By Kristine Blaess
What is liberty? And how do we as the Church live into it? I have been asking these questions since March, when I attended the World Council of Churches’ Conference on World Mission and Evangelism in Arusha, Tanzania.
One day at that conference, an American Womanist theologian led a Bible Study on the power of the cross. She reflected on her experience as a queer black woman whose body, like the bodies of her slave sisters before her and her LGBTQ+ siblings today, has often been an object — a political object, a sexual object, an object of scorn, prejudice, and violence.
For this theologian, a male savior giving his life on behalf of hers is just one more way that agency and power for salvation is denied her queer black female body. For her, the cross of Jesus is at best an unfortunate historical accident and at worst a further example of objectification and oppression. Liberty, for this theologian, means claiming her body as her own and defining for herself the parameters of her life. She called upon us to also pick up our own crosses of radical self-definition.
This Bible study has stayed with me. American Christians have in our midst people precious to God whose experiences outside but also inside the church have so alienated and objectified their bodies that their chosen recourse is nothing less than radical self-definition.
I sat this Wednesday morning in hearings at the 79th General Convention in Austin, listening to several transgender priests who attested to the alienation they experience in the Episcopal Church. They have difficulty finding themselves within our liturgy, and they struggle to honestly evangelize others who would be similarly challenged. Majority Christians rightly enter into this listening with humility and a willingness to repent. Our hearts rightly break with these beloved of Christ who are our siblings.
But the gospel of Christ offers a greater vision of liberty than resorting to defining ourselves. The gospel rests on the promise that God, who on the sixth day spoke us into being, beheld us, and called us very good.
The gospel rests on the promise that this creating God who calls us very good looked upon Jesus at his baptism and called him Beloved and Son, heir of the kingdom. In our baptisms we are given those names too. We are those who were beloved to God even when we were being knit together in our mothers’ wombs.
The promise of the gospel is that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Our identity is not something we must radically define within ourselves, our security subject to the agency we can muster. Rather, our identity is a gracious gift given from outside ourselves by God who beholds and calls us very good, Beloved, and Heir. This is a gift of rest and security in the face of the powers and principalities that would objectify, humiliate, and destroy us.
What does this have to do with liberty and the Church?
Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed (Yale University Press, 2018) explores Enlightenment ideals of liberty. Deneen posits that the liberation of the individual is a primary goal of the Enlightenment.
Cartoon character Bart Simpson, a young student of the Enlightenment, astutely proclaimed, “I do what I feel like.” Enlightenment ideals seek to liberate the individual from the “limitations of place, tradition, culture, and any unchosen relationships” (Deneen, p. 47). The Enlightenment liberated us, like Bart, to do what we feel like, unconstrained by relationships, cultural norms, or, with the advance of science, even the bounds of nature.
The Enlightenment liberated us into radical self-definition. However, as much as we might wish, it sadly does not deliver the anticipated freedoms but leads us into a new kind of bondage.
In the gospel, we have a liberation birthed through our baptisms into the death and resurrection of Christ. We have a liberation that is not the Enlightenment freedom from constraint, but Christian freedom for.
St. Paul proclaims to us in Galatians 5, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” He implores us to stand firm in this freedom and not submit again to the yoke of slavery. In Christ, our liberty is not freedom from constraint or freedom to define ourselves and the parameters of our lives, but liberty to belong to God, to one another, and to the world.
We are liberated to belong to God. As we worship, we lift our praise to the risen Christ where we not only behold God: we also become most fully ourselves.
We are liberated to belong to one another. Christ’s purpose is that his Church should live in unity — that the witness we give the world should be a witness of unity in the life of Christ and the beginning of the new creation.
And we are liberated to belong to the world. We are freed, because we are secure in being beloved of God, to give ourselves for the sake of the sick, the suffering, the oppressed. In our freedom, Jesus has authorized us and given us the power of his Holy Spirit to raise up the broken-hearted, heal the sick, and set the prisoner free.
What does this freedom for mean for our time together at the 79th General Convention?
It means we are freed to serve one another. We are freed to lay our agendas down for one another and to stand in unity with one another. It means that we are freed for love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control as we relate to one another. It means we are freed to bear one another’s burdens. It means we are freed to remain bound to one another rather than to break our relationships. It means we are freed, in the words of Martin Luther and Michael Curry, to be “Little Christs, one to another.”
May God bless our deputies to the 79th General Convention in our deliberations, and may he bring us into the true liberty of the cross.
The Rev. Dr. Kristine Blaess is senior associate rector at St. George’s Episcopal Church, Nashville.