Freeing Freedom for the Neighbor: Vocation as Lens for Teaching Christian Freedom
Leopoldo A. Sánchez M., Ph.D., is the Werner R. H. and Elizabeth R. Krause Professor of Hispanic Ministries and Professor in the Systematics Department, Concordia Seminary, St. Louis; firstname.lastname@example.org
Freeing Freedom from Itself
Freedom needs to be freed from itself. North Americans tend to speak of freedom in terms of self-determination. Such is too high a view of freedom. We are, after all, social beings, and our freedom is not an attribute we possess as much as a relational way of operating in the world. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once noted that humans do not have freedom, but are rather made to be free for another, that is, for the worship of God and the love of neighbor.1 Freedom is placed in a theocentric social construct, since it is grounded in God’s two-dimensional design of the human creature as one made to exist “before God” (Lat. coram deo) and “before the world” (Lat. coram mundo).2 To be is to be in relatione (Lat.) or in relation to the Creator and the creature.
However, as soon as the “self” is invoked in freedom talk, human determination begins to take on an individual focus. It is commonplace to speak of the Enlightenment as the turning point moment in Western thought, where a shift from a theocentric to an anthropocentric view of the world took place. Since then, thinkers have privileged individual freedom under various names. Modernism put individual reason at the center of the universe. According to René Descartes’s famous axiom, “I think, therefore, I am” (Lat. cogito ergo sum), knowledge of one’s existence is unthinkable without one’s thinking. As a reaction against modern rationalism, postmodernism privileged individual perspective. Post-colonialism drew attention to individual voice.
Individuality per se need not be a problem. There is a personal dimension to life, including a place for reason, perspective, and voice in our endeavors. The question is how one uses such things and to what ends, or more fundamentally, why one operates in such a way that freedom matters at all. Lutheran theologians have traditionally made a distinction between the ministerial use (Lat. usus ministerialis) and magisterial use (Lat. usus magisterialis) of reason.3 The same distinction can be extended to include perspective and voice. The ministerial use sees human reason relationally, namely, as a servant to God’s address to human beings in His Word. The magisterial use sees reason individualistically, that is, as a master over one’s own life that stands above and replaces God’s address to us in His Word. This classic distinction functions as a way to discern between a self-referential view of life (being a master who serves no one), and one that sees life as a gift from above which refers us to the Creator and carries out His purposes in a world filled with neighbors to serve.
Given this magisterial and ministerial distinction, the question is whether freedom makes room for God and neighbor.4 The problem is a self-serving individualism, which sees freedom as my absolute possession. It is this unhealthy view of human reason, perspective, and voice as reflections of corrupted man “curved in on himself” (Lat. incurvatus in se) that needs to be freed from itself. This requires freedom to go through a death of sorts. In his Heidelberg Disputation (1518), Martin Luther puts to death all human claims to free will before God by speaking of the will as bound.5 Adam’s great rebellion is, in a sense, his claim to free will as his own possession, and therefore a denial of creaturely freedom as a way of life determined by a relationship to the Creator and His creation. From a theological angle, a shift greater than that of the Enlightenment occurred already in Genesis, when Adam claimed his freedom for its own sake and no longer for the praise of God and service of the other.
Freedom must now be freed from itself. After the Fall, freedom is bound as individual self-determination, and does not will for a relationship outside of the self. An optimistic appeal to the power of the will itself cannot change this situation. Gerhard Forde once called for a crisis intervention on behalf of the self, like those brought upon people suffering from addiction whose will is bound to their recurring desires and require a “bottoming out” to change their condition.6 What the self needs is an appeal to (indeed, a prayer for) the Spirit’s work of killing the selfish Adam in us so that we might be rendered passive for God’s saving intervention. God must turn heirs of Adam, whose will is bent towards selfish aims, into theologians of the cross who die to self in order to make room for neighbors (cf. Romans 5:12–21). The Holy Spirit rescues human freedom from its anthropocentric focus and locates it once again in its theocentric place. By doing so, the Spirit moves freedom away from its centripetal desires and gives it a centrifugal orientation in faith towards God and love towards neighbor.
