Freedom is a quintessentially Lutheran and American ideal. Yet as ELCA members approach Independence Day, it’s important for us to acknowledge where Lutheran and American notions of freedom diverge.
A founding parent of the United States, Benjamin Franklin, said, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Franklin’s vision of liberty may inspire one to strive for complete and absolute freedom, nevertheless it should be interpreted in the context of civil life and emancipation from a colonial power. On the other hand, Martin Luther spoke of freedom in terms of liberation from something and for something. In his 1520 treatise, On the Freedom of a Christian, Luther wrote, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” As members of the ELCA, how can we reconcile this tension between our political and theological understandings of freedom?
Freedom or liberty, in a political or civil sense, is the ability to speak, act, live and think without restrictions. Therefore, in the American Revolutionary War of the 18th century, the famous Patrick Henry quotation, “Give me liberty or give me death!” shows revolutionaries believed there was no viable option but freedom. Freedom was understood by many in the 13 colonies as a gift from God. As they struggled to free themselves from the British colonial rule, the early Americans used this divine sanction to justify the American Revolution as morally righteous and virtuous. Thomas Jefferson, another founding parent, wrote of a “God who gave us life [and] gave us liberty.” Luther’s theological contribution to Christian thought and practice is reflected in this ideology, albeit, I believe the founding parents’ individualistic understanding of freedom is devoid of Luther’s concern for the well-being of others.
Luther’s understanding of freedom and liberty is grounded on his understanding of God’s grace. He would agree with Jefferson that God gave us life and freedom. Yet Luther would argue that Christians are freed from sin, death and the devil—the realities that get in the way of our communion with God and each other. Moreover, he believes we are freed from this trinity of evil for the sake of the world.
While he might agree with our founding parents that freedom is a gift from God that enables us to experience life without restrictions, Luther would ask, who benefits from our liberty? For Luther, the answer is our neighbors, not ourselves. We are no doubt beneficiaries of God’s gift of freedom, but, as I have heard in some congregations, “we are blessed to be a blessing for others.” This concern for others, in Luther’s view, is not limited to the welfare of the nation but rather the whole world. Therefore, Christians have been called by God in baptism to serve in the nation in which they live but not at the expense of other nations or peoples. Just like we are called to be subject to all, for their sake, we are freed in our baptism to proclaim in word and deed the cosmic love of God for all nations.
Luther would ask who benefits from our liberty. For Luther, the answer is our neighbors, not ourselves.
Luther started his critique of the medieval Roman Catholic Church precisely because there was no freedom of conscience and thought within the ecclesiastical structures at the time. Here lies another parallel between the Reformation and the American Revolution. The pursuit of freedom to openly proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ led Luther to question the indulgences and the authority that sanctioned them. His concern though, was not just about individual rights but about the purity of the church’s ministry and practice. Luther, like American revolutionaries, raised his voice against an oppressive institution.
Luther believed freedom is a gift from God, not just for our sake but for the sake of the world. As Lutherans, we believe we are free so that we can free others. We are called to experience this freedom of movement, thought and speech so that others within our nation and abroad may also experience joy, happiness and the pursuit of freedom. But we need to be mindful that freedom, or our version of freedom, is never meant to be imposed on others. If we do, we become agents of slavery and domination.
This Independence Day, let us celebrate freedom as Luther would have us … not with fireworks but by serving our neighbors with a faith active in love. Amen.