There is hardly a more soul-stirring word in America, since the Declaration of Independence named “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is the bottom-line last word for every argument, or at least the last word for not listening to one.
In these pandemic times liberty, whether religious or personal, has been an argument against public health measures and government orders to control the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Freedom is more than an American concept. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights lists it first among “the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family,” though its last words remind us that the free have “duties to the community,” and the exercise of rights and freedoms entails securing and respecting the rights and freedoms of others.
Part of the argument in these times has been a defense of religious liberty, claiming the First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion as exempting churches (or presumably any other religious organization) from following public health orders commanding the restriction of public gatherings to 10 or 20 or 50 people.
So in these pandemic times, what does freedom mean to a Christian? Do we have anything to offer in this conversation? How shall we exercise our freedom?
Laws and commandments might seem like a strange place to start a discussion of freedom, but let’s take a look at the three commandments Jesus highlights in Matthew 22:34-40. A religious leader, who happens to be an expert on the law of Moses, tests Jesus with a question: Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?
Jesus answers, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.
Well, that should settle the freedom to worship question, shouldn’t it? Worship is one way to love God above everything else.
But in fact, God doesn’t need my worship. There is nothing I have to offer God that God needs; God needs nothing from me. God thinks that to worship is something I need. And yet worship is not about me, it’s about God, and when it becomes about me—about my experience, the feelings it gives me of peace or happiness or joy or serenity, the meaning or learning or teaching I gain; when the focus becomes my actions of praise, lament, prayer, singing, repentance, obedience, acceptance—it ceases to be about God.
It’s easy enough in worship to get caught up in ourselves and what we need. We say, “We have to meet the needs of our people,” and then worship becomes about meeting my needs. We ask, “What did I get out of this worship service?” Instead of, “What am I being sent out of this worship service to do and to be?”
But if God doesn’t need my worship, if worship is more about God’s love directed to humanity than our love directed to God—then how am I to love God?
Love Your Neighbor
Jesus continues with his answer: And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor ….
Love of God, love of neighbor—they cannot be separated. You cannot love God—you cannot worship—without concern for your neighbor. If my neighbor is hungry, then I am hungry. If my neighbor has no income, then I am poor. If my neighbor hasn’t proper health care, then all is not well.
We have no greater command right now than to love our neighbor, and to make no decision without regard first of all for her safety and wellbeing. This is what we can do now in these times (it is what we always should have been doing).
The Third Commandment…
…is not a commandment at all, but a presumption. Jesus says, You shall love your neighbor as [you love] yourself.
Jesus presumes you love yourself. In fact, you may not like yourself at all; it can be a hard thing to love oneself, and yet your self—your beloved self, the self God so loves—is always there, inescapable.
And how are you to learn to love yourself? Love of self, like love of God, is inextricably bound up with the love of your neighbor; you will learn to love yourself by loving your neighbor. We learn to love, and to be better lovers, in relationship; you cannot work on yourself by yourself, you need community, you need others. The push and rub and gift and demand and challenge and blessing of relationship to others is where we learn to be ourselves, forgive ourselves, and love ourselves.
James (1:22, 27), that old blues singer to our Christendom (not something Lutherans often quote, and yet), tells us this about worship:
But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves…. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress. In other words, our first concern is the most vulnerable among us.
And, James continues, to keep oneself unstained from the world. By which he does not mean the practice of some self-centered moralism; or pursuing righteousness as a personal possession—for again, that would be all about oneself, not about God, and no righteousness at all. Rather what James is calling for is something more like clearheaded thinking in the midst of an anxious and fearful world—to work on oneself by forgetting oneself in the community of others.
Which is to say, love your neighbor as yourself.
And you know that James will go on to say, So faith by itself, if I has no works, is dead…. Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith (2:17, 19 [14-18]). Loving our neighbor is our highest form of praise, and in that, the God who loves our neighbor as God loves our own selves, will be most highly honored.
Love in a Time of Pandemic
In times of pandemic, it is becoming increasingly clear, “Me First” is not only unfaithful, it is a bad strategy and it doesn’t work. Self-isolating and staying home are necessary ways of loving our neighbor—wearing a mask, for instance, does more to protect you than it does to protect me, unless you also will wear a mask, for my sake.
Wearing that mask when you are out in public or gathering with others is more than just a momentary responsibility. If you and I are going to gather at the park or in your backyard or your living room or at a restaurant or bar or coffee shop, or you and I and eight other people are going to meet at church—we don’t just practice good caring protocols for the 15 or 30 minutes we’re together. The easy transmissibility of this coronavirus has made it abundantly clear that you bring to that meeting every other person you have spent time with in the last couple of weeks. So loving your neighbor becomes more than just a moment’s social graces; it becomes the way you live your life, when we’re together and when we’re not. In a word, it becomes your vocation—but more on that later.
Hunkering down, building defenses, buying up groceries before somebody else does, closing ourselves off, or blaming others will not save us.
We are all in this together, we solve this together, we survive this together. We are only as strong as our weakest link in our health care system, our weakest community, our world’s weakest country, our most vulnerable neighbor.
