Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Delineating Political and Spiritual Hope

Where is the line?

When believers in Christ talk about "freedom," we like to think there are two kinds.  Especially American evangelicals.  There's freedom from legalism and sin, and then there's political freedom.  And we like to think that God wants us to have both kinds.

But does He?  The Bible teaches that Christ came to free us from our sins and the legal ramifications of the Old Testament Law.  But there is also a fine line that we usually want to cross between hoping for spiritual freedom, and political freedom.  Except that line isn't easy to find.  It's there, of course, but even if we find it, does God ever guarantee that we'll be able to cross it?

In the current issue of World magazine, Presbyterian missionary Jonathan Eide tells of how the search for that line is currently underway among Ukrainian evangelicals, where Christians are of two minds when it comes to the anti-government protests taking place in Kiev.

“Some have called Ukraine the Bible Belt of the former Soviet Union,” he tells reporter Jill Nelson. “Now this country has come to the question of hope and the difficult task of separating political hope and spiritual hope.”

It's a battle not just over politics and power, but the extent to which believers in Christ can be disenfranchised in systems of politics and power, yet remain respectful of their national leaders.

Frankly, although I'm sad that our brothers and sisters in Christ are faced with increasing violence and civic upheaval in this former Soviet bloc country, I'm heartened to hear that this dialog about freedom is taking place there.  Nelson reports that older evangelical leaders in Ukraine don't consider their country's political situation to have yet reached the point where they can condone rebellion.  However, younger Ukrainian evangelicals say they can't submit to political leadership that could strip them of their ability to openly serve God.

Freedom Isn't Free, or Sometimes, Even Freeing

Which brings up an excellent question:  where's the point at which we risk losing our ability to honor God without compromising His mandate that we honor the rulers He's put in place?  As followers of Christ, we are to recognize the authority of those God has placed in governance over us, and we are to submit to that authority, so long as what they tell us to do does not contradict His Word.  Particularly as Americans, we bristle at that word, "submit," and oftentimes, we may act like we're submissive while harboring belligerence in our hearts.  But push is coming to shove - literally - in Ukraine.  Where is the line between submitting to one's political rulers, and submitting to our eternal Ruler?

It's a question that we Americans have not always answered Biblically.  While most of the Pilgrims may have come to the New World seeking a freer environment in which to practice their religion, America's Revolutionary War was not a battle over religious rights.  And it's difficult to justify it Biblically.

Technically, it was a war for freedom, yes; but it was freedom from England's narcissistic royalty and punitive taxes for which America's patriots fought.  Religious freedom was a plank in the platform for the Bill of Rights, but that was as much to relieve Americans from primary patronage to the Church of England as it was to pacify all of the factions of Christendom that had been fighting amongst themselves for nearly a century in the colonies.

The religious freedom for which some in Ukraine have begun to revolt represents a far more literal definition of the term.  Apparently, there is real and valid concern that their president, Viktor Yanukovych, may severely curtail religious rights during his power grab, although for now, his muscle-flexing seems more political bravado than religious intolerance.  However, if he manages to deepen Ukraine's allegiance with Russia, which is about his only current ally, such a scenario hardly bodes well for Ukraine's Christians, since missiology experts have been predicting the re-closing of the iron curtain under Vladimir Putin's churlish totalitarianism.

Still, even under Putin, religious freedom enjoys an approximation of respect.  Putin fancies himself a patron of the Russian Orthodox Church, which while itself isn't exactly a bona-fide guarantee of freedom of expression and speech, with which religious freedom plays an integral part, it's better than the atheistic brutality of Communist ideology.  The worship of Almighty God has flourished under far less "free" rule than Putin's Russia, and indeed, Yanukovych's Ukraine.

The question is whether Ukraine's revolutionists are correct in detecting that religious oppression is indeed on the horizon.  If it is, then crossing that line between political and spiritual hope may come sooner rather than later.  It's something for which we Westerners need to be praying.

The Bible, on Freedom

On the one hand, it might be enough for some American evangelicals to appreciate through a generic political lens the struggle unfolding in Ukraine.  Freedom, political freedom, religious freedom, it's all the same, and it's all important.  After all, Christ came to make us free.  We are free indeed!  Anybody who fights for freedom wages a just war, according to this churchified doctrine.

