“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Galatians 5:1
“A Christian is the most free lord of all and subject to none; and at the same time a Christian is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to everyone.” Martin Luther
I’ve been thinking a lot about freedom in light of the most recent presidential election.
Freedom is such a priceless gift. It is the longing of every human being. But I grew up in a time in this country when if you were black your freedom was precarious at best, and if you had the courage to stand on the meaning of your freedom, you could lose your life.
On a Sunday morning after worship at Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem I remember a conversation with a Palestinian doctor who was talking about going through the check points set up by the Israelis. I asked him, “What do you do when you are asked to go through those check points?” His response aroused in me a deep sadness. He said very matter of factly, “I hang my head, and I do what is asked of me, what is expected of me.”
As I listened to the rhetoric of the campaign over these last several months some of it ugly, some of it reminding me of a time that I thought we were long past, I thought of those who grew up as I did in a place where it was illegal to vote if you were black, where your movements were restricted and where you were often treated either by law or by custom as less than a human being.
Paul is speaking of freedom on a different level, on a spiritual level, but it is difficult for me to separate the spiritual from the physical. In fact, I think that it is dangerous to do so. The religion practiced by some faith communities in the Deep South was flawed and destructive because they chose to separate faith from what was happening in the public square.
In real terms many people shed innocent blood to gain the political freedom that I enjoy today.
The first time that I cast a ballot was when I turned 18. I have never missed since I gained the right or the privilege because I am deeply conscious of the many ordinary people who fought for that right and privilege.
Paul was equally clear that God shed his blood to win our freedom. He declares elsewhere that by the blood of Jesus not only have we been set free but we have been made sons and daughters, brothers and sisters.
What have we been freed from?
Freed from sin, yes, but what does that sin look like?
The sin of racism driven by fear and arrogance that seeks to separate the human family is as powerful today as it was yesterday. And the freedom that Paul speaks about and that Luther so wonderfully captures in this great paradox is indeed a priceless and perfect gift.
The truth and the power of that freedom is a liberating freedom that we cannot afford to put in chains. It is not just freedom from but freedom for. The gift of our freedom is that we get to live for others. We get to walk in solidarity with those in our midst, those in the public square who still are not able to live in the fullness of their humanity, restricted by poverty, hunger, homelessness or political and economic injustice, we have been set free to help tear down walls so that no person should ever hang their head in shame because of their racial, religious, ethnic or sexual identity.
Whenever I think about the cross I am forced to examine my own life and to search out those things in me that would cause me not to value the worth of another human being and to ask God to crucify that thing in me. We have been set free to love each other, to heal each other and to redeem each other.
Ken Wheeler is a retired pastor. He most recently served at Cross Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Milwaukee, where he is now the director of the Bread of Healing Empowerment Ministry. He served 18 years as an assistant to the bishop of the Greater Milwaukee Synod of the ELCA.