During the Second World War, Americans sacrificed in many ways. The United States rationed gasoline, sugar, butter, and other goods and diverted them for the war effort.
Such sacrifice was considered patriotic, part of a unified war effort to combat fascism.
Juxtapose this with the mentality of so many Americans today, whose basic response to calls for simple forms of sacrifice is: “I’m not going to wear no damn mask!”
I wonder, where did the patriotic commitment to sacrifice go? When did it become more American to assert your rights than to join in shared sacrifice to fight a common threat?
I also wonder how the dominant form of American Christianity, evangelicalism, became wedded to a political philosophy allergic to suffering.
It’s as if the clarion call of evangelicalism these last years has been the defense of religious freedom. And religious freedom defined as “don’t you dare tread on my right to assert and practice my kind of faith.”
In fact, much of evangelicalism these days perceives threat where there isn’t any, and oppression even while they dominate.
But if we look back at Christianity in its origins, religious freedom simply wasn’t a thing. The early Christians knew they were a minority movement in Israel, and a tiny sect with the Roman empire.
They were not free to practice their faith. And yet in that very context, Christians perceived themselves as most free. Free in Christ.
I believe all of this related, and I’d like to briefly illustrate how.
Let’s begin with the Beatitudes. Christians have for most of church history understood this core set of teachings of Christ to be an essential canon within the canon.
And seeing the multitudes, He went up on a mountain, and when He was seated His disciples came to Him. 2 Then He opened His mouth and taught them, saying:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn, For they shall be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek, For they shall inherit the [a]earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, For they shall be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful, For they shall obtain mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart, For they shall see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers, For they shall be called sons of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. 12 Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
If we think of freedom as a sense of not being controlled by forces outside of ourselves because of some other resource or internal disposition that orients us toward life in spite of oppression, then the Beatitudes describe beautifully what Christians mean by freedom.
We are free precisely in and through persecution, poverty, mourning, meekness, mercy, and peace.
Freedom is not established through power, wealth, happiness, pride, control, or anything that allows us to avoid struggle. Freedom is struggle.
Because freedom is found in Christ, and Christ himself did not know power, wealth, pride, control, but rather was poor, persecuted, merciful, meek, and a person of peace.
The early Christians, who arguably were less “free” than almost any religious group could be, defined in the ways religious freedom is defined by modern evangelicals, are precisely the ones who believed they were the freest.
Not because they could do whatever the hell they wanted, but because they were “in Christ.”
So, on a very basic level, many Christians in our nation are operating out of a faulty notion of Christian freedom. They’ve actually replaced freedom with licentiousness–disregard for rules, lacking restraint.
I’m thinking here of Jude 1:4: “For certain intruders have stolen in among you, people who long ago were designated for this condemnation as ungodly, who pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.”
They pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness. Like, for example, confusing the grace to co-suffer with Christ with being able to risk the death or health of your neighbor just so you can gather in a church building.
So this is the one confusion: Christians in the United States have, in large numbers, turned Christian freedom (oriented as it is, toward neighbor love) into Christian libertarianism (oriented as it is, toward the liberties of the self).
The other confusion centers around suffering itself. Scripture is rather clear that suffering for others, suffering in Christ, is a hallmark, perhaps the mark, of Christian discipleship.
So, you get something as straightforward as Romans 5:
“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we[c] boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
Notice here that grace, freedom, hope, all the freeing things, are not accomplished through the protections of the state, or through the licentious assertion of rights. No, they are in God and through God.
And then suffering itself, in that context, serves a crucial purpose. It produces endurance, which produces character, which produces hope.
This is why character matters so much, and why these days those of us who are committed to biblical Christian are concerned about the character of our leaders. Character matters. But not because of some legalistic requirement that we have to behave.
No, character produces hope. Not hope in the free market, not hope in the Dow industrial average, not hope in returning the country to some fictionally previous pristine era, but hope in God through the Holy Spirit.
This suffering is precisely how we are united with Christ in a shared co-humanity. As Ernst Käsemann states, “Jesus’ cross has not passed away on earth; it is now borne, not by him, but by us as his delegates” (74).
Or as Paul has it in Colossians 1:24: “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”
Perhaps evangelicalism and much of Western Christianity has gotten this wrong because they have hyper-focused on assent to right doctrine as the way Christians are “saved,” rather than seeing co-humanity with Christ as our participation now in the life of Christ. But as Kasemann continues, “what ultimately matters is not that we genuinely believe and defend [doctrine,] but that we accept it as a call to walk as Jesus’ disciples and to share in his death… in the school of Jesus we learn to say sincerely ‘Yes’ to the cross, and, however incredible it may sound, to bear it willingly.”
As much as the first and second amendment rights may be “sacred” in our constitutional reflections as a nation, they clearly come into stark contra-distinction with such cross-bearing.
Somehow, many Christians today have confused “take up your cross” with “take up your guns,” and they have confused the freedom to suffer with Christ with the freedom to make others suffer the practice of their peculiar “freedoms.”
Sometimes moderate Christians wade into the division illustrated by these misunderstandings of religious freedom and disregard for a shared commitment to sacrifice by saying, “We need to get past all the divisiveness.”
Well, the balm that will heal division is definitely not false equivalency, as if those suffering and bearing the cross are enduring the same burden as those asserting political power in order to maintain a bourgeoise status quo.
Real unity comes about, as was illustrated in the Second World War, through shared sacrifice, mutual aid, those divide identifying the actual powers and principalities that are harming everyone, especially “the least of these,” as Jesus identifies them in Matthew 25.
This is an enduring and helpful secular and patriotic concept: duty and sacrifice.
It is a core biblical and Christian concept, taking up one’s cross for the sake of the neighbor in their need.
Any Christianity that asserts power, claims dominance, exercises its muscle, claims the ends justify the means, and is not centered in such suffering and the cross, has lost the one thing that makes it Christian.