A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Staying in Balance: Equality & Liberty
April 23, 2015
This is the first in a series on some of the critical balances Presbyterians seek to strike between values that often compete against each other. We begin with a look at how we negotiate between the claims of equality and liberty in how we order our life together.
This spring we have marked the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s march to Selma in the crusade for equality at the voting booth. At the same time we are celebrating the 150th anniversary of the end of our Civil War, where countless lives were sacrificed so that true economic liberty would be available to those who had been subject to slavery. We stop to observe their anniversaries not because they forever settled prevailing inequities in our society, but because they remind us that the causes for which they stood still require champions to carry their torch today. For every advance made against inequality, other barriers have arisen. As a presbytery, we have recently been engaged in substantive conversations about persisting inequities among us in regard to race and income. Such conversations are difficult, but they are unavoidable if we are committed to liberty and justice in our church and society.
Some analysts contend that a degree of inequality can be good for the whole of society – they argue that when a few among us are incentivized to prosper in extraordinary ways, the rest of society benefits directly or indirectly from their prosperity. This benefit may be construed along the lines of “trickle-down economics” or in some other fashion; in any case, they argue that liberty to prosper is more important to the general well-being of society than absolute equality for all. Others counter that equality is so important in itself that it should never be sacrificed on the altar of liberty, even for the sake of broadened prosperity.
The stories of the Easter community indicate that equality was a hallmark of the earliest Christian believers. They practiced economic equality by holding their possessions in common rather than claiming individual ownership. (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-35) This is the biblical basis, incidentally, for our church’s stipulation that church properties belong to the whole church, rather than to individual congregations. The Easter community practiced social equality by assuring that there would be no favoritism of one ethnic group over another in receiving the benefit of the church’s welfare. (Acts 6:1-7) It was also a community of spiritual equality in which all members, not just ordained leaders, were understood to have received spiritual gifts necessary for the welfare of the rest. (1 Corinthians 12:7) Each member had something vital to contribute to the spiritual life of the body, so that when they gathered as a worshiping community, everyone was given opportunity to share something that could edify the rest. (1 Corinthians 14:26)
As committed as we are to equality, we also care deeply about liberty, and rightly so. We are alarmed by reports that Christians in other parts of the world are being persecuted and even slain for their faith. We pray earnestly for their deliverance from such evil. Such reports lead us also to re-examine our own commitments to liberty for neighbors whose creeds differ from ours. Liberty, like justice, is an empty and abstract value if we do not practice it in our own precincts.
We struggle deeply when liberty of religious conviction collides with commitment to equality for all persons, as evident in the controversy over the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” legislation recently enacted in Indiana and Alabama. A fair balance point between true equality and genuine liberty can be exquisitely difficult to strike, and people of good will and honest faith often come down on different sides of it.
Our denomination has recently faced a similar balance-point challenge as we have sought to provide for marriage equality without infringing on the liberty of pastors and congregations to determine, according to their own conscience, which marriages they should or should not celebrate. Are we nimble and devoted enough to both liberty and equality to keep these commitments in dynamic balance?
Amid our celebration of milestone anniversaries in our nation’s struggles for equality and liberty, we must acknowledge that we have a long ways yet to go in fully achieving them. As heirs of the Easter community, we who confess the risen Lord ought to be in the forefront of that quest. Because Jesus lives, we stand resolute for life abundant among and around us - a life marked by freedom and equality in all their fullness, to the glory of the One who died and rose again that we may live in this way.
Carrying the torch with you,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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