Saturday, August 1, 2015

Social Responsibility & Freedom in Christ

Just how free can we responsibly be? I have been thinking about this a whole lot recently, and am honestly baffled by the question. One thing I can promise, we aren't going to figure it out here. However, I'm hoping we can acknowledge that there are lines we simply aren't readily aware of and that we often cross them in one way or another. 

What do I mean by responsibility? I am referring to social responsibility or community responsibility. We all agree with this to a point, because we agree that there should be laws in place that promote the welfare of the general population. Some things may not be issues of law necessarily, but still are tenets of Christian behavior. Let me illustrate in a few ways. 

Our taxes are one form of social or community responsibility. We pay our taxes and governments create programs and other things that promote general welfare. Infrastructure, poverty alleviation, and other things all come from our taxes. So, paying our taxes is indeed a way that we contribute to the general welfare of our society. However, we all pay for things we probably don't enjoy paying for. I see many complain about paying taxes that go towards poverty alleviation, granted, some of those programs could certainly be run better (although I certainly think some would either do a horrible job or simply promote injustice if they truly had it their way). I personally don't enjoy that my tax dollars...or at least the tax cents...can contribute to funding the housing and upkeep of nuclear weapons. So, there seems to be a line, doesn't there? Really hard to define though.

Another example. The carbon footprint we are leaving on this world is beginning to take its toll. To what extent should an individual be free to drive around in a gas guzzling truck that looks great to those who love that type of thing, but only gets 5 miles to the gallon, pollutes the air, and serves no real purpose for that individual that a smaller and less environmentally destructive vehicle could not? We obviously are pretty freedom oriented here in the U.S. about this type of thing, and I see people drive around vehicles all day long that are completely impractical for their daily purposes. When do we say though that a person is socially responsible for reducing their carbon footprint and NOT destroying our shared living environment, and should not be free to trample over all ideas of environmental stewardship (a Biblical value if you remember back to the beginning of that Genesis book)? 

Just look at California right now. They have some sincere water restrictions regarding their water use, such as restrictions on lawn watering and being asked to reduce shower times. This is necessary if they are to make any impact in their current water crisis. Corporations should also be held accountable since things like fracking are using up incredible amounts of water (something like 70,000,000 gallons in 2014 in the state of California alone). There is most obviously a line between freedom to do what you want and the social responsibility to our world. Where is that line? I don't know, that's tough to say, but surely we can agree that we all could do a little better in this area and see our world truly as "ours" and not "mine." 

Other examples. We all kind of believe to an extent that consenting adults are free to make decisions, even poor decisions, as long as they are not hurting other people. This is why, as a society, pornography seems to be socially accepted, even if individuals refrain for their own moral reasons. However, even that industry is regulated because of injustices and oppression that often occurs. We also see the negative effects of children having access to pornography when they are of a young and impressionable age. My Christian value says that objectifying people is wrong and I certainly see huge issues within the industry in terms of how people are treated and the effect it has on people, but as far as the societal ability to exercise such freedom, things become messy.

This leads into a whole other intensely difficult topic for me: modesty. I believe greatly that a man's lust issues are his responsibility, and women have been blamed and shamed for a long time as basically being the offenders while men have been seen as the victims. This is far from being the case, and yet I wonder what Christian social responsibility says about the issue? Yes, the way we've approached this topic has largely been skewed, but I also believe that walking around completely naked is a wrong thing to do. Exposing oneself to children and other non-consenting persons is a punishable offense, and I'm glad that it is. So, what is the line? To what extent do I understand that a sense of community responsibility does impact what I wear, even as a man? I definitely don't think we've been fair on this issue towards women, but I definitely don't think that eliminates the line completely. I surely am grateful when my sisters in Christ don't put unnecessary temptation out before me. This is truly a difficult issue for me to find the line. It's not easy. 

Biologically speaking, Dan Siegel has alot to tell us about social responsibility (2011). Our brains are mechanisms that allow us to think. However, the ways we think, our minds, are part of a relational process. The human mind is largely determined by energy and information flow. What kind of information you receive growing up determines in many ways how your mind operates. This makes sense to us to some extent. Why do we often say "they are truly a product of their culture?" Because our context and culture define how our minds work. Try and think of a single thing you thought that wasn't influenced by something else you learned from other people.

