside circumstances—despite blatant unfairness.

A few years later, Paul was beheaded for his faith. For centuries, Christians were accused of atheism (because they denied Roman gods) and cannibalism (because of wild rumors about the Eucharist). They were tortured to death as public entertainment. Yet even then, they did not vow political freedom from their oppressors. They did not try to kill their persecutors or demand to be given liberty or death. They were willing to die, but not to kill, for their faith.

“Where your treasure is, your heart will be also,” said Jesus. That treasure is Jesus himself, and, grounded in him, believers could go beyond being concerned for their own rights. Instead of shooting their enemies, they could love them or at least die trying.

So let’s not confuse our dramatic American story with the example of Jesus and the early Christians. They, too, knew political oppression, and they chose a different path. We enjoy liberty, but we should recognize that it is not a requirement for, or a guarantee of, spiritual health. Scripture doesn’t exhort us to seek first political freedom but to seek the Kingdom of God, since we can follow our Lord no matter what our earthly lot. The epistle to the Hebrews says, “Here we have no continuing city.”

I’m grateful to have the United States for my “temporary city,” grateful that I was born in this magnificent land and enjoy freedom others died to secure. That’s undeserved bounty but not a text of spiritual instruction. It’s good to celebrate on the Fourth with friends and fireworks, beer and a hot dog. One of those off the grill—not boiled.

***

Now, this is obviously a sensitive sort of column, especially on a day like today, and I felt bad about coming across as a Captain Bringdown. So I tried to couch it carefully, make the point repeatedly and distinguish it from other possible points that I *wasn’t* making, etc.

But I heard from editors last night that they wanted to title it boldly, to make sure people read it. (It is, in fact, the lead on the site tonight.) So the title they wanted to use was “America is Not God’s Favorite Country.”

Urk. I wrote back that I really didn’t like that, it was too flat-footed, could we have a title that suggested rethinking rather than a flat claim—a claim about something I couldn’t possibly know, anyway. I suggested some alternatives, like “Untangling Faith and Freedom” or even “God’s Favorite Country? Not So Fast.”

So I was disappointed to click on tonight and see this on the main site, under an illustration of the flag:

<<America is Not God’s Favorite Country
So says one conservative Christian. In fact, Frederica Mathewes-Green argues that a free country isn’t necessary‚ — or even desirable‚  — for God’s blessing. >>

Oh, man. That’s like a shoe that’s too tight. It doesn’t fit, in a lot of ways. When you go to the article itself it says:

<<Give Me Patriotism or Give Me Faith
The story of our nation’s birth is inspiring but not really relevant to our faith journeys.>>

Again, this is just off the mark. Well, the lesson is, never assume that a writer chose the headline; the writer may be cringing at the headline. Unfortunately, the headline has great power to condition how readers take in the piece. Already there’s one message in the mini-board about “if you don’t like it here” and “quit your bitching” :-) which I suspect are responding more to the tone of the title and subheads than the content of the piece itself.

The tossup is, generally I am willing to let the editor’s judgement rule in the case of headlines, even in this case. The editor is in the position of a host introducing two people at a party. They know me and they know the reader, and they’re in the best position to summarize my article so that readers will be interested. If it were up to me, all my headlines would be much more soft and nuanced, they’d have a lot of “perhaps” and all that stuff straight-shooting editors hate and that readers take as a signal for Boredom Ahead. A headline that charges up the battery will be more likely to get readers to actually read, whereas my impulse to be subtle might just produce yawns. Personally, I’d like all my columns to be titled “Here Are Some Interesting Thoughts From a Nice Person Whom You Would Really Like If You Knew Her.” Then maybe some flowers. So far no editor has gone for this.

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