The Day We Celebrate

I’ve been looking through a collection of old postcards this Independence Day and noticing just how often the liberty cap makes an appearance. The liberty cap, AKA the phrygian cap, has been a symbol of freedom since the days of ancient Rome when it was worn by freed slaves. It became an important symbol in the French Revolution, and if you know where to look, it can be seen in much American art and architecture: it’s there in the seal of the United States Senate; it’s on the head of the allegorical figure of Liberty on some of the oldest US currency; it’s at the top of the Liberty (flag) pole in Union Square in New York City; most recently it’s been showing up on the heads of people in the Occupy Washington movement.

Whenever I think of freedom, of liberty, I also think of Martin Luther, specifically his work “Concerning Christian Liberty”:

“…man does not live for himself alone in this mortal body, in order to work on its account, but also for all men on earth; nay, he lives only for others, and not for himself. For it is to this end that he brings his own body into subjection, that he may be able to serve others more sincerely and more freely, as Paul says, “None of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself. For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord” (Rom. xiv. 7, 8). Thus it is impossible that he should take his ease in this life, and not work for the good of his neighbours, since he must needs speak, act, and converse among men, just as Christ was made in the likeness of men and found in fashion as a man, and had His conversation among men.”

This being Luther, it is justification by grace through faith that produces the freedom to do good, and that freedom, that liberty is inseparable from a desire to serve and the necessity, the compulsion, to do good works, those works being good due to the faith, the grace which inspires them.

I do not expect a secular government, a republic, a democracy, or a capitalist state to subscribe to this position, but I also don’t expect people of faith to buy into the secular political system. this is why I was disappointed when the Roman church took the US government to court over “Obamacare.”

I’m not taking a position here one way or another when it comes to health care (see the quotation above) or abortion. What I am concerned with is a religious state, the Vatican, suing a secular state, the US Government. Even if the Roman church is perceived as a religious or moral body rather than a state, it seems wrong to argue a religious point through a secular system.

Henry David Thoreau comes to mind. In his work “Civil Disobedience” he argues that a government should not be permitted to overrule one’s conscience. Thoreau went to prison rather than compromise his morals. He did not take the government to court. He did not sue the government to change its laws, but rather went to prison in defense of his conscience, and he was a Transcendentalist. I’d expect no less from a Christian. I would hope that the Roman bishops, rather than kowtowing to the secular sovereignty of the government, would take an actual stand, as bishops have done for centuries before.

At no time in history has the Church bowed before a godless government. Now, however, that is exactly what Rome is doing: making its objections known in and on the terms of the secular state rather than strictly in and on the terms of moral revelation. I would think that if Rome really wanted to stand on moral ground, her bishops would be willing to face prison to defy, on moral grounds, a law that they found unjust.

Perhaps one of the reasons that Christians are supposed to visit those in prison is to stand in solidarity with Thoreau, with Saint Paul, with prisoners of conscience, as well as to bring comfort and hope to those imprisoned for crimes of desperation.

Amidst the parades, flag waving, and fireworks today, I’ll be contemplating secular freedom and the liberties that affords. I’ll also be considering the responsibility that liberty born of faith requires.



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