Unfortunately, our western society has defined this idea of the mind or self as a singular entity. We are truly one of the most individualistic societies in the world. However, we can't even learn to be individualistic if we weren't made and crafted by our context and relationships. If this is the case, we have to admit that I am plural. I use this quote from Dan Siegel often - "I am more than me, I am connected to you, and I am a member of we." There's a difference between this being the case and people actually embracing this idea over the individualism promoted by our modern conceptions of freedom. Everything about how our minds operate speaks to our shared reality, and of being made to live in community. We have to change our language surrounding freedom, because I do believe it is creating societies that only care for the self and define the self as a singular noun. We must move towards a plural definition, otherwise our society will only become more dark and our world will only become more polluted both literally and figuratively. (For a more thorough look at this topic of the mind, check out this incredible video - )   

We often talk about our freedom in Christ, and Romans 14 usually comes into the conversation. We talk about not causing our brothers and sisters to stumble, and yet there are definitely times we've used this to make victims out of perpetrators and perpetrators out of victims. However, do we have to see it in this way completely? Can we instead see ourselves as contributing to problems? As a family therapist, a classical systems approach to this would be to say that we all contribute 50% to every interaction and therefore every problematic interaction. I'm not sure this accurately represents all situations. Certainly with issues of abuse, there's a need to see issues of power as playing a huge role in who has control - yes, we all probably contribute with some sort of behavior, but that doesn't mean that victims of abuse are responsible for their abuse or that abusers are less responsible all of a sudden. However, basically speaking, can we admit that in most cases - it takes two to tango? Or, as my great grandfather used to say, "It's a mighty thin pancake to have only one side."

There are two wrong ways for us to read Romans 14. The first would be that we are free and do not need to worry about anyone else, since they are the weaker person. The other wrong way to read it though is to take a reductionistic stance where we are guided by the most narrow minded of us. Our freedom certainly grants us some individual liberty in making decisions in our own faith. However, we also must think and act with a sense of community responsibility.

Now hear me right - I do not think that others can cause us to sin. So, modesty advocates out there, we should get away from this line of thinking. After all, very few of us believe in the idea of "original sin" and thinking that someone can cause you to sin is yet another thought along that line. It was indeed Jesus who looked at the woman caught in adultery (who was likely wearing little to no clothing) and did not sin. It is possible to not sin even when presented with the most obvious of opportunities; we can still grant people their humanity and not objectify them. Reinhold Niebuhr (1964) had an interesting view of original sin in that he didn't think we were born with sin, but rather born into contexts that inevitably lead us to sin. I can get on board with this idea, and I think perhaps this is a more helpful idea. We should create contexts for each other that help and do not hinder. You probably would be better off not drinking in front of your struggling alcoholic friend, even if you believe that your freedom allows you to respectfully enjoy such. You can't make your friend sin, but you surely are a part of creating contexts that either help or hinder.

Perhaps this kind of thinking can bring to our minds the true definition of freedom in Christ: service. We are set free from our sin, but made slaves to righteousness. We may hold a freedom that allows us to execute a certain behavior, whether it is the first century example of eating meat or any number of behaviors that might fall under this category today. However, we should also remember that being free in this area of life also means that I balance it in a way that shows I care deeply about my community. In Christian community, no one is seen as "other." Enemies are loved, others are welcomed, and neighbors come from the most unexpected places. We are indeed responsible for serving those in this world. We should not use our freedom as an excuse for sin.

We make our freedom an excuse for sin quite a lot, it would seem, when we deny our responsibility to our community: we drive the pointless gas guzzler, we wear what we want, and we in general just do what we want, when we want, and how we want. Freedom is an American value, but that doesn't mean that the Americanized definition of this term represents the kingdom value within the concept of Freedom in Christ. I love the fact that we are free in so many ways, but I think we've crossed lines in many regards. 

But that doesn't mean that I have determined the line. I am struggling hard. The balance between freedom, individual responsibility, and community responsibility is one that is causing my head to hurt if I get to thinking about it too long. A huge part of this is that it is incredibly hard for me to think about institutional applications like what laws should be; that is the biggest headache. However, that perhaps makes it all the more important to us as Christians. No matter what the policy makers of this world say is acceptable to do to the environment, to each other, and in other areas of life, Christians should be modeling the best behavior in all regards. What if we helped the poor so much that it was the church who set the example for how to do so? What if we were the absolute best environmentalists out there and set the precedent for taking care of our shared home? What if we modeled righteousness in our behaviors while still enjoying our freedom in Christ? And what if we did all of this while still being gentle to those who do not share our opinions or sense of community responsibility?

The line to be found in modesty is probably somewhere between hippy nudist colonies and puritan style wardrobes. The line in nature conservation is probably somewhere between hoarding and destroying the earth's resources and imprisoning someone who occasionally trashes a coke can instead of recycling it. Not sure where it is, but I am certain that if we love people enough, we'll move towards better stances.

I hope this starts conversations with those around you. I surely don't have all the answers, but I know that we certainly won't get any closer to answers if we don't ask the questions. 


Niebuhr, R. (1964). The nature and destiny of man: A Christian interpretation. New York, NY: Charles Scriber's Sons Publisher.

Siegel, D. [GarrisonInstitute]. (2011, March 8). The neurological basis of behavior, the mind, the brain and human relationships [Video File]. Retrieved from