Freedom, as St. Paul reminds us, has its temptations – serious ones, in fact. Like the temptation to bite, devour and consume one another found in Galatians 5:15.
That’s pretty much where we are in the United States, now that we’re no longer flush with cash as a nation.
We are still free as Americans, still managing to avoid being the subjects of someone else’s rule. But in whatever freedom that remains, we are making choices that destroy others and, probably in the end, ourselves.
My own state of Illinois has a mammoth annual deficit of $13 billion for the current year, or about half of the state’s general fund budget. It also has a continuing structural deficit caused by fixed policies that widen the gap between revenues and expenses.
We are biting into agencies that employ people who serve as aides for the disabled and, therefore, disabled folks themselves. We are devouring drug and alcohol treatment centers and, therefore, the folks who desperately need those centers. We are consuming programs that fund food stamps and, therefore, the folks who secure their food by means of those stamps.
These acts of biting, devouring and consuming in such programs administered by the Department of Human Services in Illinois will eliminate more than 6,200 private sector jobs at a time of already exceedingly high unemployment in the state and will directly affect 178,500 state residents, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The same article reports that “Across the U.S., state legislatures are cutting spending on mental-health services and programs for the elderly and disabled.” It points to California, where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger advocates for eliminating the state’s welfare system.
Despite the Obama administration’s efforts to stimulate a failing and falling economy at a time when that stimulus is clearly still needed, Congress seems increasingly unwilling to do what is necessary to nurse the economy into some semblance of health.
Driven by ideology and fear, legislators and governors are choosing to go along with the biting, devouring and consuming decisions that they sense are necessary for their political survival.
It’s all a matter of choice that is made possible as a result of their freedom, and ours, as a people. Or, put another way, it is giving in to the serious temptations that go along with being a free people.
That’s what St. Paul was trying to get the followers of Jesus in Galatia to understand.
Some Jewish members of the Galatian churches, acknowledging that they had been given a freedom of the Spirit in what God accomplished in Christ, still wanted to retain an important portion of the Judaic law: circumcision. Moreover, they wanted to impose that discipline on Gentile members as a condition of their inclusion.
Paul argued against his fellow Jewish Christians, claiming that submission to the law was itself a kind of slavery, giving up the freedom in Christ.
In that new freedom of the Spirit, all Christians, according to Paul, must not allow themselves to become slaves either to temptations of flesh or the temptations of following the law in order to control the self-centered passions.
Instead, in that new freedom of the Spirit, all Christians now can voluntarily choose to act in the way God originally created and continues to create human beings: loving God completely and loving others as oneself.
As Paul said: Rather than being a slave only to oneself or to the strictures of the law, they can freely become “slaves to one another.”
The logic of his argument, a few sentences later in his letter, caused Paul to have an “aha” moment. Here is an apostle who typically would restrict himself to counsel on “intra-Christian” matters – those that apply only to fellow Christians in the churches. But from his own argument, Paul realized that authentic followers of Jesus have an ethic that extends beyond how Christians are to behave within what he calls the family of faith.
Christians also have a universal ethic that applies to everyone in the human community. Christians, in their freedom from self-preoccupation and from the law, are “to work for the good of all” – the common good of the whole human family.
Christians today have that same freedom of the Spirit, but all too often in these days of seeming statewide, nationwide and worldwide scarcity, it seems that some followers of Jesus are choosing to give voice and allegiance to calls for the biting, devouring and consuming of those in the human family who are most in need.
And it seems that many other followers of Jesus, in their freedom of the Spirit today, are choosing to remain stone silent and unaligned in the face of those biting, devouring and consuming calls.
Who then among us in the Christian community will choose, in our freedom of the Spirit, to resist the temptations to bite, devour and consume – and, alternatively, will choose vocally and actively to embrace the opportunity “to work for the good of everyone?”
Paul writes to the Galatians and to us: “For freedom Christ has set us free.”
Our question now, as then, is: free for what? Biting? Devouring? Consuming?
Larry Greenfield is executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago. He also serves as editor and theologian-in-residence for The Common Good Network.
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.