I hear a lot of talk about freedom in our current pandemic situation where people do not want to accept mandates to wear masks or be vaccinated to hold a job or participate in a function. I don’t want to discuss that for the moment because I believe this reflects a different understanding of freedom than how I understand freedom as a Christian. When we discuss things from different premises, we often end up talking past each other–no wonder we disagree.
As a Christian, I understand freedom as freedom from and freedom to. Fundamentally the uses of freedom from in the Bible are either freedom from human bondage or freedom from sin. In the Old Testament, the outstanding case was the liberation of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. Exodus 20:2, the prologue to the Ten Commandments says “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (NIV). Even here, we see they are freed from Egyptian bondage for a relationship with God.
The other form of bondage is that to sin. The singular “sin” refers to the fundamental approach that says to God, “not thy will but mine.” Bondage to sin means a life of running from God, living under the tyranny of self, broken relationships with others, and the abuse of creation, fouling our own nest as it were. In one of the most famous passages, often misappropriated, Jesus said:
Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?”
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:32-36, NIV)
Jesus says elsewhere that the truth that sets free is “to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:29) or in the immediate context, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples” (John 8:31). Jesus says real freedom comes in believing and obeying him.
That brings me to the freedom for. Real freedom is to be freed for right relationships: with God, with ourselves, with each other, and with the creation. Instead of rebelling against and running from God, we love God and believe that our highest joy is found in “knowing and glorifying God forever.” Instead of seeing ourselves at the center of the universe, we find that our greatest dignity is living as beings who reflect the character of the God who is. It is a great relief to realize that God is God and we are not. When I realize I’m not the center of the universe, I can get along better with others. When we accept that we are creatures entrusted with the care of a creation that belongs to the God who made us, we cherish what he made and seek its flourishing. We gain freedom from poisonous water, polluted air, unhealthy food, and, hopefully, a climate out of control. And other creatures of God gain their lives.
Paul’s letter to the Galatians may be called the manifesto of Christian freedom. Here is what he says our freedom is for:
You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
Paul says that our freedom in the society of people comes not in seeking our personal wants but rather seeking for our neighbor what we want for ourselves. He observes that self-seeking at the expense of others is an exercise in mutual destruction. It deeply troubles me that people cloak this disregard of neighbor in an assertion of personal freedom against “tyranny.” Paul wrote these words under the tyranny of Rome that would one day take his life. The use of “tyranny” in our context is an insult to the sacrifice of martyrs to real tyranny around the world.
As I think about our present moment, freedom means freely choosing to do all I can to protect others from being infected by COVID. Masks block the spread of the virus to others. The vaccine can sometimes prevent infection, or if not, make me less infectious to others. No one has to require these of me. If they prevent my neighbor from getting sick, even if I do, that is love for my neighbor.
These verses challenge me in my response to those who differ. My temptation is to belittle their decisions, which I believe endanger themselves and others. I think my belief warranted, but my belittlement or angry reactions are also indulgences of the flesh and a form of biting and devouring. Where I have done this, I am in the wrong.
But I do want to question my Christian brothers and sisters who refuse to wear masks or receive vaccinations, despite their safety, for reasons of personal freedom, to explain how this freedom takes precedence over the love of neighbor and the humble service of others. I would love to know how you believe this is both love of God and neighbor for which you have been freed in Christ. I honestly would like to understand how an assertion of personal freedom that puts at risk the freedom, health, and possibly life of another is consistent with freedom in Christ. In our present situation, I am deeply concerned that this especially puts the children Jesus loves, and those with other illnesses, at greater risk.
My discussion is not with those who do not share my faith commitments but with those who say they do, who say they follow Christ. It seems to me that you are embracing a worldly rather than Christian definition of freedom. My concern is that when we embrace the worldly, we move away from right relationship with God, ourselves, our neighbors, and the world. Instead of freedom, we return to an embrace of bondage. That is even more deadly than COVID. I dare to raise these concerns not merely out of concern about a disease, but out of concern that you renounce the freedom that is in Christ for a poor substitute.