Freedom vs. Love: When Freedom Prevents Us From Loving

I am reading Bradley Jersak’s “A More Christlike God, A More Beautiful Gospel” (https://www.amazon.com/More-Christlike-God-Beautiful-Gospel/dp/1889973165). In chapter three he contrasts two competing values in Western Culture: “freedom” and “goodness.” He makes the point that of the two, one will always be dominant over the other. Where we have recently seen this most dramatically portrayed in America is in the flack over building a border wall, Muslim immigration and in the so-called attacks on “religious freedom.”

In each of these three cases the safety of our personal freedoms and “rights” is the overriding principal governing protest and the push for legal protections. And in each circumstance someone else’s situation is negatively affected by the insistence on safeguarding our own personal freedoms.

As Jersak puts it, “We live in a culture that so totalizes freedom that anyone who presents an obstacle or becomes a hindrance to what I want is attacking my freedom. I will perceive intrusions on my way of life as the enemy, whether it is a family member, a foreign militant or a government regulator…impositions on my freedom are considered offensive and immoral–attacks–because my personal autonomy (self-rule) comes first.”
…”On the other hand, Christ commands us to love our enemies and to overcome evil with good. He calls us to make love our first allegiance–and his love frees us to do so. Freedom in Christ, ironically, is freedom from the tyranny of our own paranoia-producing self-will and fear-driven self-preservation, which we’ve tragically mislabeled ‘freedom.'” (P. 51)

When self-preservation and personal liberties are promoted by the church as a moral imperative, the result is a Gospel that ceases to be “good-news,” and the church loses it’s “witness” to the Love, Grace and Mercy of God. Extreme examples of this can be seen in the proposal to allow “open carry” on the Liberty University campus and the desire to build a shooting range there. Another sad example can be found in the recent un-Christlike comments of a well-known evangelist towards Muslim refugees fleeing the horrors of war in Syria and the bigoted and false statements made about transgender people by the Right in an attempt to deny safe bathrooms to them.

These are examples of how the church can slip into a self-serving frame of mind and lose sight of serving others first. In most of the recent conversations I have had with conservative Christians they have invariably supported blocking refugees, mass deportations and legislation against Gays on the grounds of preserving our freedoms as Americans and Christians. The argument goes something like this: “the government’s job is to protect us, the church’s job is to minister to others. The government has no business doing the church’s job.” While there may be some truth in that, the church on the Right, unfortunately, has not counteracted with an attitude of selfless love, but has applauded and encouraged self-centered actions by both church and state. In reality, the grasping for “freedom” becomes a bondage that hinders the true freedom we have in Christ to serve others.

Oddly enough, the insistence on my rights taking precedence over other’s rights is almost always couched in terms of “majority” or ‘who’s in control’ rights. Again the over-emphasized concern with majority freedoms at the cost of marginalized individual rights becomes a hallmark of a selfish church. The recent recension of transgender rights by the current administration was hailed as a triumph for the “privacy rights of all of the students who attend their schools” (Kerri Kupec, Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian group). As can be seen, the “freedoms” referred to are not truly freedoms for “all” but freedoms for those who are currently in control.

The church then becomes merely a defender of the status quo rather than a defender of the helpless and disadvantaged. Again, an odd development considering the Evangelical insistence to be seen as a disadvantaged minority, at odds with current society. At the center of this victim mentality is a core resistance to be inconvenienced in any way by the needs of others who are “different” than the traditional status quo, seeing it’s own “minority” needs taking precedence over other’s minority needs, all of which underscores the Right’s weaknesses in the areas of empathy and mercy.

While this can be understood from a political standpoint, it is hard to find justification for it among Christians. So what is the practical upshot of all this? As American Christians how do we wish our government to be perceived? Is it to be generous or does America hoard it’s resources, keeping them to ourselves? Do we expect America to only help others only when it is beneficial to her? Does the church “act magnanimous” while expecting the government to do the “dirty work” of discrimination and marginalization? A lot depends on whether we are selfish or selfless Christians and whether we see America as self-serving or not.

How can the church do it’s job of defending the helpless and those on the outskirts? For one, the church can step back from it’s current support for political actions that marginalize women, minorities and immigrants, remembering that it was once a persecuted minority and in areas of the world it still is. Political action should never simply be in terms of status quo or what makes us feel “comfortable.” Likewise, our fears should not be a primary focus on denying others help when they desperately need it. Ways to adequately meet the needs of the disenfranchised while remaining practical should be sought out. Absolute honest self-assessment needs to take place among America Christians to weed out those attitudes that are based on fear or loss of control.

