Sunday, March 6, 2011

True Freedom: Freedom in Faith

The readings from the 9th Sunday in Ordinary Time are an "exercise in contrasts" that serve as an opportunity to explore an important and relevant theme of life (especially for American Christians): the notion of freedom. The second reading from Paul's Letter to the Romans highlights the fact that God's gift of salvation in Christ is totally free, is extended to us apart from our worthiness, and is dependent only on faith (Romans, 3:21-25, 28). In the Gospel (7:21-27), Jesus teaches that not everyone who says, "Lord, Lord" nor even those who do mighty deeds in the Lord's name will necessarily enter the Kingdom. Only those who do the will of the Father (i.e., those who live by faith). The exercise in contrasts consists of Paul telling us that God's gift of salvation is unconditioned by what we do and Jesus instructing his hearers that one must do the will of the Father in order to be citizens of the Kingdom. The bridge between the two is the concept of faith and, furthermore, practically living out one's freedom in faith.

Faith is not something that is lived out in a cultural vacuum. It takes root, and is either stymied or nurtured, precisely in part by the cultural values that swirl around us. One of the predominant US cultural values that can nurture or stymie faith is the value of freedom. We hear this word constantly in our culture, in media, advertising, social and political forums, in day-to-day conversations, it is a word that is extremely diffuse in our society. Yet, we may be unaware of how the cultural approach to freedom conditions our faith and either harms it or emboldens it. While there are many particular expressions of freedom, three come immediately to mind that can stymie or nurture one's ability to live the Christian faith fully in true freedom. The first is freedom of choice. This value can stymie faith when it is taken to mean that all choices are equal. We obviously know, for example, in surfing the internet, that not every site builds up our faith in the beauty of life and the goodness of humanity - some sites are downright dehumanizing! This value, however, builds up faith when we make discerning choices in light of the Gospel, understanding that they directly impact who we are and who we become.

A second value is self-assertion. It becomes an obstacle to faith when one asserts one's self over and against others. Think about last week's Supreme Court ruling securing a certain Christian sect's right to protest at service member's funerals (not protesting war, but protesting against what they believe are the moral ailments of our culture). Their so called exercise of "freedom", has actually enslaved them to hatred, bias, prejudice, and imposing themselves in a way that is quite emotionally damaging to the families of the dead service members. The freedom of self-assertion nurtures faith when it emboldens the dignity of a person or a group of persons and moves them to work for change in our society (think of Women's Suffrage or the Civil Rights Movement). Finally, there is the freedom of self-entitlement. It is detrimental to faith when it results in persons believing they have an absolute right to their time or wealth as if they were the complete masters of their own fate. Do you think that an over-aggrandized sense of self-entitlement might have had something to do with our current economic crisis? In it's healthy expression, this value nurture's faith when a person has the understanding that self-entitlement applies to all persons: everyone should have equal access to what is needed to live a fully human life.

Whether or not we are people of faith largely depends on what we do with our freedom. A case in point of a person who illustrates how true freedom is freedom lived in faith is Dr. Paul Farmer. Farmer graduated from Duke University and than went on to earn an MD and PhD in cultural anthropology from Harvard. Talk about someone who had had the world in the palm of his hand and could have chosen whatever he wanted for a career and lifestyle, asserted himself for his own gain, or given in to a sense of self-entitlement! Nevertheless, Farmer chose a life of freedom of faith by going to Haiti, Rwanda, and depressed areas in Russia to put his gifts wholly at the service of the poor. He also founded Partners in Health, a global healthcare initiative that not only seeks to serve the poor, but to change the conditions that keep them from having access to adequate healthcare. To experience the power of Christ's salvation in our lives, and to experience true freedom, doesn't imply doing exactly what Dr. Paul Farmer did (few of us have the gifts he does). Rather, it simply means opening our lives, and our sense of freedom, to a much larger, needier reality and responding with the gifts that we do have by exercising our freedom so that others bereft of the freedoms we take for granted might experience the saving love, light, and life of God. Pat, TOR