For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery….For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Galatians 5:1, 12-13).
The troubling political and cultural polarization in our nation results from a perfect storm of multiple causes. To name a few: Political operators fire up their bases by demonizing those who disagree with them. Widening income inequality separates us into haves and have-nots. Online news engines tailor our choices to our reading preferences, placing us in separate information silos that skew reality to the right for some, the left for others. On top of that, social media misinformation from Russia and other mischief-makers erodes our trust in the media and democracy. The list goes on.
What to do to make ourselves more resilient and less susceptible to these forces? Obviously, education and redoubled critical thinking must play a part, but I doubt that will suffice. We need a more humble and realistic attitude toward freedom.
We speak of freedom in the most exalted terms. Our military forces fight for our freedom. The individual with rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness stands sovereign. We stand up to anyone who would threaten our rights to have what we own and do as we please. Ironically, the very government that protects the sovereign individual’s rights also threatens them most by imposing laws with their burdens and restrictions. We divide over proposed laws to protect the freedom of some because they place restrictions on others.
Sometimes it seems that those most defensive about giving up an ounce of their own liberty to add a pound to someone else’s also most loudly declare their Christian faith to somehow bolster their claims. But if we follow St. Paul’s view of the right use of freedom, we realize that freedom takes on a whole different significance for people of biblical faith.
Paul exalts freedom too! Salute the warriors, but remember that God’s only Son died for our freedom! Yet, freedom is not an end in itself but a means to something higher: love. Spending freedom on anything but love is like wasting money in a slot machine. It was fun while it lasted, but now it is totally wasted.
We cannot be ourselves without freedom to discern our truth, speak it, and live it. But as people created in the image of God who is love, our truth is not about whatever we choose to have or indulge with our resources. It is about how we choose to love. Without love, we cannot live our truth, and our freedom goes to waste.
So Paul counsels us not to “use….freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence,” but to use it to “love your neighbor as yourself,” quoting the One who died for our freedom. Our freedom is a tool, but not for sovereign individuals so much as for beloved communities.
Sovereign individuals without beloved communities ultimately live lonely and meaningless lives, even if they win all the battles for their rights. Individuals who exercise their freedom with their neighbor’s welfare in mind march to a different drummer, but they develop a sense of Christ in the neighbor for whom they care. While the wait for the full flourishing of God’s reign may seem lonely and long at times, the freedom of walking that road is the only freedom that pays until the end. Moreover, without the right use of freedom, we have no hope for closing the widening rifts that divide us.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy….Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God (Matthew 5:7, 9).