Lesson 2: Freedom in the Theology of the Cross

Freedom has become a big issue during the pandemic. Many politicians claim refusing to wear masks is your patriotic duty for it opposes authoritarian mandates. They call on their followers to choose to live as free people. Some water down their position  by rationalizing that the COVID virus is not as deadly as scientists maintain, but their main argument is a political one aimed at their opponents. 

Some religious figures resist governmental attempts to limit crowd size in public gatherings. They argue freedom of religion guarantees their right to worship in any way they please. They do not need to observe social distancing or guidelines about singing.

It does not take long to realize the situation has only exposed a problem that has troubled our society for some time. Political and religious groups are severely divided in their definitions of liberty. Interestingly, almost all of them  cite Martin  Luther to support their version. 

The political groups address the freedom of individuals. One believes the US constitution  guarantees free enterprise that is not limited by governmental regulations. Each person has the right and ability to make decisions for themselves.  Often politicians maintain these are inalienable God-given rights, sometimes even using Jesus’ words “If Christ makes you free, you are free indeed” to support their position. And Luther is often cited as an individual standing up to abusive authority.

The other political group defines freedom  in the context of the community, recognizing the freedom of the individual is limited by the common good. Because the  government functions  to protect the community, it can impose restrictions to slow the spread of the virus. Individuals wear masks to protect other people as well as themselves.

The  religious groups differ on what freedom of religion means. One focuses on the rights of church bodies to practice parochial beliefs even if they are against the law. This group  has become vocal in recent years in claiming the right to take governmental money for services while refusing to support abortion and same sex marriages. Roman Catholics support this interpretation of the constitution with natural law; Evangelicals use  biblical passages. Both characterize the present situation as a battle against evil in which secular humanists are out to shut down the churches. They often use Luther as the epitome of a religious person fighting for God against evil powers.

The other religious group believes the constitution simply prevents the establishment of any particular religious body. Each person is free to worship as they please without government interference. They are free to speak and act prophetically if they oppose a civil law; however, they must be willing to bear the consequences until the law is changed. 

Luther is pretty explicit where he stands. In one of his famous 1520 essays, “The Freedom of the Christian: A Treatise on Christian Liberty,” he makes two statements he claims are essential even though they seem opposed each other. “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”

His Theology of the Cross recognizes this paradox. Like Paul, Luther believes we must understand Jesus’ crucifixion as God’s ultimate act of love. It is an expression of his compassion for the world and all people. And compassion is always a willingness to suffer for another.

Christian freedom, then, is based on love, not power. My freedom is always bound up with the needs of other people. Just as Jesus freely gave himself to make me free, so I now freely give myself for others. Freedom is never only about what I want to do. 

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