Freeing Freedom for the Neighbor
Following Luther, the Augsburg Confession denies human freedom in matters related to the righteousness of faith, since only the Spirit reveals the wisdom from above that makes humans righteous before God on account of Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:6-16). In the Lutheran tradition, such spiritual matters related to salvation need not concern us, as far as the will goes. For God has willed to restore us to a right relationship with Him, not by the righteousness of our works and will, but by bestowing upon us the righteousness of Christ alone.7 Having been freed from the burden of our performance and choices as a means to discern God’s favor towards us, we can now give our undivided attention to suffering neighbors who require our full engagement. The Lutheran Confessions speak of free will in earthly matters, that is, its proper use in matters below heaven that concern our relationships here with one another.8 Freedom is thus set in its right place, in the social realm of human relations where the Creator has put us to care for each other.
Paradoxically, freedom is denied in order to be affirmed. Luther exhorts those who have been freed from the curse of the law to use their newly found freedom in the Gospel to serve others: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”9 Luther’s great “happy exchange” image of salvation (Christ takes my unrighteousness and gives me his righteousness, cf. 2 Corinthians 5:21) takes on a relational form so that, as we become one body with Christ in his Supper (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:17), we become Christ to one another as we share each other’s crosses.10 I give you my pardon for your sin, and viceversa. I give you my abundance for your need, and viceversa. I give you my companionship for your loneliness, and viceversa. The Holy Spirit shapes the church into a community of servants who bear one another’s burdens and joys (cf. Galatians 6:2). Freed by the Gospel, each one of us becomes “a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” Being “called to freedom,” we fulfill God’s will and “serve one another” (Galatians 5:13). If Christian freedom matters at all, it is only because its right trajectory points us outside of ourselves. It frees us from ourselves. Its end in this life is the neighbor, who becomes for us the human face of freedom, its ultimate goal.
Christian freedom has its limits. It is creaturely freedom, always under the Creator’s will. The law of God, which tells us what to do and not to do, curtails our freedom because the sinful flesh desires to use freedom in order to operate outside of God’s will (cf. Galatians 5:13). Thus the law of God configures our sphere of operation to what is proper to the creature. It gives wandering freedom a needed focus in order to keep it from becoming unrealistically grandiose or godlike, preventing it from falling into the temptation of transcending daily, earthly, or ordinary tasks. God’s law prevents Christian freedom from becoming overly “spiritualized” and turns its efforts towards quotidian life. Creaturely life under God’s command is earthy. By avoiding a pie-in-the-sky view of freedom, the law channels human energies in a realistic creaturely direction so that we can make an impact in the everyday lives of others. Freedom gets its hands dirty in the world.
Admittedly, the second table of the law, which is summed up in love of neighbor, can seem rather abstract in its universal scope without some actual neighbor in mind. If everybody is my neighbor, nobody is my neighbor. Therefore, to make the law of love concrete, Luther affirmed the value of vocation (Ger. Beruf, Lat. vocatio) as God’s calling (from Lat. vocare, to call) to baptized Christians to carry out His purposes in creation by serving neighbors in a particular station or estate (Ger. Stand), order (Lat. ordo), or office (Ger. Amt). Through their vocations, exercised in particular offices (e.g., parent, pastor, teacher, nurse, banker, lawyer), Christians become the “masks of God” (Lat. larvae Dei) in the world through which the Creator looks after neighbors in the contexts of family, church, education, economy, and government.11 Vocation makes possible the fulfillment of the command to love.
God’s law gives freedom its parameters for action. Vocation then narrows freedom’s sphere of influence further by becoming God’s primary means through which the law is fulfilled. While the language of limitation is likely to sound offensive to North American ears, such boundaries are really a blessing. Since I cannot bear on my shoulders the weight of the world’s needs, of every single neighbor, God’s gift of vocation allows me to focus on and speak out for those particular neighbors He has already put in my life to serve. Indeed, there will be times when opportunities arise to serve neighbors that do not appear to fit neatly within our vocations. At that point, the law of love still stands, even apart from our specific vocations, and will often lead us to take extraordinary measures to respond to a broader scope of neighbors in need.12 During the course of one’s life, the needs of our neighbors will change and the circle of neighbors might even expand, so that what seemed extraordinary at one time becomes ordinary at another time. Vocation is thus a dynamic, flexible, and changing reality because neighbors ultimately shape our priorities, commitments, and forms of advocacy.13 Vocation, like law, always has a human face.
