What to Do with Freedom

January 14, 2018

Series: January 2018

Category: Faith

Speaker: Rob McClellan

1 Corinthians 6:12-20

12“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. 13“Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. 15Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! 16Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, “The two shall be one flesh.” 17But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 18Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. 19Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? 20For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body. THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD. THANKS BE TO GOD.

 What to Do with Freedom

        How do you decide what to do? In anything, particularly moral decisions?  It’s such a basic question that it’s difficult to answer.  Where do you turn?  Research tells us that mainline Protestants turn to Scripture less than their evangelical counterparts.  Perhaps they read and value the Bible less.  Perhaps they see the Bible differently, not so easily used as an instruction manual.  Where then do we turn?  Some general sense of secular ethics?  What parents or other impactful mentors taught? 

          My guess is if I put before us the following sentence:  I always try to do what is _____ many of us would complete that sentence with the word, “right.”  But, where do we turn to know what is right, because right is sometimes hard to pin down?  It’s an abstract concept.  This is not simple relativism hijacking the pulpit.  Scripture gives various renderings of what right and wrong look like.  The Bible is full of divergent perspectives, even downright contradictions, so determining what is right wrong maybe less clear and less helpful than we think. 

          Think of some of the controversial issues of our era, which are steeped in right/wrong language:  We hear “Abortion is wrong”, or “It is only right to let a woman control her own body.”  I have strong feelings about that issue, as I’m guessing many of you do, yet how often are our conversations with those with whom we differ productive?  LGBTQ questions, more resolved here evoke a similar intractability in other parts of the country and world.  Again, the battle is waged in terms of right and wrong, with religion as weaponry.  The debate over whether marijuana is okay seems to be over, but does that mean we are finished with the discussion? 

          I’m going to say two things that may strike you as strange side by side:  1) These are issues with which the Bible can help us immensely, and 2) I don’t think talking about them in terms of right or wrong is the most helpful or even most faithful way of doing so.  Right and wrong may be the wrong question, even for religion.  Religion comes from the Latin “Religiare,” which means “to knit together.”  It is meant to be an entirely practical and helpful endeavor, of knitting together a set of practices and teachings that help us navigate life with one another before our God.  When we get into pious debates about right and wrong, we tend to lose sight of the real beings who will benefit or who will suffer as a result of the outcome and, in the end, are more torn apart than knit together. 

          Look at how Paul asks a different question in today’s passage from I Corinthians.  First, a word about Paul.  Many people don’t like him.  I’d say they struggle with him, but it’s worse; they’ve given up on the struggle.  I have no problem with people not liking Paul, but I have a big problem with people not understanding him.  Some will characterize him as exclusive, when he spent his entire ministry and gave his life for the singular issue of making the movement more inclusive.  Some decry his chauvinism or affinity for patriarchy, when in fact the morality codes he offered were quite progressive, requiring far more mutuality than those that dominated the Roman context in which he lived.  Some dismiss him as legalistic.  A legal expert, Paul was anything but inflexible and an unthinking rule-follower.  Dislike him if you must, but do the work to understand him first.

          Paul pushes the Corinthians into asking more useful, questions.  Paul quotes the Corinthians saying, “All things are lawful for me” (I Cor. 6:12).  This is one of their maxims.  They understand their life in Christ to mean they are no longer under the law in the same way. The problem for Paul was that apparently this is where the Corinthians left it.  Freedom in Christ meant only freedom from, permission to do and be anything they wanted.  Paul doesn’t negate their freedom; to “All things are lawful,” he adds expands upon it, “but not all things are beneficial.”  In one phrase Paul shifts the entire discussion from what’s right and wrong, what’s allowed and disallowed (by law), to what is actually beneficial to individuals and the community.  In Christ, we are free from what is not useful and freed for what is useful to ourselves and others.  That is a markedly different standard.

          When I was a graduate student in rhetoric, we were in a seminar and I made some comment about something (obviously very memorable) in which I described something as “good” or “bad,” and one of my colleagues who I couldn’t stand, we’ll call her Lucy…fer…I mean Linda, called me out on it.  “Why use moral terms there?  Why get bogged down into good and bad?”  Over the years, Linda single handedly built up my ocular muscles because of how much she made me roll my eyes.  It was only years later, upon looking back, safely removed from our personality differences, that I realized Linda was almost always right, almost always helpful.  What she was lifting up as a more helpful standard than contested definitions of right and wrong was what was useful, and for whom.  How does this action or statement actually affect real people and things?

          You could say Linda was channeling Paul.  Paul asks the Corinthians to consider what is useful, what is helpful, as they navigated their life and the issues he was dealing with were real—well-to-do people getting drunk by consuming all the wine at communion feasts (they were feasts back then) before the workers got off for the day and were able to join the celebration; sexual relationships and power, whether within families or with temple prostitutes, a fixture of the Roman imperial cult; how different people with different abilities and persuasions could be brought together into some cohesive whole in common life with the use of a powerful body metaphor.  It’s not so much about pietistic concept of what’s “right” and “wrong,” but what helps and what hurts people, real people. 

