HOW RELIGION STIFLES FREEDOM
Robert Brow (www.brow.on.ca) Kingston, Ontario, April 2007
In all cultures religion attempts to give meaning to the birth, sexuality, and death of humans. The problem is that the rich and powerful keep trying to control religion to their advantage. Under their power the poor and oppressed try to find a place in the sun. Often the clash will end in a bloody revolution.
The French revolution guillotined the nobility and broke the power of the Roman Catholic Church that had supported it. In 1918 The Russian Orthodox Church, that had shared in keeping the serfs under brutal oppression, was toppled by Lenin and the Communists . Similar more or less bloody changes took place in Spain, other countries of Europe, and in South America.
The mandarins of China used a mix of Confucianism and other religions to control the peasants until Mao and his brand of revolution painfully made China into a secular state. In India the Brahmin aristocracy used Hinduism to keep the untouchables under their power for two thousand years. Only now the Dalits are beginning to find social and economic freedom.
It is possible for religion to change in the direction of freedom. Wesley and his Methodists, followed in the next generation by the Evangelical Revival, saved the country from what had happened across the channel in France. Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists, and Congregationalists were able to free poor and oppressed people to engage in the upward mobility which had been denied them.
Black people, who had been enslaved, were helped into freedom by the Baptist and other evangelical denominations that brought an astonishing freedom of religion in the United States. The people of South Korea are very devout, but their religion does not interfere with the economic development of the country. The result has been a growth in the prosperity and economic opportunities for ordinary people.
What do these very brief sketches suggest? The New Testament offers a way of freedom and upward mobility for ordinary people. But this is constantly attacked from two directions. On the one hand problems occur as soon as churches look to the government for support and protection. This happened all over the western world after the conversion of the Emperor Constantine. From within the churches, an equally serious danger is that preachers and leaders love to make rules. These saddle Christians with the legalism which Jesus rejected and Paul had to battle in his epistles. "For freedom the Messiah has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery" (Galatians 5:1).
Jesus warned his disciples against these two hazards. "Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees" (Matthew 16:6). The Pharisees burdened ordinary people with rules that made freedom impossible. The Sadducees did not care much about life after death. Their main priority was keeping in with powerful rulers in the government. Easter assured us about the wonders of life the moment we die. Pentecost reminds us of our right to freedom by the Spirit.