In conclusion, it would be helpful to remember that Christ did not put his needs above others but calls us to a life where we “lay down our lives” for the benefit of others, family, friends, neighbors and even enemies (1 John 3:16, Mark 12:31, Matt. 5:44). The church cannot fail when it follows the example of Christ, the head of the church.

The Gospel of Coercion

In a recent Christianity Today article: CT, Evangelical leadership rejected any form of compromise with the LGBTQ community regarding “any legal efforts to protect sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI).” While Mormons were able to work out a compromise, leading Evangelicals were not. This not only does not bode well for sexual minorities but will also hurt Evangelicals in the long run.

In an election year where White Evangelicals were seen as self-serving, homophobic, Islamophobic, mysogenistic and isolationist, this could not possibly help their cause. The reticence to agree to afford basic rights to sexual minorities stems from the belief that

“SOGI policies attempt to impose, by force of law, a system of orthodoxy with respect to human sexuality: the belief that marriage is merely a union of consenting adults, regardless of biology, and that one can be male, female, none, or both, again, regardless of biology. SOGI laws impose this orthodoxy by punishing dissent, and by treating as irrational the beliefs that men and women are biologically rooted and made for each other in marriage.” (Heritage Foundation research fellow Ryan T. Anderson and Princeton University professor Robert P. George)

“The Colson Center’s statement shares their position:
We have seen in particular how these laws are used by the government in an attempt to compel citizens to sacrifice their deepest convictions on marriage and what it means to be male and female, people who serve everyone, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, but who cannot promote messages, engage in expression, or participate in events that contradict their beliefs or their organization’s guiding values.”

The irony of this belief is that Christianity has a long history of attempting to “impose, by force of law, a system of orthodoxy on Americans. I just read through the section on Prohibition in America in Stephen Prothero’s “Why Liberals Win The Culture Wars” https://www.amazon.com/Liberals-Culture-Wars-Even-Elections/dp/0061571296 You would think Evangelical Christians would have learned by now, forcing compliance to conservative Evangelical beliefs is not how you spread the “Good News.”

To define the issue as “religious freedom” is misleading. The Religious Right has become so thoroughly enmeshed in Conservatism as a philosophy it becomes increasingly difficult to detect the “Christianity” in it. There are many other sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle agendas going on in the Evangelical mind. I know, I was for many years an Evangelical.

First off, there is a dogged determination among White Evangelicals to regain a mythical past when America was Great (meaning White and Protestant). It is hazy when exactly there was a time when it was “great” for everyone concerned. Jews, Catholics, Mormons, Blacks, women, Native Americans, Atheists, Asians, all have been targets at one time or another of conservative Christianity. So there is a fear that America is losing the “White edge” we’ve had in the past.

Secondly, and this is a biggie, Evangelical theology dehumanizes people. Evangelicals may talk about salvation by Grace, but in practice grace leaves via the back door when doctrinal certitude takes precedence. I see this over and over in the forums and on Facebook. Evangelicals talk about how we are all sinners, but have very little ability to walk in another’s shoes. It is what happens when dogma collides with love. Case in point, Beth Moore stated the following when speaking to a large gathering of 18 to 25-year-olds in Atlanta during the 2017 Passion Conference:

“You will watch a generation of Christians — OF CHRISTIANS — set the Bible aside in an attempt to become more like Jesus. And stunningly it will sound completely plausible. This will be perhaps the cleverest of all the devil’s schemes in your generation. Sacrifice TRUTH for LOVE’s sake. And you will rise or fall based upon whether you will sacrifice one for the other. Will you have the courage to live in the tension of both TRUTH and LOVE?” https://serendipitydodah.wordpress.com/2017/01/12/moms-of-lgbtq-kids-respond-to-beth-moore/

Did you catch that? Doctrine trumps love! You end up not seeing people or their pain, you withhold unconditional love and administer correction instead. If this sounds like legalism to you, guess what, it is. Oh, and guess who gets to decide how to interpret and administer those rules? Yep, right again! White Evangelicals like Beth Moore.

