Thursday, July 5, 2012

COEXIST in Freedom

Today is July 5th.

Independence Day has come and gone. We tend to feel very patriotic on that day and are stirred by highfalutin ideas like “Liberty,” “Honor,” and “Patriotism.” But does this passion for freedom extend beyond the festival of fireworks?

There has been a lot of talk about religious liberty lately. Many of the English settlers to this continent did so in order to secure the freedom to worship as they chose. Catholics wanted to freedom from Elizabethan oppression. Puritans wanted the right be free of excess. Quakers wanted to be free to follow their “inner light.” (And apparently to start their own line of fiber-rich breakfast foods. It was no accident that the first amendment to the Constitution was a guarantee that the Federal government should not impinge on its citizens right to worship freely. So often this issue is examined through the lens of politics: what is the relationship of government to religious liberty? But I would like to take a look at it from a different angle: what is the relationship of Christianity to religious liberty?

This brings me to something I see often on the highways: the COEXIST bumper stickers.

 I'm sure you've seen them on a random bumper here or there, probably a few more by college campuses. The words are spelled out by different symbols from major religions or belief systems. I have always had a nagging problem with these signs: I don't know what they mean.

I'm sure I could look up the history and origin of the makers of this slogan, but that would defeat the purpose reducing your message to a single word. If I had a bumper sticker that said “Quarvat,” it would not be very effective, since I'm guessing that no one knows what that is (bonus points to anyone who can tell me the answer).

There seem to me to be 2 possible meanings to COEXIST.

The first is that all religions should be treated the same because they ARE all the same. As a Christian, I have to completely reject this idea. All religions are not the same. Christianity is not the same as Islam, or Buddhism, or Sikhism, etc. It is an insult to all people of faith. The main theme of Kevin Smith's atrocious movie Dogma was “It doesn't matter what you believe, as long as you believe.” I read a film critic who wrote, “It's hard to argue with that point.” It's only hard if you don't bother to think. It sounds nice. It sounds tolerant. But there are 2 problems with this position:

a. No one believes this in practice. I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. You may agree or disagree, but I would venture to say that most would shrug their shoulders and say, “Okay.” But if I said I worshipped the demon Moloch who demanded infant sacrifice, I doubt any rational person would say to me, “It doesn't matter what you believe, as long as you believe.” No, we would rightly reject such a horrible thing as morally wrong.

b. It implies that none of the religions are true. All religions make truth claims. Some of these truth claims are compatible. For example, most religions believe kindness is better than cruelty, or courage is better than cowardice. But there are some things that or not compatible Christians believe that Jesus is God. Muslims believe that He was only a prophet, but not God. This is not a matter of taste or opinion, like “I like ice cream.” When I say “I believe Jesus is God” I am not saying, “I like Jesus.” The Church is not the Jesus Fan Club: “You like Jesus? I like Jesus! [singing] WE LOVE YOU JE-ESUS! O YES WE DO-O. WE LOVE YOU JE-ESUS! AND WE'LL BE TRUE-UE!” Both the Christian and the Muslim are making claims about the truth or falsehood of the nature of Jesus. Both claims cannot be true at the same time. It is possible that one is true and the other is not. But the COEXIST bumper sticker doesn't seem to play favorites. The only other possibility is that neither of them are true. This would mean Jesus Divine nor a Prophet in reality. The only way you can put all religions on equal footing in terms of value is to say that they are all equally wrong.

So that is one possible meaning of the COEXIST ethos. But I think that there could be another.

If COEXIST means that in a free society all peoples must be free to pursue God and thus coexist in peace, then this makes sense to me. This position also excludes the Molochites, because this religion seeks to constrain the freedom of the babies they kill. On this interpretation, we COEXIST because religion cannot be imposed.

And as a Christian, this makes perfect sense. But that is not the end of the story.

We believe that there is only one God and that there is no salvation apart from Jesus Christ (that is not to say that unbelievers cannot go to heaven, but more on this in another post). We are called to bear witness to the truth and make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:19). But the acceptance of Christ as Lord must be a free choice. We cannot force anyone to make that commitment.  Others have tried it in the past with horrible results.  This can only be done if we are also free to reject Him.

Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia, the birthplace of our Declaration, wrote the other day:

The purpose of religious liberty is to create the context for true freedom. Religious liberty is a foundational right. It’s necessary for a good society. But it can never be sufficient for human happiness. It’s not an end in itself. In the end, we defend religious liberty in order to live the deeper freedom that is discipleship in Jesus Christ. What good is religious freedom, consecrated in the law, if we don’t then use that freedom to seek God with our whole mind and soul and strength?

The purpose if freedom is not to be free. We are free so that we can freely choose the good. What Chaput is saying is that religious freedom is necessary, but not sufficient for the human person. For example, oxygen is necessary for the human person. Without it, we would die quickly. But it is not sufficient. We need more than air to survive. If all we had was oxygen we would die from something else like hunger, thirst, exposure, etc. In the same way, we need religious freedom. Without it, our souls could not exercise choice in liberty. But to have the choice is not enough.

I've seen a few movies where choice was an end in itself and it always rang hollow. At the end of the Matrix trilogy, Agent Smith asks Neo why he fights. Neo's answer is: “Whoa” Sorry. Kidding.

Actually, his answer is “Because I choose to.” He doesn't fight for love or friendship of the good, but choice. But choice without an aim or purpose is not really a choice. It is simply random activity. Similarly, in Prometheus, when a character is asked why they have faith, they respond, “It is what I choose to believe.” But that answer has no bearing on whether or not what she believes is true. I could choose to believe that Egyptian pyramids were early attempts by the gods to make 4-sided dice, but that doesn't make it true. We must choose. But to what end? In the choosing, we will become closer to God or further away. If we choose God, we will find our true happiness.

If I program my computer to say “I love you” every time I log in, it does not mean that my computer loves. If I forced my wife to marry me, her decision wouldn't mean much because it was not free. Our choice for Christ must be free. This why, as Christians, we must support religious freedom. There are many countries in the world where men and women of all different faiths are suppressed by the power of the state. When the government tries to circumvent this freedom, it takes away the means by which man can truly find his happiness. Or as Archbishop Chaput wrote:
Real freedom isn’t something Caesar can give or take away. He can interfere with it; but when he does, he steals from his own legitimacy.
We do not get our rights from the government. We do not even get our rights from the Constitution. We get our rights from Nature. The Constitution was designed to prevent the government from attempting to usurp those essential rights. When any government tries to take away our rights, that government breaks faith with the people it governs and loses its authority.

We are a great nation. We are, so far, a free nation. We are a tolerant nation where men and women of any faith or no faith come to exercise that freedom. And in that sense, we should all COEXIST.

As Americans, we lead people to freedom. As Christians, we lead them to happiness.


  1. I have always seen the COEXIST bumper stickers as a simplistic pseudo intellectual attack on the major religions by "high-minded" agnostics/atheists and american paganists. To test my theory look for the companion bumper decoration which is usually a Darwin fish or a "Blessed by the Goddess" bumper sticker. COEXIST is nothing more than sophomore level syllogism that concludes with the major religions being responsible for worldwide violence. Because of this, whenever I see a COEXIST bumper sticker I think of a Kirk quote in Star Trek II. "Khan, I'm laughing at the "superior intellect."

    1. And the person with the COEXIST sticker will say, "He tasks me! He tasks me and I shall have him!"

    2. "To test my theory look for the companion bumper decoration which is usually a Darwin fish or a "Blessed by the Goddess" bumper sticker."
      Considering I know a number of Christians who display that bumper sticker, or attitudes similar to it, I think that is a bit over-simplistic (not to mention that I don't see Christianity and a belief in evolution as necessarily contradictory). Religion is not the ONLY factor responsible for worldwide violence/conflict certainly, but it is a contributing one. Religion has been in the past- and still frequently is- used as a tool or an excuse for oppression, hatred, and war.. though Christianity in its many forms is certainly not the only religion guilty of this..