I have been giving a whole lot of thought in my absence from the internet to the whole concept of Christian freedom, in particular the freedom from fear. St. Paul's formula - "we are freed for freedom's sake" - applies, it seems to me, most clearly in that aspect of our collective life as the church in which we are confronted by those things that cause dread. Fear of loss of prestige, fear of loss of life, fear, indeed of fear.
Yet, of what are we to be afraid? Of death? The resurrection of Jesus from the dead has, as that same St. Paul noted, removed the sting of death. Since social prestige shouldn't even be on the list of our social wants or desires, any loss of that particular benefit is really a gain.
Yet, ours is a terrified community. We do not speak out for fear of offending some. We do not address the realities of hatred and rage for fear it will be directed upon us. We hide our many wondrous gifts under various bushels in order to keep them from being attacked by those who won't or can't understand them.
While it may sound silly, I have been giving thought to this whole thing because I have come to discover yet another television series - Supernatural - that deals with the confrontation with evil in a way that is surprising. A pair of brothers, raised as "hunters" after instances of supernatural evil, face these spirits and demons and demigods with a confidence and even bravado that is not at all forced. While they recognize that others are indeed fearful in the face of demon possession or the presence of an angry, vengeful spirit, they themselves treat these creatures as nothing more or less than opponents to be defeated. They face them without fear because they know that they can be defeated.
The Church, and the churches, far too often, do not really know that evil does not have the last word. We cower and cringe, afraid even to proclaim the Good News because someone, somewhere, might be offended, or angered, or question its validity. Yesterday, Rev. Matt Johnson gave a speech on his recent work over the past two years connecting with the tiny Methodist Church in Lithuania. Comprising six congregations with only six hundred members, the church does not yet have official status, yet is known throughout the tiny Baltic Republic as "the little church that helps people." Matt told the story of one person, named Vitas, a border guard (and national hero who fought off the attempt of the old Soviet Union in 1991 to reimpose occupation after Lithuania declared independence), who spied a small building with the cross and flame on the door. deciding, for no particular reason he could name, to visit that church, he took his young son with him the next day. Now, he is one of the six Methodist clergy in Lithuania, reaching out to those who exist outside the confines of social acceptability.
When American Christians whine about a government being anti-religious or anti-Christian, they really have no idea what they are talking about. The decades of communist oppression rendered Christianity a weak reed indeed, Jesus no more than a tortured soul promising deliverance from our troubles only in death. The hope and grace embodied in the risen Christ (in many ways part of our unique Wesleyan heritage as a people called Methodist) is something new, life-affirming, vital and constructive in a land that has suffered far too long under the brutal yoke of tyranny. From this one example alone (which could be multiplied in a variety of forms in a variety of lands) the lie to the anti-Christian, and fearful Christian ideology is given clearly enough.
We American Christians have had it so soft for so long, we really have no idea how to act in a situation in which we must preach the Word to a world whose ears have been stripped away. We flail like fish on a streambank trying to reset ourselves to a time when what we had to say resonated with those around us, failing again and again. We have forgotten that the message of faith and love and hope given flesh in the crucified and risen Christ challenges even our most self-satisfied sense of comfort, let alone the anxieties of a nation and society and culture in crisis and decline. Rather than refuse to hear of that decline, the Church has an opportunity to speak a word of peace in the midst of the turmoil that surrounds us.
Yet, we shiver and quake with dread.
Stories like Matt's give me hope that the message of the Gospel can still resound with an otherwise bourgeois, cultured people. It gives me faith to believe the Church can speak a word of peace in the midst of the turmoil of our present chaos. It assures me that the love of God for all creation is still there, even for an American Empire on the fast slide downhill, a reed to which we can cling without the illusions of national exceptionalism or the sin of our unique blessedness by the Divine.
In freedom, we can preach release to those captive by our now two-generation old lie that we Americans will be, forever, the Great Power of the world, a lie we can no longer sustain.