I have been thinking about religious liberty these days. For many different reasons.
Religious liberty. What does that even mean? I Googled “religious liberty” just to see what definitions I might find. Being a long-time Baptist minister, I decided to consult our own Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty. Here’s their definition:
“Religious liberty” is the freedom to believe and exercise or act upon religious conscience without unnecessary interference by the government.Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty, https://bjconline.org/religiousliberty/
There you have it. Succinct. Simple. A very good “brass tacks” definition. The definition gets right to the heart of the matter. Still, I ask myself what religious liberty means for me.
My grandmother’s Greek village, Aperi, on the island of Karpathos, which is part of the Dodecanese Islands (literally “twelve islands”). These are a group of 15 larger, plus 150 smaller Greek islands in the southeastern Aegean Sea and Eastern Mediterranean, off the coast of Turkey’s Anatolia, of which 26 are inhabited.
My grandmother came to Ellis Island with my two-year old mother in tow, fleeing from the oppressive regime of Benito Mussolini. She left her tiny Greek village, Aperi, and arrived in New York Harbor where Lady Liberty stands, ever shining freedom’s light. My grandmother was “free” in America. She now had a “path to citizenship” and the freedom to exercise her Greek Orthodox faith. Her story is part of the story of my religious liberty, at the heart of it.
So I have asked myself this: When I ponder the working definition of religious liberty, do I also acknowledge the heart of its meaning in my life? I’m not so sure I do, because I take my soul freedom for granted as something I have always had. Religious freedom is, of course, a pillar of American life, written into the U.S. Constitution in the first 16 words of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
As clear as those words are, it’s not always obvious how to apply them in our society. Again, the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty boils it down by stating the specific points below as precise areas that call for advocacy for religious freedom.
The targeting of religious minorities.
The rise of Christian nationalism.
The politicization of houses of worship.
So getting to the heart of it . . . getting to my heart is a story I experienced many years ago, 1979 to be exact. It was the year my husband and I arrived in East Africa as young, very green, missionaries. The brutal Ugandan dictator President Idi Amin had just been deposed and was exiled somewhere in another country. He was no longer in Uganda, but the destruction he left behind was. His genocide, his destruction of the country’s infrastructure, his looting of homes and businesses, his dismantling of schools and burning of textbooks, his murderous reign of terror, his banning and burning of Christian churches — all so visible in faces of the Ugandan people.
I could barely force myself to look because everywhere I did look, I saw the remains of pure evil. And yet, the lush green of banana trees, the snow-capped mountains, the verdant rainforests, the hillside tea plantations, the majestic waterfalls were all there, unblemished signs of God’s creation. And those beautiful people, widows and orphans, living with deep loss and yet standing and and surviving and repairing. Their faces may have been drawn and downcast with mourning, but their sparkling eyes still reflected hope.
In our first days in Ugandan, we visited a nearby Anglican church for Sunday worship. As long as I have memory, I will remember the spontaneous, heart-felt prayers of that congregation. One woman stood spontaneously to pray. She prefaced her prayer with this passage of Scripture from her memory. The text from Lamentations so accurately described their lives.
Remember, Lord, what has befallen us; look, and see our disgrace!
Our inheritance has been turned over to strangers,
our homes to aliens.
We have become orphans, fatherless;
our mothers are like widows.
We must pay for the water we drink;
the wood we get must be bought.
With a yoke on our necks we are hard driven;
we are weary, we are given no rest.
Lamentations 5:1-5 (NRSV)
Then she prayed. She wept. I wept. Everyone in the congregation wept. The prayer time ended; the worship went on with scripture, prayer music and homily. At the end, as if to defy their mournful reality, they stood to their feet to sing. And sing they did, in jubilant praise. “O Lord our God, you have turned our mourning into dancing,” they shouted, as they sang louder snd stronger. Their mourning turned to dancing. Up and back, through the church aisles, all over the sanctuary, they moved and swayed, dancing with joy. And they sang:
Dance then, wherever you may be. I am the Lord of the dance, said He;
And I’ll lead you, all wherever you may be;
I am the Lord of the Dance, said He.
“Lord of the Dance;” Hymn text by Sydney Carter, 1963.
Yes, I know I am all over the map today in my attempt to explain soul freedom, religious liberty, freedom of religion, or whatever one might call it. But Uganda is the place — among those worshipping people — where I learned the heart-meaning of religious liberty.
The Ugandan people gave me the gift of truly understanding soul freedom. As the days moved on after that worship service, the people became our friends, close friends. And on a day I will not forget, a widow who had lost most of her family as well as her tiny mud hut with a roof of banana leaves said this to me. “They burned our churches, but we still worshipped. They decimated our religion, but we worshipped still. They murdered our priest, but we continued to speak to God the words he would have said. Oh yes, we were afraid in our secret “church,” but we worshipped, and whispered our prayers, and sang our praises to our God, ever so softly.”
That’s where I learned that taking my religious liberty for granted would not be my way, not ever again. In my lifetime, I have never had to worship in secret. I have never had to silence myself from speaking the truth of my faith. I have never been in a hidden “church” fearing that a government official would raid my sacred space and kill me.
Ah, those bright-eyed Ugandan people who persevered and persisted, who never lost hope, who never ceased their worship — their prayers, their singing, their dancing — in praise to a God who was present with them through every evil day. They were my teachers about the real and true meaning of soul freedom.
And by the way, Uganda’s underground churches flourished during the evil reign of the ruthless dictator, Idi Amin. God’s Church in Uganda grew, and grew strong, even as the flames of burning churches filled the countryside. Perhaps the courage of the people rose from the flames. Perhaps the smoke that rose from those fires became holy smoke, enveloping the people and rising with their prayers to God, just as the smoke of burning incense symbolizes the prayer of the faithful rising to heaven.
For soul freedom, O God, we give you thanks. Amen.