Teaching Christian Freedom
How does one teach freedom for another—that is, in relation to some neighbor—in a highly individualistic U.S. societal context where fighting for my freedom often takes center stage in conversations about politics or social issues? How does one teach freedom for some neighbor in a U.S. political culture where freedom from something or another—say, the tyranny of “the federal government” or the anarchy of “the states”—appears as the dominant focus? More to the point, how does one encourage conversations about Christian freedom in a way that accounts for our responsibilities both as citizens of heaven through God’s justification in Christ (right-hand kingdom or spiritual realm) and as citizens of the nation where competing claims about justice are debated and negotiated (left-hand kingdom or temporal realm)?
I would like to argue that the Lutheran teaching on vocation offers Christian educators an adequate theological lens to contextualize appeals to Christian freedom in the world by putting a human face on political and social issues. First, vocational roles direct us to suffering or needy neighbors in our midst. Given its neighbor-oriented trajectory, vocation moves freedom from being a matter of self-interest to being fundamentally a matter of social interest.
Second, due to its multifaceted character, vocation is a dynamic reality where intersections between various neighbors and their advocates come face to face (and at times, into tension) with one another. Political positions on sensitive contemporary issues such as immigration law and reform can fail to acknowledge this dynamic and complex matrix of living networks our vocations make us a part of—a matrix that involves many Christians legitimately advocating for different neighbors from various vocational angles.14
Third, given its intersectional character, the Lutheran teaching on vocation also allows for disagreement, debate, and persuasion among Christians on left-hand issues. It does so without letting such disagreement become an obstacle to their unity in Christ and in Christian mission. A vocational framework helps us to acknowledge (if not negotiate) the tension between Christians’ twofold responsibilities towards neighbors as residents of the heavenly and earthly cities, encouraging them to advocate for the needs of people pertaining to both realms and guarding them against reducing their view of neighbors and their needs to only one realm of existence.
To illustrate how vocation can serve as a lens to facilitate discussions about Christian freedom relating to political and social issues affecting large numbers of neighbors, let me offer a case study that I have used with students in a Concordia Seminary course titled Lutheran Mind. The course gives incoming seminarians a Lutheran lens to interpret the world, including the proper handling of concepts such as vocation and the distinction between the two realms. I have slightly revised the scenario for the purposes of this essay.15
You have been called to serve a predominantly Anglo parish in an increasingly Hispanic neighborhood. A prominent member of your congregation who serves in the city council is rather vocal in and outside the church about his opposition to illegal immigration. As an American citizen, he says he is free to say what he thinks. Members of the Latino/a community, whose legal status is simply unknown (some are likely to be in the country without proper documentation), are increasingly hesitant to attend outreach church activities because of their fear that this zealous citizen or others in the church might call “La Migra” (Spanglish for immigration officers) to check them out. As a result, the congregation’s evangelistic and mercy/justice efforts in the community are not trusted. The situation has gotten so bad that a concerned member of the same congregation who works pro bono as an immigration lawyer in a church office set aside for community assistance will not commune with this brother in Christ because of what she sees as his lack of sensitivity to the plight of the immigrants and the Hispanic community in their midst. She says that, as a concerned Christian, she is free to avoid association with this brother in order to avoid heated debates or making it look like she agrees with his politics.
As the pastor, deaconess, or concerned layperson in this congregation, you have to speak to both members of the congregation about this situation that is getting out of hand. What would you say to them about their claims to freedom? How would you channel their concerns in a proper direction? In your answer, you should be able to speak to the value of vocation as the concrete means through which the law of God is fulfilled and the neighbor is served in the world. At the same time, you should speak to them about the value of distinguishing between God’s work in the world through the temporal (left-hand) and spiritual (right-hand) realms, making sure that they are encouraged to deal with the needs of neighbors holistically or in both realms. Finally, you should point out the consequences of confusing the two realms to the detriment of the church’s unity and her mission in the neighborhood.
