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A Song for Independence Day: Christian Thoughts on ÷Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness' – Br. Mark Brown

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Mark-Brown-SSJE-2010-300x299“For freedom Christ has set us free.”  St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians. Words like freedom and liberty will be in the air this week as we celebrate Independence Day on the 4th of July.  Freedom, whatever that means, is the essence of what it means to be American and it was very much on the minds of the founders.  “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.”  Familiar words from the Declaration of Independence.   Our foundational documents and the principles they articulate with such extraordinary sonority have resonated far beyond our borders, and continue to do so. Although the founders were careful to avoid identifying the new country with any religion in particular, the roots of the idea of human freedom are in the Bible.  The story of the Exodus is about freedom from the slavery of Egypt.  Isaiah, with the spirit of the Lord upon him, proclaimed liberty for captives and release for prisoners [Is. 61:1]. Jesus said to his followers, “…you shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.” [John 8:32]

The Bible was heard and read by the founders—even by those we might not consider Christians in the strictest sense (Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, for example).  So Moses and Isaiah and Jesus have been part of the conversation about freedom for many centuries now, even if somewhere in the background.  It’s been a long conversation, over many generations.  Even the signers of the Declaration of Independence didn’t understand the full implications of the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Some immediately freed their slaves.  Washington, who did a great many things well, got around to freeing his slaves—in his will. Some were slower than that to understand.

The conversation about freedom has been a religious conversation; and a political conversation; and it continues today.  What is freedom and what does it mean?  How shall we live as free people?

Paul in Galatians: “For freedom Christ has set us free.”  The immediate context is freedom from the minutiae of the Jewish law and, specifically, the requirement of circumcision. But we might hear in these resonant words a broader context: the human condition, generally speaking. “For freedom Christ has set us free.”   The birthright of all human beings is freedom. The creature made in the image and likeness of God is born for freedom, not slavery or bondage or oppression.

But notice what Paul says a few verses later: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.” [Gal. 5:13]  You are free, he says; in that freedom, choose love; and in that love, choose to be slaves of one another.  Paul calls us to mutual love, mutual service in that love.  The mutuality, the reciprocity of that loving service is of the essence.  It is not a servile thing, but a mutuality that is appropriate to the dignity of each human being made in the image and likeness of God.

This is a reflection, by the way, of our relationship to Christ himself—who came not to be served but to serve [Mark 10:45; Mat. 20:28; John 13:1-20].  As difficult as it is to grasp, the gospel reveals God to us as one who serves us.  Yes, we are servants of God; and God, in Christ, serves us.  Again, it is the mutuality, the reciprocity that is key.  In God’s love for us and in our love for God, we and God give ourselves to mutual service of the other.

Now, to be good servants of one another—or good slaves, as Paul puts it—we must be obedient.  Mutually obedient. Reciprocally obedient.  Here I’d like to call to mind the SSJE Brothers’ Rule of Life.  The two chapters on obedience (12 and 13) very substantially expand the understanding of obedience for a monastic context and also more generally. Obedience is, as the Latin root suggests, a kind of listening, listening to the voices of authority. And there is mutuality; there is reciprocity in this kind of listening. We give certain individuals authority in some area of our common life; we are to listen to these voices of authority.  And those who are given authority are to listen to the voices of others. Listening is a key; mutuality is of the essence.  Mature Christian obedience is radically different from the blind or passive acquiescence that has sometimes characterized religious life in the past. The monastic ideal, the Christian ideal, as we try to live it, is to freely choose love, and in that love freely choose to serve one another, and for the sake of that mutual service to listen deeply to one another.

What if more people in the United States of America could embrace this kind of freedom?  The lights of this “city on a hill” would burn ever so much brighter.  But, instead, we get distracted by arguments about whether freedom means you get to carry a gun just in case someone needs to be shot.

The United States is not a Christian country and Christianity is not an American religion.  And yet the influences of Christianity on our national identity, the influences on our common aspirations are there to see. Christian values are part of our national conversation because they are human values. Life and liberty are Christian values and they are human values—although the conversation continues about what this means in practice and politically.

What about the pursuit of happiness?  Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are, according to the Declaration of Independence, among the inalienable rights of human beings.  The founders, wisely, left it up to us to define happiness. And Jesus, in his wisdom, left it up to us to figure it out.  He came so that we might have life abundant, he said—but we’re still in a conversation about what that might mean.

Words that I keep coming back to today are “mutuality” and “reciprocity”.  There is a little book in the Old Testament that is all about mutual delight, reciprocal delight.  It’s a subversive little theological statement that contradicts the whole hierarchical and patriarchal mindset of main stream ancient Jewish thought.  A kind of foreshadowing of Jesus’ assertion that we are his friends, this little book lays out a theology of mutual, reciprocal delight: God invites the human being into a relationship of mutual delight.

The little book is the Song of Songs.  On one level it is a collection of erotic poetry: a young man and a young woman singing their delight in one another. (It’s considered too risqué, I guess, for reading aloud on Sunday morning.) But from the beginning the Song of Songs has been read as a theological statement.  So I will suggest this addition to the conversation about the pursuit of happiness: happiness, insofar as it is possible, consists of mutual, reciprocal delight in one another. In the Song of Songs I think it is the mutuality, the reciprocity that is of the essence– the eroticism is secondary.  Mature, Christian happiness consists of mutual delight across the full spectrum of human relationships: familial relationships, friendly, professional, romantic, whatever. Reciprocal delight in one another. Not in wealth or status or power.

I have no idea what George Washington thought about the Song of Songs—or any of the founders.  I can imagine Benjamin Franklin getting a kick out of it. St. Paul—not so much, perhaps. But the Song, in its celebration of mutual delight, does contribute a Christian idea to the national conversation about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

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4 Comments

  1. Lynne on July 5, 2017 at 16:32

    Some of us find it rather hard to be on the “receive” end of this mutual service. Whether it’s because we don’t want to admit we can’t handle all that life throws at it, or we don’t want to be a bother to anyone else, or we don’t quite feel worthy of it, or maybe all three. I am one who is confident about serving others, but quite afraid of needing help. I was eventually admonished (gently) by my pastor that it is a blessing to others when we allow them to serve us. And it is true. I humbly suggest that admitting that we need the service of others, and that we are worthy of that service, can deepen our understanding of the grace of God in Jesus Christ. At least it has been true for me.

  2. Marilyn Coronado on July 4, 2017 at 10:57

    Thank you Br Mark. The lessons given by you and your brothers are always insightful!

  3. Polly Chatfield on July 4, 2017 at 09:41

    Dear Mark, I love your use of the Song of Songs. A passage from it is often read at weddings, not, I believe, because it is offering a young couple a foretaste of the delights of marriage, but because it is a hymn to mutual love and care. For that reason it belongs to all of us to mull over it and savor its delight, not only in human love but also in the beauty of all nature- symbolized in the turtledove and the little foxes.

  4. Leslie on July 4, 2017 at 04:49

    Thank you for the invitation to consider our more expansive citizenship as children of God.

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