Except, of course, such a doctrine isn't entirely true, although it borrows some similar terminology from the Bible.  Consider, for example, Christ's teaching about Himself in Luke 4:

Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside.  He taught in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.  He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom.  And he stood up to read.  The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him.  Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:  "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."  Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down.  The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing."  - Luke 4:14-21

Now, if Christ was talking about political freedom, freedom of religion, and civil rights, which of these did He accomplish on that day when He spoke about fulfilling this scripture?  Did He bring about political freedom, religious freedom, and civil rights during His time on Earth?  Has it happened fully and universally at any time since then?  In fact, when we get to Heaven, we will live in God's perfect presence, which is a Kingdom.  A monarchy!

Democratic republics will pale in comparison.

Still, a lot of American evangelicals find patriotic fervor from the Apostle Paul's famous "freedom" section in Galatians 5, where he writes, "it is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery."  Boy, that sure sounds like civil rights and political liberation, doesn't it?  But when we read on, we learn that Paul is talking about being a slave to the law - the Old Testament Law.  In verse 4, he warns, "you who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace."

How can we be sure Paul isn't talking about freedom from oppressive governments?  Because he clearly points out that he's talking about being free from oppressive legalism instead!  "You, my brothers, were called to be free," he exhorts in verse 13.  "But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.  The entire law is summed up in a single command: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"

Hmm... how many patriotic, evangelical Americans love their neighbors as themselves?

According to Strong's Concordance, the Greek word for "freedom" Paul uses here is eleutheroo, which means to deliver or make free from sin, the Old Testament Law, or the bondage of corruption.  For Christ's use of the term in Luke 4, "freedom" can be interchanged with liberty, release, and deliverance, depending on the translation.  It comes from the Greek word aphesis, which means all of those things, particularly in the context of debts and sin.

Revolt or Refrain?

The American Revolution may have involved debts, but those debts were in the form of taxes, which Christ instructs His followers to render to Caesar.  America's First Great Awakening, a religious revival of sorts that spread among colonists who were dissatisfied with the Church of England, helped to create the mentality of war as a sort of revivalist reclamation of Biblical freedoms from an official religious institution.  Yet that was likely more of a contrived political convenience than anything else.  You see, the idea that a state church inhibited personal expression, and wasn't essential to good governance, combined with widespread frustration with England's heavy taxes and royal heavy-handedness to fuel revolutionary fervor in the colonies.  Meanwhile, religious freedom was never in jeopardy, and the Crown was not forcing people to deny the deity of Christ.

I am proud to be an American, and I enjoy the many benefits being an American affords me, but I'm careful not to justify all the political and economic aspects of our country's history as being God-honoring or motivated by sound theology.

Apparently, in Ukraine, that is a similar concern some Christians harbor.  Are we justified in participating in a revolution if our government is forcing us to abdicate our faith?  How comfortable have we become with the status-quo as Ukraine has slowly emerged from under the shadow of the Soviet Union?  How dependent are we on the way our current government sustains our lifestyle?  To what degree may the lack of economic opportunity be clouding our judgment, when God promises to provide all of our needs, regardless of the type of economic system we have?  How much have we bought-into the provincial American ideal that personal freedoms are worth dying for?  How much do we appreciate the fact that we couldn't die to free anybody from the Old Testament Law - Christ had to do that for us?

I'm no expert on Ukrainian politics, nor would I pretend to give my Christian brothers and sisters in Ukraine advice on how they should view the conflicts taking place in their homeland.  May God give them wisdom and bounty from the Fruit of the Spirit as they seek to be disciples in such a troubled time.

Freedom is often misunderstood, especially by people who find the themes of freedom and liberty running liberally throughout the Bible.  That makes it all the harder to find the line that we're free to cross separating our respect for authority from our greater duty to God.

Perhaps Ukraine's Christians will find that line more convincingly than America's Founding Fathers did.  But if they do, it will likely come from increased oppression, not increased ease.  And after crossing that line, independence will require utter dependence upon God.

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