We celebrate the Fourth of July this week, Independence Day, the day we celebrate our unique freedoms as a part of this United States of America.
Thomas Jefferson wrote in the opening paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence that, "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."
For our nation we call these words foundational to our understanding of Freedom.
Over the 243 years of our nation’s history, however, there’s come to be a certain tension, a push and pull around our freedom, our rights: On one hand, we’ve interpreted our certain unalienable rights in this way: No one tells me what to do.
It’s my life, my liberty, my pursuit of happiness. But my life, my liberty, my pursuit of happiness can get entangled in someone else’s, and so comes the response when those things get entangled: There ought to be a law against that.
There seems to be a whole host of issues in which this tension — "No one tells me what to do"/"There ought to be a law against that" — plays out in our nation today. Abortion rights, Gun rights, Immigration rights, LGBT rights, Voting rights, are just a few.
And you’ll find that these tensions have found their way into the Church as well as the public square. What appears to have happened is the we have squared off on our sides — and those sides appear to follow our political divisions — conservative and liberal. And the temptation is to battle about these rights from the standpoint of No one tells me what to do and There ought to be a law against that.
The church in Galatia knew about these sort of divisions. We often forget that the early Church was a huge melting pot of all kinds of different people with very different ideas of who was free, and what it meant to be free; especially as people of God! There were clearly people on both sides of a lot of issues.
And there were people who said, "No one tells me what to do," and there were others who wanted a law against that. But God’s Word from the apostle Paul was this: Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you.
It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do, and destroy your freedom. Rather use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows. For everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself. That’s a true act of freedom. If you bite and ravage each other, watch out — in no time at all you will be annihilating each other, and where will your precious freedom be then? (Galatians 5:1, 13-15, The Message)
Freedom, then is connected to our love of neighbor. And, As Tracy Pyles in his editorial earlier this week pointed out, Jesus is pretty sly in reminding us of who our neighbor is: such as telling the parable of the Good Samaritan, the last person anyone would have expected Jesus would use as an example of right living and behavior. The person on the other side of the argument.
Loving our neighbor is a very different idea of freedom than the struggles we have today over our “unalienable rights” of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Paul goes on to identify what happens when we forget that freedom is tied to love of neighbor: “strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy…” among many other things that separate us from one another. (Galatians 5:19-21, NRSV) Does this not sound like what we hear every day in the news?
Our nation’s idea of freedom was founded on being free from something or someone: for example, being free from British tyranny, or being free from slavery as a person of color.
But what if, instead of the idea of freedom being adversarial, one against another, our freedom was for something? Not to do whatever I want, but to act toward my neighbor as I wanted to be treated myself? — love your neighbor as yourself.
On this Independence Day week, we celebrate our freedom, and God always gives us the opportunity for that freedom to be for something — or someone.