Today’s post is a companion to yesterday’s post about freedom. These twin virtues were forever united in the person of Moses, a central figure in the Hebrew Bible. Moses also is prominent in the Christian New Testament and in the Muslim Quran.
As liberator and lawgiver, Moses represents freedom and responsibility. Two sets of Moses stories are woven together. The “Wilderness tradition” begins at Exodus 16.1 and ends at Numbers 36.17. Inserted within the wilderness stories is the “Sinai tradition” of the Ten Commandments and other laws (Exodus 19.1 through Numbers 10.10).
Children and youth appropriately must learn essential boundaries. We first experience law as simple rules. My first memory of boundary violation was when I pedaled my tricycle past the alley entrance just beyond our next-door neighbor’s house. I did that just once. As we demonstrate rule-observance, parents allow more freedom. Overbearing parents stifle freedom. Non-responsive parents fail to provide appropriate boundaries.
Freedom and responsibility are forever intertwined. When responsibility isn’t included alongside freedom, responsibility becomes an undervalued faith theme.
A healthy faith frees a person to be true to one’s self, to be the best one can be, and to exercise one’s gifts in freedom. A healthy freedom steers a person toward humble self-confidence and away from hubris or insecurity. A healthy faith creates a healthy freedom.
A healthy freedom keeps a person looking forward, not looking backward in guilt, self-doubt or dependence on the internalized voice of others. Freedom is an essential faith theme in this “complex and ambiguous world, in which addiction is the number-one health issue and victimization is the universal experience.” (Easum and Bandy, p. 49.)
Yesterday, Richard Rohr introduced a two-week focus on addiction, which takes many forms and may be our greatest hindrance to freedom. Rohr writes: “Human beings are addictive by nature. … Substance addictions like alcohol and drugs are merely the most visible form of addiction, but actually we are all addicted to our own habitual way of thinking and doing.”
Freedom is an undervalued faith theme because there are so many forces in our psyche and in our world that seek to devalue faith by controlling us.
Yesterday’s critique of a secular Santa song does not diminish my respect for Nicholas of Myra (270-343), an early bishop known as Saint Nicholas. He was a mythical, bigger-than-life figure with a legendary love for children. His feast day is November 6.
Nicholas’ tomb in Myra (now Demre, Turkey) was a pilgrim destination. In 1087, a group of merchants in Bari, Italy, organized a prestige-motivated theft that moved his bones to Bari. He became Nicholas of Bari.
Today, Nicholas’ love for children is remembered in many ways. Red, the bishops’ color, is prominent. The artist Thomas Nast (1840-1902) created the modern American version of Saint Nicholas, or Santa Claus.
The common thread in the many legends of Nicholas of Myra is his love for children, rooted in Jesus’ love. Agape love is sacrificial, self-giving love.
Love can be misunderstood, misused, or misplaced, as in Bari’s bone heist. Nicholas would be proud that his life is an icon of love and toward children, but he surely would chafe when it is exploited.
Love is a universally popular faith theme. But, to the extent that love is misappropriated, it becomes devalued. It’s in this sense that love can be an undervalued faith theme.
Their broader, less parochial worldview shaped my experience of grace, including personal spiritual transformation and the transformation of the world. My parents both worked on the Manhattan Project. They were worldly realists who saw our awesome power to create and destroy. They taught me to respect authority and to see grace within institutions. They also taught me to question authority and to see grace transforming institutions.
The most impactful Christmas song of my childhood didn’t come from my parents or from church. It was a secular song on the radio: Santa Claus is Coming to Town. It has a clear, powerful theological message that any child can understand: a magical being will descend from the sky to grant or withhold material reward based on one’s outward behavior. I heard the song yesterday in a department store, reminding shoppers that good behavior merits material blessings.
Unmerited favor, undeserved blessing (hesed in Judaism, grace in Christianity) is different from our score-keeping ways. Grace unsettles our either/or, dualistic thinking. Grace disrupts our familiar pecking orders. Grace undermines easy definitions of who is good or bad, naughty or nice. Grace can be subversive and difficult to receive. Grace is counter-intuitive. For all these reasons grace is an undervalued faith theme.
“The reason why the Sabbath has so central a place within Jewish law lies in the fact that the Sabbath is the expression of the central idea of Judaism: the idea of freedom; the idea of complete harmony between humanity and nature, harmony among humans; the idea of the anticipation of the messianic time and of humanity’s defeat of time, sadness, and death.” (pp. 152-157)
In this excerpt of “The Sabbath Ritual” from The Forgotten Language (pp. 141-149), available as a free PDF download, Fromm connects Sabbath rest with the theme of freedom:
“‘Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. … For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth … and rested on the seventh day’ (Exodus 20.8-11) … In the second version of the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 5.12-15) the observance of the Sabbath is commanded again, although here reference is not made to God’s rest on the seventh day but to the exodus from Egypt….”