By Chelsea Langston Bombino
Along with others who believe in the transcendent, in a greater force that binds and moves humanity, I view everything through the prism of my faith in God. Yet for those of us who seek our Creator, despite different religious beliefs and practices, we perceive a sacred force that is present in every aspect of life.
Religious freedom is the ability for those who believe in a sacred, higher power to express that reality. It is about preserving the ability or space to seek God in everything. It is the freedom to seek God not only in worship, but also, and even especially, in the things that appear the most apart from God: the dirty and the unclean, the daily and the routine, and in the midst of unfathomable tragedy. It is freedom to seek God in every stage of life: in birth, in work and in death.
In The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran writes,
Is not religion all deeds and all reflection, and that which is neither deed nor reflection, but a wonder and a surprise even springing in the soul, even when the hands hew the stone or tend the loom? Who can separate his faith from his actions, or his belief from his occupations? Who can spend his hours before him saying, “This for God and this for myself; This for my soul and this for my other body”?
The Gospel’s Call for Religious Freedom
For religious freedom advocates, the work is deeply personal. Advocating for religious freedom, for many, is a sacred exercise of faith. Without an environment that gives everyone the space to come to their own conclusions about who God is and what it means to be human, no one can be truly free to live out their sacred animating beliefs. For those of us who call Christ our Savior, freedom is at the very heart of the Gospel itself. Paul tells us in the Book of Galatians that, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” For the Christ follower, freedom from sin is the ultimate expression of religious freedom. But to gain this freedom through Christ, an environment must exist that allows us to seek our Creator, the divine, our Savior.
This seeking and finding of God is what makes us human. This Christmas season, as Christians celebrate the birth of our Emmanuel, I can’t help but reflect on why it has become so difficult to advocate for religious freedom — a freedom that should be understood as pure and as untainted as the birth of the One who knew no sin. Religious freedom ought to be widely celebrated and protected, because when the law or social practice restricts our ability to incarnate our beliefs about God in every season and activity of life, our very humanity is confined and distorted.
Advocates for religious freedom — indeed, all believers in the transcendent — must be able to work together across differences to elevate the importance of this freedom. How do we tell the untold stories of religious freedom? Where do we find the places in which religious freedom is the prerequisite of sacred transformation and healing? In A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living, Joseph Campbell writes, “To live in sacred space is to live in a symbolic environment where a spiritual life is possible, where everything around you speaks of exaltation of the spirit.”
Sacredness in the Simple
To live in sacred space is, most often and for most people, not to live apart from the world or confined in a holy bubble. It is to move about the world, individually and in groups joined in search of the same spiritual truths, in constant encounter with the sacred in the dailiness of life. Our freedom to privately believe and worship is not usually called into question in our current moment, but there is a lack of understanding and respect for our freedom outside of worship. And yet, living in accord with our deepest beliefs requires just this — freedom to live our lives together with fellow believers in service, citizenship, vocation, education and love of neighbor. Ultimately, it is these acts and elements of life, and not only worship, that constitute our humanity.
Jesus’ parables speak not to the lofty temple or the untarnished relics behind God’s holy veil. They speak of God in the most ordinary settings and situations. “A farmer went out to sow his seed” (Luke 8:5). “A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests” (Luke 14:16). “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men, and there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary’” (Luke 18:2). “A man planted a vineyard, rented it to some farmers, and went away for a long time” (Luke 20:9).
A parable, by definition, is a simple, relatable story used to capture a deeper spiritual teaching. In Jesus’ parables of seeds and fields, of hospitality and widows, we learn of the presence of the Kingdom of God. That is to say, these acts of daily life are not set apart from the sacred. They are how the sacred is sought and embodied on this earth. Religious freedom, then, cannot only protect the things of this life that are explicitly set apart for God, prayer and worship. Religious freedom must protect the incarnated moments of our lives where we join with others to advocate for justice, feed the hungry, connect to family and make our living.
The Paradox of Joy and Sorrow During the Holiday Season
Notable authors and religious leaders have thought deeply on the importance of the sacred. Henry Niese, a teacher in the Native American Lakota spiritual tradition, writes in his book The Man Who Knew the Medicine, “Everything that is sacred is a mystery, and everything that is a mystery is sacred.” Famed author Madeleine L’Engle said, “If we are willing to live by Scripture, we must be willing to live by paradox and contradiction and surprise.” The Bible itself is full of paradoxes. In a Christianity Today article called “Preaching the Paradox and the Paradox of Preaching”, Krish Kandiah writes, “I have discovered that I am most empowering when I preach in a way that doesn’t try to smooth over the complexities of Scripture or our world…Rather than brushing the paradoxes under the carpet, bring them out into the open.”
We should remember that this holy season is itself a sacred paradox. While many call this “the most wonderful time of the year,” for many it is a time of struggle. This is true even for Christians, when they are both filled with adoration for the birth of their Savior and overcome with difficult circumstances they are facing in their own lives. One Psychology Today article notes, “We have known for decades that the holidays in America are traditionally a time ripe for off-the-chart stressors and wide-spread emotional regression.” And if increased depression or the loss of a loved one occurs during the holiday season, this sense of emotional paradox can be even greater. The world outside is celebrating faith and family, joy and the birth of new hopes. Yet one’s internal spiritual and emotional life may feel dark and barren.
For those who connect to a sense of the sacred during this season, seeking out God in that paradox of joy and sorrow is inevitable. This is true across spiritual traditions. The Book of Romans says that we are called to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn” (12:15). Psalms reminds us, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted” (34:18). In the Jewish faith, the Kaddish (“holy” in Aramaic) is recited during seasons of mourning. In her book Saying Kaddish: How to Comfort the Dying, Bury the Dead and Mourn as a Jew, Anita Diamant writes, “Judaism has always been far less concerned with belief than with action or mitzvah, which means ‘commandment’ or ‘sacred obligation.’”
Acts of comfort for those who may be struggling during this season of joy are themselves deep religious expressions. Let us remember during Christmas that sacred actions can be those of both celebration and grief. The vast spectrum of human emotion requires an expansive freedom to find sacred significance in all our experiences.
This Christmas, let us focus on the living Gospel of our Savior. The Gospel requires that we practice our faith. Lived out, the Gospel is an embodiment of the religious freedom we hold so dear. Paul tells us in Romans, “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness” (Romans 12:6-8). All of these — service, leadership, education, contribution — are expressions of our faith incarnate.
Our prayer for this season is to call all who have grown skeptical of our sacred freedom to act on our faith, individually and in community, to witness the transformative power of God incarnated in communities dedicated to sacred purposes. Let all who profess to advocate for religious freedom seek to protect that freedom for all people and all communities, of all faiths and none, to embody their sacred beliefs. And let those organizations created for sacred purposes, whether they comfort the mourning or celebrate with the glad, continue to remain free to serve.
Chelsea Langston Bombino is the Director of the Sacred Sector, an initiative of the Center for Public Justice. Sacred Sector is a learning community for faith-based organizations and emerging leaders within the faith-based nonprofit sector to integrate and fully embody their sacred missions in every area of organizational life. If you are interested in learning more, please contact Sacred Sector Program Coordinator Virginia Creasy at firstname.lastname@example.org.