Thursday, February 20, 2014

Whose Freedom Is To Die For?

Is democracy inherently righteous?

If it is, then we should fight to the death for it, right?

But we don't, do we?  Look at all of the misery being inflicted upon the citizens of North Korea, for example, a country full of people who have no idea how enslaved they are to their ruling family's despotism.  If freedom by democracy is so virtuous, why aren't we signing up to go over there and fight for the freedom of North Koreans?

Okay, so maybe we're not obligated to provide every resident of this planet with democratic freedom.  At least, that's what we seem to be reminding ourselves when we consider our options regarding places like North Korea.  It's kinda hard to free a people group who don't know what freedom is, right?  Besides, there's plenty of other action to watch around the world, as different societies seem to be struggling for the same thing:  freedom.  Democracy.  Human rights.  From Venezuela to Ukraine to Thailand and beyond, people are protesting against their established governments, arguing for their version of freedom.

There are, after all, at least two sides to every story.

Yet, if we're not careful, might we risk oversimplifying these conflicts?  And if we're born-again, evangelical Christians, might we risk ascribing to the fight for freedom and democracy an imperative God never Himself bestows?

In other words, is the concept of political freedom truly worth dying for?

Life, Liberty, and Pursuit

We've seen the violence live on the Internet and television from Kiev, where at least 70 protesters have reportedly died just in the past couple of days.  In Venezuela, protesters report that during these same couple of days, at least three young demonstrators have been killed by the police.  In Thailand, four protesters have died, and one police officer died after being shot by a protester. 

As Americans, for whom freedom and liberty are part of our DNA, it's almost instinctive for us to rise in defense of the politically oppressed.  It's what our politicians claim we did in Vietnam, and Korea, and Kuwait, and Afghanistan, and Iraq.  And with communication technology and social media able to instantaneously connect us now to virtually any crisis spot across the globe, we're able to see and hear for ourselves these struggles for freedom as they unfold.

They seem so vital.

Yet a nagging question echoes in my brain:  what role should evangelical believers in Christ be playing in all of this political unrest?  God calls us to honor our leaders, because they're people whom He's allowed to be placed in power over us.  We're to pay our taxes, even if we don't consider them to be fair.  No Christ-follower in Bible times got to vote for anything, so democracy isn't a Biblical mandate, even if it is one of the best systems of government for allowing the Gospel of Christ to flourish.  But then again, Communist China has a flourishing church as well, even if believers must worship at the capricious whim and under the crushing totalitarianism of the state.

Why aren't we fighting for religious freedom in China?  Maybe because too many of the commodities we purchase to make our lives easier are made over there?  What makes Kiev more compelling, aside from the live video feed from their ironically-named Independence Square?  And should we support our Ukranian brothers and sisters in Christ if they decide to die for political and economic freedom?

Speaking as a white male and a lifelong American who has never known what it's like for my government, my police, and my courts to deny me my basic human rights, perhaps it's not my place to evaluate how Christians living in far less democratic societies should approach these questions.  We have the right to protest, and assembly, and free speech, and I confess to taking those rights for granted.  But then again, perhaps being an American, and seeing how hedonistic and morally-corrupt our supposedly "free" society has become, I can offer the perspective of democracy not being the panacea and elixir we like to think it is.  Taken to its fullest extent, which is what some liberals are trying to do now in the United States and much of Western Europe, the concept of human rights can come full-circle and end up actually eroding the very moral fabric of a society.  Free speech, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion can be used against themselves, as is being done right now regarding gay marriage, to create a sort of fruit-basket-turnover when it comes to rights, wants, expectations, and opportunities.
Yes, for all practical purposes, generic freedom usually offers the best model for sustained economic prosperity and cultural vitality.  Just look at the stunning difference between North and South Korea for proof.

But what is freedom, anyway?  It is simply the right to vote?  Was America truly free after the Revolutionary War, even though blacks, women, and people who didn't own land couldn't vote?  The Chinese can vote, even if all their choices come from one party.  And what about the Kingdom of God, which is a monarchy!

Then again, citizens of God's Kingdom are exhorted to fight for the oppressed, which ostensibly includes the politically disenfranchised, whether they're in a democracy, or want to be.  How far should we go in laying down our own lives for political freedom, and expecting others to do the same with theirs?  How far should we go in taking the lives of others who are acting as agents against our political freedom?

Context, History, and Motivation

Platitudes and patriotic rhetoric don't really answer these questions, do they?  Part of the reason may stem from the background we evangelical Americans have with our own country's quest for independence.  It's a quest that has been romanticized over the centuries into a pastiche of religious nostalgia and patriotic civic-mindedness.  But if we're going to talk about dying for freedom, we need to seriously consider the Biblical justification for our American Revolution.

If, indeed, there was any.  Because I have come to believe that since our religious liberties were not under attack, or our sovereignty (which didn't exist then), a war was not an appropriate Biblical response to England's control of the colonies.

