The second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence begins by saying, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” While American’s regard this statement as gospel truth, that which serves as the foundation for American life, Christians should recognize that this statement itself is misunderstood and incoherent.
Let’s assume for argument sake that the Creator spoken of is the God we read of in the Bible. Of course, the moment we make such assumption is the moment we have a problem with the American ideal of freedom. That’s because the idea of autonomy in which we, as creation, are free to live independently from our Creator is wrong. Yet, this is exactly the course in which America has pursued freedom from the beginning. The very next line of the Declaration of Independence reads, “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…” In other words, the so-called self-evident truths of life, liberty, and happiness, are secured and sustained by human self-governance. Yet since we are speaking about truths that are allegedly endowed by the Creator revealed in the Bible, when we turn back to that creation story we find a very different perspective regarding creation and freedom.
Retracing Our Beginning
In the Genesis creation narrative, we learn that we are created in the image of God and not only given rule over the rest of creation but also told to multiply (cf. Gen 1:26-31). The purpose here is about participating with God in caring for his creation with such stewardship that creation flourishes and grows as God desires.
However, God is not a dictator who will force himself upon us who bear his image. Instead he gives us much freedom, including the freedom to make our own way — which we have done to our own peril. But this freedom was never meant as autonomy. God told us in the garden that we were free to eat of every tree except this strange tree known as the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (cf. Gen 2:15-17). That’s because knowing good and evil, becoming the judge of what is right and what is wrong, belongs to the Creator whose knowledge and wisdom is so expansive and just that it is beyond the comprehension of creation. Our role was to work with God caring for his creation, remaining dependent upon Creator to sustain life.
Yet that is not how the story unfolds. We were told the original lie, that we could become just like God. So rather than living dependent upon our Creator for life, we sought independence by eating of that one tree and trying to become like God in order that we might gain his knowledge and forge ahead as autonomous creation (see Gen 3). The results weren’t nearly what we expected, as we became fearful of one another and so preoccupied with ourselves that we were willing to kill one another in order to try preserving our existence.
The Original Lie Continued
Fast forward many, many years into the relatively short existence that America has forged for itself. The great thing about bearing the image of God is our capacity build a suitable life for ourselves. With some notable exceptions, America has done just that. However, Americans have also bought into the original lie and believed that freedom is human autonomy, choosing to live independent of our Creator. This idea of human autonomy in America is pushed even farther, expressed as individualism. Under the rights of the constitution, each individual is free to live as they wish so long as it doesn’t cause any harm to another person (and even that qualifier is inconsistent).
This idea of American freedom is deceptively attractive because it appears to work so long as everyone has the same basic values and moral framework. However, somewhere in the middle of the twentieth-century the homogeneity that existed in America, that was maintained by a largely White power-class, began disappearing. Rather than any single culture defining who Americans are, the nation is comprised of many cultures. However, since the foundation of American freedom is anchored in human autonomy, meaning that every individual is free to express themselves as they see fit, there isn’t any higher authority what is right or wrong. Any appeal to God or some other type religious authority is immaterial to a nation who has charted a course of freedom based on human autonomy.
Jesus and the gospel he brings is the truth that sets us free… from the original lie which enslaves us…
While secularists may laud what appears as progress to them, this notion of autonomous individual freedom is now descending into chaos that is ultimately unsustainable. For example, in Missouri, a transgender student with male anatomy insists that his/her freedom to identify and dress as a girl should allow her to change clothes in the girls dressing room, which does not sit well with other students and parents (understandably so). Elsewhere across America, in what should be painfully obvious, we have a problem with gun-related violence yet any talk of considering new laws that would place more restrictions on certain types of guns and implement more regulation upon gun ownership is opposed by lobbyists trying protect the individual rights of gun owners. And then there is the story of Kim Davis, a clerk in Rowan County, Kentucky who has been jailed for refusing to issue marriage certificates to same-sex couples even though same-sex marriage is now legal. I’m not trying to take sides on either of these examples, I’m just pointing out the chaos that the American idea of freedom is descending into.
The Gospel and Human Freedom
The idea of American freedom, autonomous individual human independence, is imploding. I’m far from being even close to being an amateur expert on Friedrich Nietzsche but America is certainly beginning to look a lot like the Nietzschean will to power. Unfortunately, there are too many Christians who believe in the American idea of freedom and champion the idea as though it is from God. It’s not! As we have seen, if we take the biblical story seriously, our freedom was never intended as human autonomy and it never will be. Jesus and the gospel how brings is the truth that sets us free (cf. Jn 8:32) but that freedom is freedom from the original lie which enslaves us — the notion that we can live independent of God. So through the death and resurrection of Jesus, God sets us free again by reconciling us to himself and each other as one new creation. This new life in Christ, says the apostle Paul, is the freedom to live life by the power of the Holy Spirit (cf. Gal 5:11-26).*
Can we see the truth? Rather than individual autonomy, our life in Christ, which is lived by the power of the Spirit, is a communal life lived under the reign of God and that happens in the church of Jesus Christ. In particular, it happens in the local church which is a community that God places us among. This is where we learn how to live as new creation, participating with God in his mission of restoring life so that it may flourish as he has created life for and celebrating this life to the glory of God. Yet as long as the American story of individual autonomy is the story that shapes our imaginations, we will continue absorbing the gospel into the American story. This is why we must hear the gospel told scripture (particularly preaching and teaching) and Christian tradition, though baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and by engaging in the gospel as we gather together for worship, fellowship, and ministry. This is how we are formed to live as an embodiment of the gospel, as a living reality of what is true and what is true freedom!
May we receive the blessings of God and learn to live freely in Christ by the power of the Spirit!
* I’ll return to writing specifically about the way in which local churches learn to live by the power of the Holy Spirit with my next post.