          How many conversations end prematurely and unproductively because people are more committed to lining up on what they know is the “right” side than they are to asking how actual people will be hurt or helped by the outcome?  Returning to our example issues, has there been any more polarized debate than abortion?  We’ve been told: 1) it’s either right or wrong, and 2) we must be on one side or the other, when my experience is that many people have more nuanced opinions than that, and can articulate more complex ways of thinking than that, but are afraid to for how they’ll be maligned.  I read this week a quote in which someone said their favorite definition of heresy is an inability to handle complexity.  In an ironic twist, religion becomes one of the main purveyors of heresy.

Paul’s dictum to consider what’s beneficial or useful helps us here because it shifts us to consider our common ground. The common ground I have experienced on abortion is nobody I have ever met wants there to be more abortions in the world.  No one.  Nor does anyone want more unwanted pregnancies, uncared for or endangered children, or families not in a position to care, nor victims of abuse to have no options and the list goes on.  When we get stuck at, “It’s right,” or “It’s wrong,” we never get to address how to mitigate all those things we agree nobody wants because we’ve been told we vehemently disagree.  When we consider what actions will truly help people, and avoiding hurting others, the conversation changes.  I don’t have the time to summarize it here, but Wendell Berry writes one of the most thoughtful commentaries on abortion in an appropriately long article from March of 2013 in the Christian Century.  He concludes two things you might find strange when placed side by side:  1) He opposes abortion, except when it is to save a mother’s life, and 2) He is in favor of it being entirely legal.  With his firm convictions in hand, he says, “I can imagine circumstances in which I would willingly aid and comfort a girl or a woman getting an abortion.”[1]

But I hesitate even to tell you his opinion, because his opinion isn’t the point, the point is that he gives one model of shifting the conversation from strident moralism, to one of practical questions about how people can best help its people. What changed the conversation for many in terms of sexual orientation was simply knowing someone who was gay, and thinking about what passing rules that hurt them, or discriminating against them, would do to some, a real person, they knew, respected, cared about.  It’s a way of approaching life that would very much resonate with Paul, with Jesus, and in light of this weekend, with Martin Luther King for that matter.  All the time, they measured the human toll of our actions.

And now that we have been granted new freedom with marijuana, and I hope we can stand with Paul, and Jesus here too. I, for one, am totally in favor of legalization.  I don’t anticipate or expect all of you to be.  I see the war on drugs, particularly that drug, to be an abject failure, an enormous waste of resources that could go to treatment among other things, and, quite frankly, a way to disenfranchise black and brown persons.  Read the history of how there was an intentional shift from using the term “cannabis” to “marijuana” to make it sound more Hispanic and therefore more objectionable.  Like Paul, however, I don’t believe something’s legality is the final question we should be asking.  I fear we’ve spent all our energy asking whether marijuana should be legal and precious little on whether and how it will be useful, and for whom, and for whom it will be profoundly not useful and harmful.

As Christians, we are called to ask those questions, for ourselves and for our community. For those who are sick or in chronic pain, could cannabis be helpful, I think the answer is yes.  Is there a legitimate discussion about whether there is a pleasure derived from substances; I think yes there is a conversation to be had.  Living in the heart of wine country, we are probably long overdue for that discussion.  As someone in the congregation said to me about this very issue a couple weeks ago, this is not Europe, where people have a glass of wine with a meal, we are not good at moderation.  We are a culture of excess. 

Who is helpfully asking the question of how to maximize any usefulness and mitigate any harmfulness? I can’t tell you how many places we’ve been with our 5-year-old, either public places or private parties, where the adults, supervising children, are smoking dope or are several drinks in.  I don’t care if you drink.  I don’t really care if you smoke if you can handle it, but have we really considered the consequences for those who cannot, and how many who think they can but cannot?  Have we adequately prepared for the inevitable consequences for mental health, the toll on individuals and families, and the public and private costs of our decision, a decision of which I was, and am, in favor?

I’m not for waging another legal battle; I am for helping us, having us help on another, have these conversations for ourselves and our community so that we don’t stop, like the Corinthians did, only with what is lawful, so that we can begin to talk about how to behave in ways that are useful, beneficial to our own bodies and one another. Just by luck, we’re going to continue the conversation about today’s sermon in the library after worship—I hope to do that periodically—and maybe that’s a place to start.  Let it not be the end.

Let us pray, God, you have given us immeasurable freedom in Christ, the blessing of forgiveness and the chance to start again, the blessing of eternal life, and on top of that, for many of us, many material blessings. Give us the wisdom to see that not only as freedom from rules, obligations, and responsibilities, but also as freedom for—for healthy relationship; for the honoring of bodies, our own and others’; for serving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves.  Amen.

[1] Wendell Berry, “Caught in the Middle:  ON Abortion and Homosexuality,” Christian Century, March 20, 2013.