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Celebrating Religious Freedom: Religious liberty advocacy as an act of radical hospitality

This week at we are celebrating religious liberty and its essential corollary, the separation of church and state. Each day this week, we will have a new religious liberty-themed post up. Be sure to check back throughout the week!Rebecca Mathis

The Celebrating Religious Freedom blog series kicks off with the post below from Rev. Rebecca Mathis. Rebecca serves as the secretary of the Religious Liberty Council of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. She resides in Western North Carolina with her husband Jeff, and spends much of her time chasing their two young children, Zeb and Ellen.

by Rebecca Mathis

Each year as the Fourth of July rolls around, we Baptists like to reminisce about risk-taking pioneers of the faith like Thomas Helwys, Roger Williams, Isaac Backus and John Leland.  We are proud of their courage to speak truth to power and the ways in which their leadership shaped the ethics of Baptist life and the ethics of our nation.

As a former history teacher, it’s easy for me to get swept away in the interesting stories of the past and to treat religious liberty as something that was fought for and obtained long before I was born.

Yet, if I look around and pay attention, I realize there is still much work to be done in regards to ensuring religious freedom for all.

If we Baptists are going to continue to be passionate advocates for religious liberty in the 21st century, it would serve us well to not only recall our history, but to recall God’s expectations for us as a community of believers. It’s easy to forget that God demands something of us as a community and explicitly lays out guidelines for community ethics in scripture. 

Leviticus 19:33-34 is a good place to start:

When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

Put more simply: Aliens may live with God’s people, should not be oppressed, must be treated as citizens, and loved as one of God’s own. 

Through these words to the Israelites, God clearly establishes an ethic of hospitality, justice, fairness and love. God’s people must exceed toleration, recognizing the obligation to welcome aliens as family members and provide for them within the faith community. 

So what does loving and welcoming foreigners have to do with religious freedom?

Providing safe space for people to practice their religious expressions (even if we fundamentally disagree with them) is an act of radical hospitality!  Look at an earlier verse found in Leviticus 19, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” (19:18).  God calls for unconditional, nonjudgmental love for both the neighbor and the alien, drawing no distinction between treatment of the two.

To love beyond the self defines the very essence of community responsibility.  For the Israelites, loving your neighbor as yourself means seeing the neighbor as a child of God and acknowledging God’s imprint on all people.  Ultimately, loving the alien becomes a search for the image of God within the other and a means to practice holiness in daily life.

Baptist advocacy to extend religious liberty to all people serves as a faithful response to God’s ethical standards.  God reminds God’s people to treat aliens as citizens. In modern America, this principle requires extension of equal religious freedom to all.  Honoring the faith of another, whether a fellow citizen or foreigner, serves as a powerful act of godly love.

God’s commands surpass mere toleration.  Offering love to one’s neighbor means offering friendship, radical hospitality and the hope of Christ in every situation.

When understood in light of the biblical imperative to love your neighbor, religious liberty advocacy becomes an expression of one’s effort to live a righteous life within a larger community.  Religious freedom and church-state separation go beyond political fairness, natural-rights theory and democratic idealism.  Rather, honoring another’s faith tradition and worship practices provides an avenue to love as God loves, without condition.

I am thankful for all of those Baptist saints and sinners who championed religious liberty throughout our history.  But the words of scripture remind me that I should not be content with what we have achieved; God calls each of us to continue to be welcoming and loving to all, regardless of our differences.

I hope that when I encounter those with whom I vehemently disagree, I will have the grace to see God’s imprint on them and will love them with the fullness of God’s unfailing love.


33 thoughts on “Celebrating Religious Freedom: Religious liberty advocacy as an act of radical hospitality

  1. Pingback: Is Fourth of July a Religious Holiday? | janes journals

  2. Well put. I’m reminded of the last part of a quote by James Madison: “Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess and observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us. If this freedom be abused, it is an offense against God, not against man: To God, therefore, not to man, must an account of it be rendered.” -James Madison

  3. Thank you for these good words, Rebecca. May we be moved to radical hospitality in our personal lives, and our policy making!

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  5. Pingback: Celebrating Religious Freedom: Blog series recap | Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Blog

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