George Mason: Only at its extremes does religion oppress us

The freedom of religion

Religion is supposed to be a cure to what ails us. So, why does it too often seem to make us sicker instead?

The world is beset with divisions — national and international, local and global, human and natural, male and female, young and old, straight and gay, black and white, conservative and progressive, rich and poor, white-collar and blue-collar, urban and rural, ad infinitum. Even those binaries don’t tell the whole story because there are splinters as well as splits between them all. Added to these is brokenness within each of us: sins committed against us that mar our sense of self, and sins we commit against ourselves that rob us of our potential. We can fail to reach high enough and we can fail to be grounded enough.

Politics, social science and therapy can contribute to the healing. Religion brings God into the fray. Or better, God comes into the fray and religion names the divine direction where hope and healing are found.

The word religion comes from the Latin combination of re- and ligere: to bind or fasten or tie again. Like ligaments that hold our bones and organs in place, religion — when it functions rightly — is the tissue that knits us back together when we are broken. It makes the invisible visible, mending us inside and out.

When religion becomes too authoritarian and conformist or, on the other side, when it becomes too permissive and individualist, it deepens the problem by layering it with a spiritual dimension. God is then on the side of the oppressor or the oppression.

Religion is unifying and healing when it leads us on the path of liberation that includes both freedom from external masters and freedom of internal self-mastery. Grace and self-discipline are spiritual friends.

God delivered the children of Israel from slavery to the Pharaoh in Egypt. The same God delivered the Law of Moses to those freed slaves in order to teach a new way to live in the world. Jesus lived and died and was raised, so that we might know “the truth that sets us free” and then live “the life that really is life.”

The common answers to our problems as a society tend to emphasize one side of freedom at the expense of the other. Our best religious leaders call us to both: by fixing both the social structures and personal struggles that thwart the full participation of all in the community. They will address inequities of education and economics and political participation, and the destructive habits of mind and heart that tear us apart within.

When you are tempted to join the band of those in the church house or the statehouse or the courthouse who invoke the name of God with their agenda, ask yourself whether their message creates more unity or division, more healing or sickness. Religion touches on all areas of life, but only when it calls us all to what is good and true and beautiful can it refasten the ties that bind.

George Mason is pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church. The Worship section is underwritten by Advocate Publishing and the neighborhood businesses and churches listed here. For information about helping support the Worship section, call 214.560.4202.


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