As many of you know, I grew up in a Jewish home in Virginia, not far from where I am sitting to write this post. Two days a week, I would go to Shabbat school at our synagogue. The curriculum was sharply marked by the life experiences of our teachers, many of whom had fled Europe to escape virulent anti-semitism. I still remember the day when Mrs. Mazel taught us always to keep a large stash of money or of jewels in our home “so that, when they come to get you, you will be able to flee.”
I don’t follow that practice, but the warning itself shaped my childhood awareness of who I was and how other people were likely to behave. And while I have wrestled with that legacy, easing into an existence marked by trust and by hope for the best that is in people, rather than by fear of the worst, I still tremble when I hear stories of Christians being killed in the Sudan, or Muslims being hounded off airplanes in the aftermath of 9/11, or of Christians in China holding clandestine prayer meetings in private homes, hoping not to be caught. Those could, so easily, be me.
What is religious freedom? It’s the news a lot these days, but not in a context that makes much sense to me. When I think of people who do not enjoy the free exercise of their religion, I think of people like the ones I’ve mentioned, people for whom attending a prayer meeting or owning a Bible or Koran or Torah scroll or Buddhist image means risking their lives or their liberty. I think of people who practice their faith in the trenches, because that is the only space that is available to them.
The ways that the term emerges in our public discourse today strike me as, well, as if we are spoiled. We seem a bit like over-indulged children, who cannot imagine that anyone else’s being is as real as ours, anyone else’s needs as legitimate as ours; we cry “me, me, me!” and forget that there are other human beings in this world, and that they are also God’s children, whom God loves.
There is a legal principle of long-standing that my right to swing my arm ends when my fist makes contact with another person’s face. That would suggest that care for one another’s well-being needs to be able to reign in our desire to have our own way. Jesus said something similar when he warned, “Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones.” (Matt 18:10) The little ones — those who have no advocate in the high places of this earth, no way to raise their voice without serious repercussions, no space to live as human beings — these are precious to Jesus, even if they are not always precious to us. True religion safeguards them.
This evening, or this morning, take a few minutes to pray. Read a Bible or open a prayerbook or gaze at an icon, and remember that these things are a privilege and a gift. They are not a burden which God imposes on us; they are a way of being human which cruel men take away from the powerless because they know that it hurts. Then recite the Creed. Recite it loudly. Open your window (yes, even in this heat) and say those words at the top of your voice, because you can. You can do it as an act of thanksgiving for your freedom, and you can do it to give voice to all those who must whisper their faith, if they dare to speak it at all. Taste that freedom on your tongue.
Then do what you can to honor the ability of others to do what you have done.