It boggles my mind that a Christian could even say that in light of the sacrifice Christ made, not because we deserved it, but because he loved us in spite of ourselves.

Thirdly, nativism and bigotry disguised as patriotism. Sticking an American eagle clutching an American flag on the window of your pickup truck and posting “Like” if you support our troops on Facebook does not make you patriotic. Supporting individual rights, supporting more freedoms rather than refusing them, allowing others to have a say in Democracy, these make you patriotic. The Religious Right has always, always historically been about removing the rights of others. Freedom among conservatives, including Evangelicals, is far narrower than the concept among Liberals.

Which brings me to my final point. Liberty in America faces a far greater danger from the Right than from the Left. It is far easier to imagine a populist rightist movement promoting a sort of Christian fascism taking control of government than the Atheistic communism that Billy Graham warned us about. The ease by which Evangelicals came to support Trump is frightening. Not only did it reveal the hypocrisy of much of the Religious Right, but completely destroyed the credibility of the claim that Liberals adhere to situational ethics and the “ends justifies the means” while Evangelicals hold to a higher standard. What a bunch of BS!

In conclusion, I would like to state that even though my post might seem a bit harsh or bleak, the future of Evangelicalism is a big unknown at this time. There are small glimmers of hope here and there. A new generation of millennials, that identify as Evangelical, are coming up that are much more inclusive and skeptical. It is my hope they won’t listen to the likes of Beth Moore or Jerry Falwell, Jr., but think for themselves with their hearts as well as their minds.

Suggested Reading:

“American Apocalypse” Matthew Avery Suttton
“God’s Own Party” Daniel K. Williams
“Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars” Stephen Prothero

Defending Our Earthly Kingdoms and the Kingdom of God

This is the excerpt for your very first post.

I recently wandered onto the blog of an atheist because the topic interested me. The author had posted a rather vehement video of a fundamentalist Christian ranting about transgender bathrooms. The comments that followed were legitimate criticisms of Christian lack of charity towards others. I share some of their views on the issue so I posted a few comments. But this post is not about those concerns, but about building and defending kingdoms.

You see, as I interacted further I was honest about being a theist. I admit some of my interaction was clumsy, and I ended up apologizing a few times, but my intentions were good. However, it soon became clear that I was not trusted, that my presence threatened the space they had created for themselves. They had it all figured out, and really didn’t need my input. I ended up being barraged by negative comments about my theism, asked countless times to “prove” my belief set (I am a post-evangelical Pentecostal), and in general was lectured as though I was a child.

What is it about human nature that we feel the need to create our own “kingdoms,” then vigorously defend them from outsiders? Is it a primitive clan mentality, a residual behavior from prehistoric times? A fight rather than flight instinct? One reoccurring criticism of Christianity is its “cliquishness,” the seemingly endless schism and building of different religious kingdoms within the broad umbrella of Christendom, yet here was an example of a similar kind of kingdom building, but among atheists! As a philosophical minority their kingdom in the West has faced a great deal of pressure and animosity from the various religious kingdoms, as they were quick to lecture me on. Of course, just the opposite holds for Russia, Cuba, North Korea and China where atheism holds court and religious kingdoms are systematically persecuted.

One of the immediate attractions for me of Progressive Christianity was its openness. It was a broader stream of thought than what I was used to in Evangelicalism. Less about theological certitude, and more about the work of the Kingdom of God. What turned me off to much of conservative Christianity was the similarity to the attitudes presented by those atheists on that blog. “I’m right, your wrong, if you want to play with us, you have to think like us, use the same lingo and hate what we hate.” In other words, I didn’t see much difference between the atheist blog, than say, the rantings of John Piper. Petty kingdoms had been built, and were to be defended.

Jesus called us to build a radically different kind of kingdom. A kingdom where the rules of mankind’s thinking were turned upside down. Where the poor were lifted up rather than oppressed, where greatness was not determined by wealth or prestige, where weakness could be strength, where everyone, no matter what their talents, plays an equal role. This is the inclusive kingdom I am striving to learn more about and become invested in.

In the posts that are to follow I hope you will join me as I attempt to explore this upside down Kingdom of God and what I believe it means for us today 2 millennia after Christ’s resurrection. I hope to learn from our interaction and grow as a ethically responsible Christian in a world where the Good News is not always portrayed as Good News.

God Bless,
Kirk