Self-Limiting Our Freedom
by Louise Westfall
The morning scripture text is part of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the churches of Corinth, a thriving Mediterranean seaport. It’s his guidance on a matter of critical importance to the new faith communities, and about which there was considerable disagreement. A reading from the first letter to the Corinthians, in the eighth chapter at the first verse. Listen for God’s word to the church. [8:1-13]
Huh? How in the world is this text even remotely relevant to us? One of my clergy friends, an ardent vegetarian, tried to use it to urge her congregation never to eat meat, but I think that’s a stretch. If you’re a history buff, it might be interesting to know how the problem even emerged. Sacrificial offerings were common at this time, not only in private religious rituals, but even in the public arena. In neither context was the whole animal burned up — usually just a symbolic part. The rest of the animal was divided among the priests and magistrates, and whatever was left over was distributed to the people, or sold to shops for resale [from William Barclay, Commentary on the Letters to the Corinthians]. At least in Corinth, it was impossible to know whether the leg of lamb you’d purchased at the market had originally been used as an offering to one of many gods in the polytheistic culture. And for some Christians, this was akin to blasphemy, to defiling their pure faith in the one true God. For them it was more than a personal decision not to eat any meat themselves; they were deeply troubled by the public witness of fellow believers who ate without any moral compunction whatsoever. There were some who dismissed the “problem” as ridiculous because their pure faith in the one true God was not going to be affected by anything offered to an idol. They were too sophisticated and no doubt communicated a sense of intellectual superiority over the poor souls so limited by their unenlightened theology. As a saying I’ve heard a lot recently has it: “Not my circus. Not my monkeys.”
… but not so fast. Though the particular issue doesn’t translate into contemporary life, the apostle’s words provide important guidance for us, members of a religious tradition that affirm individual conscience above church authority, and citizens of a nation in which personal liberty is a founding principle. Part of our sacred heritage is the courageous witness of Martin Luther, faced with excommunication and potential martyrdom: I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. American patriot Patrick Henry’s defense of armed resistance against the British colonizers — Give me liberty, or give me death — led to revolutionary war and the birth of our nation.
Yet in both church and society, freedom is tempered by the common good. The rule of law limits freedom and sets parameters for practice and behaviors, while seeking to guarantee individual rights. There’s always a dynamic tension between the two. In this text, the apostle offers guidance for resolving the tension in ways that build up the individual and the community.
We seem to be in a season when individual liberty is elevated above almost anything else, and we want to put great distance between ourselves and the messy, complicated circus of community life. So, for example, the individual mandate for health insurance — necessary to balance risk across populations that include healthier and less-healthy individuals — has been eliminated. Why would a so-called “young invincible” shoulder some of the medical costs of a middle-aged smoker? If Medicaid is expanded to cover those living in poverty, I might have to pay more. If gun laws are imposed to regulate the sale of semi-automatic weapons, magazine capacity, or ownership requirements, my freedom to own guns may be curtailed. When I first became a minister, clergy were permitted by law to opt out of Social Security on religious grounds (something about God taking care of you, not the secular state). That choice was tempting, frankly, just starting out, with graduate school loans to repay, and retirement far off in an unimaginable future. But my mother reminded me that it wasn’t just about me. You’re part of a wider community and you have responsibility to care for its members and provide a measure of security now and in the future. My mother’s words echo those of Coretta Scott King who assessed the greatness of a community as being most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members. And lest you think this be a partisan perspective, hear how Speaker of the House Paul Ryan put it during one of the recent budget debates: Every successful individual knows that his or her achievement depends on the community working together.
This self-limiting freedom is not simply necessary on a civic level. In the Presbyterian Church, we pay a kind of “tax” on each member — $30 this year. We don’t get to determine directly how this money is used — it sustains the mission and ministries of the church through structures, programs, policies, and offices affecting the whole. We don’t always agree with “their” decisions either, but we are grateful to be connected to a wider faith community with a shared commitment to doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God. We limit our freedom as a congregation in order to build up the whole church.
Friends, this self-limitation is part of our life together. We are to act in consideration of other people, particularly ones who are more vulnerable. The apostle defers the “rights” of individuals on behalf of ones he calls “weaker.” He acknowledges that the believers who eat the sacrificial meat are “correct” in their understanding that it doesn’t offend the one true God. But he suggests there’s something larger at stake here than being “right.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. We have to move our ego out of the way to focus on strengthening the community of which we part.
On this day when we ordain and install leaders for our congregation, it seems important to remember this message. The newly-elected elders and deacons have outstanding skills and smarts. They bring experience and passion, and are eager to make a difference. Together, I pray we fulfill our ordination promises to serve with energy, intelligence, imagination … and first and last of all, with love. That’s my prayer for the whole church.
May God help us balance our rights and individual freedom with self-limiting constraint in the name of love. The tension will always be there. We may sometimes disagree about which dynamic to emphasize or the resolution to which it leads. But the witness of our faith suggests approaching the tension from expressions of love that include humility (and the amazing concept that we might not know it all!), openness to learning from one another, consideration of the needs and sensitivities of people who are our brothers and sisters … and kindness.