As 1989 drew to a close, I gave my daughters (then 17 and 14) some uncirculated American coins bearing that date and told them to hang on to them as a reminder that they had just lived through what surely would be understood as a watershed year -- not unlike, say, 1968 (no, not because that was the year I married their mother), and 1945 (no, not because that was the year I was born).
And I want to use the upcoming (Nov. 9) 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall as an opportunity to take note of the paradoxical messages of freedom and slavery that religion sometimes offers. In the Christian tradition that is my home, these messages may be paradoxical, but they are not inconsistent and not in conflict when properly understood.
Just to remind ourselves: Under the direction of East German leader Walter Ulbricht, construction on the Berlin Wall began suddenly on Aug. 13, 1961. It soon blocked East Germans from escaping their Communist-led, dour country by slipping in to West Berlin.
It took a long time, but in the late 1980s, East German people began protesting the continued presence of the wall. Finally, an East German official remarked almost in passing that of course citizens could travel freely to the West. At that point, citizens attacked the wall and brought it down -- causing a domino effect across Communist eastern Europe that eventually led to the collapse of the Soviet Union itself.
It was one of freedom's finest hours.
So what is the corresponding message of freedom that religion offers? Well, it varies at least a little, of course, from faith to faith, but many traditions suggest that we can be free only if we submit to God. Indeed the very name Islam means such submission. Even in Buddhism, which is a non-theistic path, people are encouraged to let go of their personal desires as a way of being free from suffering.
As I say, in my Christian tradition, we are fond of quoting Jesus in John 8:32 as saying that "you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." This is often used in secular society almost as an ode to freedom of the press, but when put in its original context, it is paired with the idea that Jesus himself is the truth. So in Christianity, knowing the truth means becoming a disciple of Jesus (sometimes called -- as in I Corinthians 7:22 -- "Christ's slave." It's why Christians say that in Baptism we die to our old selves.)
The message of the great religions is pretty consistent. If you live by your own standards and not by divine standards, you will ensnare yourself in destructive sin, whereas if you submit to the life God calls you to live, you will ultimately be free of such destruction.
So freedom in a religious context does not mean licentiousness. Rather, it means finding your true self by becoming part of a story that is larger than your personal desires. The anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, as I say, offers us a good chance to think about the various meanings of freedom.
(The photo here today of the breaching of the Berlin Wall is from http://library.msstate.edu/libguidefiles/phillips/Berlin%20Wall%20Freedom.jpg.)
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SMOKE-FILLED VATICAN ROOMS?
Pope Benedict XVI has invited various world political leaders, including Vice President Joe Biden and former British PM Tony Blair to come to the Vatican to talk about the role of the church in politics. I'd love to be a fly on the wall at that gathering. I hope someone makes the point that politics is woven through ever aspect of life and that the role of the church is to be in the world but not of it -- in the world, meaning to call politicians and the people who vote for them to act with honor, honesty and integrity.