The case study problematizes the notion of freedom. Students are led to see that freedom is not a human possession, but a social reality that operates under God’s purposes for His world. First, freedom is subordinated to the relational thrust of vocation. In that framework, each of the two members of the congregation has a legitimate concern for different sets of neighbors. The city council member is interested in obedience to authorities for the sake of peace and order among citizen and resident neighbors. The pro bono immigration lawyer is concerned about advocating for immigrant neighbors and their families. Vocation channels important though competing claims to freedom toward actual neighbors. Tension between such claims on behalf of different neighbors is to be expected. Sometimes this tension can be dealt with creatively, so that different concerns on both sides are addressed to some degree. Other times, such tension lets opposing concerns stand side by side, allowing for a measure of adequate co-existence without pushing for a grand integration. Yet at times such tension can simply be conflictual.
Second, freedom is subordinated to God’s rule over the world in the two realms. While each Christian’s appeal to advocate for neighbors is carried out quite strongly in the context of left-hand realm issues, their vocational freedom is limited further by a holistic concern for neighbors that must not turn a blind eye to right-hand realm considerations. Students learn that legitimate tensions among Christians on complex left-hand issues such as immigration law and reform are driven by the needs of neighbors they have been called to care for. Moreover, they see that their political differences must get in the way of neither the church’s spiritual mission to deliver the Gospel in the neighborhood nor the spiritual unity of her members in Christ. The city council member trumps the church’s evangelical task in the community by being openly vocal about his political views in the context of church activities. The immigration lawyer trumps the church’s evangelical unity by refusing to eat at the Lord’s Table with her brother in Christ. The scenario assists students in appreciating the complexity of living out their vocations under God’s rule in two realms, without confusing God’s purposes for each, namely, justice before the world (coram mundo) in the left-hand realm and justification before God (coram Deo) in the right-hand realm.
Finally, the case study fosters a healthy attitude towards—and even a sense of awe for—the manifold ways God blesses His creation everywhere through the gift of vocation. This attitude will often include a measure of respect—and indeed, our thanksgiving—for the vocations of others who speak out for different neighbors, and with whom we may even disagree at times on how best to fulfill the law of love in the world.
Through mutual listening, open dialogue, and productive debate around case studies such as the one on immigration, Christian educators can encourage students to explore ways in which the Lutheran teaching on vocation helps them to deal positively with complex and controversial issues. Students begin to appreciate how, through our roles in vocations, competing claims to freedom are channeled in a healthy social trajectory that takes account of the needs of various neighbors and the concerns of those who legitimately advocate for them. In so doing, they also learn that, when discussing law, mercy, justice, civil righteousness, mercy, or praxis, any claim to freedom in such matters needs to be contextualized or humanized—a human face needs to be given to it—so as to move them to argue for bold, adequate, and reasonable positions in defense of some neighbor’s wellbeing.
In the learning process, students also gain a deeper appreciation for God’s ongoing work and rule in both realms through various vocations in the world—both theirs and those of other fellow Christians and citizens. Aware of the complex and intersecting web of relationships in which God has placed humans to look after various sets of neighbors in a less than perfect world, students will ideally grow in their openness to listening to, learning from, and at times being persuaded to some degree by those fellow Christians and citizens who speak out for different neighbors and attend to their struggles and aspirations.
In the end, Christian educators can assist students in grasping the theocentric reality that, for the Christian, freedom is not an end in itself. Nor is it a self-serving ideal that is “free” to do what it may. To the extent that freedom becomes its own end, freedom must be freed from itself. Paradoxically, freedom in Christ is “bound” to the shape and dynamics of needy and hurting neighbors in everyday life. Christians are thus bound to vocation as their divinely ordained calling to make a difference in the lives of many. As God’s life-giving “masks” in church and society, Christians are active in both realms for the wellbeing of the neighbor and are free to make decisions that best serve the temporal and spiritual needs of those people they have been especially called to care for. Simultaneously, Christians remain open to learning about and at times acting on behalf of other neighbors they may be less familiar with but are nevertheless in close proximity to their spheres of influence. Through this focused yet non-exclusive approach to vocation in the world, Lutheran theology fosters a cross-shaped life of faith active in love—that is, a life shaped in us by the Spirit after Christ’s own servanthood (cf. Philippians 2:1–11).