Are you shocked?  Well, think about it.  Although the Pilgrims may have arrived in 1620 in search of religious freedom, by the time 1776 rolled around, a plethora of religious perspectives had joined theirs in the New World.  Doesn't that prove that at least legally, if not in practice, religious freedom was already alive and well for the patriots?  What had them literally up in arms involved England's heavy taxes, and the heavy-handedness of the Crown.  If you strip away those significant yet carnal threats to the adventurous individualism for which the New World had become known, however, we can see that the reasons for going to war against England were nothing that inhibited the genuine worship of Almighty God.  Economic prosperity and political expression are well and good, but God never promises them to us, or allows us to countermand His established governments to pursue them.

Now, don't get me wrong:  I'm proud to be an American, and I enjoy the many benefits of being one, but if I had been around in 1776, I'd have been deeply torn over whether to go and fight, and for which side.  Frankly, many colonists during that time were, too.  After all, it's one reason why there was a war to begin with.

Perhaps now you're tempted to think of me as a wussified traitor for saying such things, but believe me:  it takes a lot of guts and conviction to for me to say this about my country and its origins.  It sure would be easier if what I learned in my childhood about the Revolutionary War is what the Bible taught about honoring God and the governments He ordains.

Not that I'm a pacifist.  America's involvement in both of our world's wars were entirely justified by the attacks on our national sovereignty, and - particularly in the second - by Germany's genocide of the Jews.  With regards to national sovereignty, God allowed the nation of Israel to defend itself from invaders who sought God's dishonor.  And by its very definition, genocide denies people the intrinsic value with which God has endowed them.  In fact, it is to our shame that it took American as long as it did for us to get involved against the Holocaust, since there was considerable debate in this country as to whether American lives were worth the lives of European Jews.

Of course, that begs the question of why the world hasn't responded more decisively when governments have perpetuated genocide against certain people groups in Africa, for example.  Perhaps it's because people who are being slaughtered over there don't usually have access to social media?  And live web cams?

It isn't because they're poor, black, and marginally-educated, is it?

Then too, few sociopolitical crises either begin with or can be resolved by outside interference.  Even when we call it "intervention."  It's hard enough for people within a country to solve their problems, and often harder for people outside of it to try.  Just look at Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq as proof.  The last truly just war was America's lead in forcing Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, whose sovereignty he'd invaded back in the first Gulf War.

When it comes to a country's internal conflicts, rights and wrongs become much murkier, while culture and history instantly complicate everything.  Ukraine, for example, dates back from around the 9th Century, and Russia from the 1st, so you can imagine the monumental legacy that exists between those two countries.  It's one thing for us Americans to watch the violence unfold on our computer screens and televisions, but can we appreciate the generations of animosity, broken promises, pride, and fear that exist regarding Russia's dominance over Ukraine?

Meanwhile, in Venezuela, despite what appear to be admirable pleas for support from demonstrators, it could be argued that voters there were given plenty of warning several years ago about the choices they were making in favor of Communism and Hugo Chavez.  When that charismatic leader was wooing the poor with false promises, and manipulating class warfare within a country of extraordinary economic stratification, we anxious Americans were told that we were meddling imperialists who only wanted their oil.  So they elected him anyway, and may now be realizing that they made a horrible mistake.

That's not to say that we shouldn't help Venezuelans today, but with Americans alternately decried as villains and then beseeched as saviors, it's not hard to wonder when a nation we've tried to help in the past has to start taking long-term responsibility for its own choices.  Even if we have a hard enough time being responsible for ours!

Peace, Patience, Self-Control

So, where does that leave believers in Christ who may be watching the violence and bloodshed unfold across the world this week as demonstrators call for freedom?

Well, no matter what side of any conflict we're on, we're to pray for peace.  We're also to pursue it, though, aren't we?  And that's where the rubber hits the road.  If pursuing peace means standing in allegiance with one side of a debate or another, do we support the governmental authority, or the demonstrators? 

Personally, I don't feel I know enough about any of the demonstrations taking place this week to confidently tell anybody else who they should or shouldn't support.  As an American, I suppose it would be my patriotic duty to reflexively cheer on the demonstrators who say they want freedom, but as a follower of Christ, I'm not sure anybody protesting this week is facing a revocation of their ability to worship the God of the Bible.  It does appear that in Ukraine and Venezuela, the police are brutalizing the demonstrators, but like a lot of violence which we're not present to witness in person, we don't truly know what provokes the actions of anybody in those pressure-cooker situations.

But God does.

So I simply pray that God will guide His people in these places in His ways for His glory.  Sure, it sounds like an easy-out for me, since my life isn't on the line, nor is my personal freedom.  But God looks at the heart - and not just mine, but of everybody in every place in His Creation.  He knows our motivations, and our fears, and where our true loyalties lie.

Some people demonstrate because they're angry, or naive, or are being misled.  Others demonstrate because something they hold dear is in the balance.  A lot of people talk a lot about freedom, but don't we need to listen to the type of freedom we're talking about?  Especially if we're going to equate human life with it?

After all, one is more valuable than the other.  And I, for one, am only comfortable with God telling me which one, and when.

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