Why Christians Need to Quit Whining about Freedom of Religion


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Rockwell, Freedom of Worship 1943.jpgWhy Christians Need to Quit Whining about Freedom of Religion

September 23, 2013

By Derek Penwell

Freedom. Good word. Who doesn’t love “freedom” … at least in the abstract?

Conceptually, “freedom” flourishes as an abstraction. After all, who’s for “captivity,” “confinement” or “oppression?” Freedom wins by not being those crappy, hard-to-swallow concepts that have to do with limiting people’s choices.

However, for all practical purposes, freedom in American cultural life feels adolescent. It means something like: “Nobody gets to tell me what do do.”

Properly understood, freedom is the path out of bondage. “Free at last! Free at last!”

Indeed, Jesus’ MO in pursuit of justice is release of the captives — those imprisoned by the forces of a system that too often punishes the powerless.

People oppressed because they were born the wrong color or the wrong gender, because they originated from countries we look down on or from parents lacking the good sense to be middle-class, people oppressed because they don’t share the same mental or physical capacities as everyone else, or because they happen to love the wrong people … all look longingly to freedom as the handmaiden of justice. For those who’ve felt the heavy boot of subjugation on their necks, freedom from that boot is the goal.

“Freedom from … ” is rightly a powerful impulse in those from whom freedom has been systematically withheld. Disturbingly, though, I find that same impulse among those who’ve otherwise lived so long off the fat of the land — people for whom real freedom has never been much of an issue. American Christians, in particular.

But come on. The cry that “my freedoms are in jeopardy” just sounds like whining to the rest of the world when it comes from people who’ve historically occupied the cultural driver’s seat.

In the state of Kentucky, where I live, more than half of the population self-identifies as “Christian adherents” (i.e., those associated with a church). However, this spring the legislature passed HB 279 a piece of legislation stating “that government shall not burden a person’s or religious organization’s freedom of religion.” In effect, the law would “allow Kentuckians to ignore laws that they feel place an undue burden on their religious beliefs.

In commenting on the need for such legislation Rep. Stan Lee (R-Lexington) said, “There have been attempts to take God out of everything. They want to take God out of the Pledge of Allegiance.”

Without taking the trouble to spell out exactly who “they” are, an incredulous Rep. Lee asked, “Can you believe that? You don’t think your religious freedom’s under attack?”

What’s got everybody’s knickers in a twist in our majority Christian state? Fairness laws that prohibit discrimination against LGBT people in employment, housing, and public accommodation. In other words, the legislation supersedes fairness laws, and now permits people to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, simply by claiming the freedom of sincerely held religious belief.

Because, you know, the existence of Christianity is fragile in Kentucky.

“But if we’re not vigilant in protecting our freedoms, Christians in our state may be forced to be kind to people we disapprove of.”

But here’s the thing: Freedom, when used by Christians in America, often appears to be merely an attempt to retain the privileges of power against the predations of the powerless. (They’re cagey, you know, the powerless. Always trying to wrest justice from the righteous hands of those in control.)

Look, freedom from oppression is an honorable pursuit. But the pursuit of freedom from accountability for oppression by those already at the top of the food chain is projection (at best) or bald cynicism (at worst).

The irony is that the freedom toward which Jesus points isn’t so much a freedom that liberates us from the obstacles that prevent us from finally following our own interests, but a freedom that liberates us from ourselves so that we might finally have the resources to serve the needs of others. Jesus is freest, after all, on the cross.

The message of Jesus — especially to those who already enjoy a historically unprecedented amount of freedom — points toward a “freedom to…”

Those with great privilege are now “free to” forget their own needs and look toward the needs of others. Christians in America, because of the great advantages they enjoy, are freed up to be concerned about the poor, the homeless, the voiceless, those on the fringes of the social playing field.

True freedom for those who follow Jesus isn’t about putting up Christmas displays on municipal property; it isn’t about “keeping God in schools”; it isn’t about making sure America remains a “Christian nation”; and it certainly isn’t about retaining the right to step on the necks of undocumented workers or Muslims or LGBT people or anybody else who threatens your ability to say and do what you want without being challenged.

True freedom for those who follow Jesus is being given the opportunity, no matter how much it costs, to love those whom Jesus loves.

This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

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About Derek Penwell

Derek Penwell is an author, editor, speaker, and activist. He is the senior minister of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and a former lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities. He has a Ph.D. in humanities from the University of Louisville. He is the author of The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World, from Chalice Press, about how mainline denominations can avoid despair in an emerging world. He currently edits a blog on emergence Christianity, dmergent.org, and blogs at his own site at derekpenwell.net.

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