We are Wuhan, all of us, and Wuhan is us.
If we learn nothing else from these times, it should be that we are all connected, every single human one of us across the globe. If you are looking for a mask to protect yourself, you look in vain. A vaccine will be nigh on to worthless unless it is fairly and equally and widely available to all of us. A pandemic should make clear that life, liberty, and happiness are not private possessions; they are marks of the community—the world-wide community—we build together. Love of neighbor isn’t just a pleasant sentiment for Sunday morning; it is the practical, even life-saving principle for the entire week.
What then of liberty?
Christians—perhaps especially Lutherans—know that the astonishing grace of God has set us free (Romans 8:1f; Galatians 1:3, 5:1). But let us remember that this is freedom from sin & death & condemnation, not a personal or private “I can do anything I want and you can’t stop me.’
“Individual liberty” is something of a contradiction in terms for a Christian, because Christian freedom is always the freedom to serve others. As the apostle Paul says in his letter to the Galatians, the only thing that counts is faith working through love (5:6);
And, For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another (5:6, 13-15);
And again, after talking about the fruits of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—none as personal possessions, but all as characteristics of our relationships with others—Paul says,
Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ (6:2).
And unable to leave it even at that, concludes, So then, whenever we have the opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith (6:10).
Martin Luther, who himself was a pastor during the pandemic of the Black Plague 500 years ago, offered guidance to his people and colleagues that remains both moving and relevant, especially to us now in these days, on how to live and serve in a time of pandemic. His letter, “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague,” written in 1527 at the height of the Black, or Bubonic, Plague, in response to another pastor’s request for guidance, reflects one of the most important concepts Luther ever taught about the Christian’s life of faith—The Freedom of a Christian.
And of Christian freedom Luther once wrote (in The Freedom of a Christian, 1520),
A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.
A [person] does not live for himself [or herself] alone in this mortal body to work for it alone, but he [or she] lives also for all [people] on earth; rather, he [or she] lives only for others and not for himself [or herself].
And on the consequent freedom from condemnation of self (whether by God or others or oneself) given us by God’s merciful gift:
Although I am an unworthy and condemned [person], my God has given me in Christ all the riches of righteousness and salvation without any merit on my part, out of pure, free mercy, so that from now on I need nothing except faith which believes that this is true. Why should I not therefore freely, joyfully, with all my heart and with an eager will do all things which I know are pleasing and acceptable to such a Father who has overwhelmed me with his inestimable riches? I will therefore give myself as a Christ to my neighbor, just as Christ offered himself to me; I will do nothing in this life except what I see is necessary, profitable, and salutary to my neighbor, since through faith I have an abundance of all good things in Christ.
Whatever our decisions in this time of pandemic—whether about the life and worship of our faith communities, or about our own lives of faith lived out in the daily relationships of our homes and neighborhoods, communities, states, nations, and world—freedom in Christ compels us they be governed by love for our neighbors, and to make no decision without regard first of all for their safety and well-being, and especially for the safety and well-being of the most vulnerable among us.
What would that kind of economy look like?
The economy has become a subject of concern in these pandemic times as well. Unemployment is high, and the pain this inflicts on the most vulnerable among us is great indeed. We must be concerned about the unemployed and often their loss of employer-based health coverage, struggling businesses, the rise of poverty and homelessness, and the accompanying rise of food insecurity and inadequate health care, escalating debt both national and personal—all of which also can put peoples’ lives at risk.
I’m hardly an economist and certainly don’t have the answers. But as I search for a way forward, here is what is what my faith keeps telling me.
In his treatise, The Freedom of a Christian, Martin Luther, back in 1520, said the goal of health and well-being is that “we may be able to work, to acquire, and lay by funds with which to aid those who are in need, that in this way the strong member may serve the weaker, and we may be children of God, each eating for and working for the other, bearing one another’s burdens and so fulfilling the law of Christ.” Perhaps that is an economy not so easy to reconcile with contemporary capitalist ideals, but Luther says, “This is a truly Christian life.”
A community’s economy – be that a local city, state, national, or world community – is, or should be, one of the ways we care for and love our neighbor. From a Lutheran perspective, we are likely to see economic concerns from our historic sense of the importance of human vocation.
Finding Your Vocation in Life
One’s vocation is the context in which we love and care for our neighbor. We see all people as both saint & sinner, and all their work as equally holy – whether one is a pastor, pope, bishop, president, plumber, investment advisor, real estate magnate, politician, doctor, lawyer, teacher, homemaker, student, or child – because in each and every case, vocation is directed toward meeting our neighbor’s needs.
Again, this is the freedom of a Christian—set free from sin and condemnation, loved and accepted by God, no longer a slave to our own self-justification or self-enrichment, vocation becomes the way we serve the neighbor.
From the perspective of vocation, then, the question becomes whom are we serving? Whose needs need most to be met? Vocation’s concern starts at the bottom of the pyramid of economic privilege, means, or power, not the top, and seeks first the equitable justice of the reign of God for all, an economic leveling that leaves no one out or hidden in its shadows. As the young economist Mary, mother of our Lord, sang out:
[God] has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:51-53)