During the American Revolution there was a popular flag known officially as the “Gadsen Flag”. It depicts a coiled timber rattle snake – the only snake native to the original thirteen American colonies – with the motto “Don’t Tread on Me”.The flag is a simple and still strikingly effective way of articulating a deep political belief – that we are freer the less others get in our way.
The political philosopher Isaiah Berlin famously defined this idea of freedom as ‘negative’ freedom, not because it is bad, but because it asserts that we are freer the less we are hindered by external factors. The less other people hinder us, the less the state interferes with our lives, the more we are allowed to say and think what we believe the freer we are: “I am free if you don’t tread on me.”
In the political traditions shared by American and British political society this has become something of a political orthodoxy. We see this nowhere more clearly in the current debates about the future of this country in the European Union.
Many of the arguments put forward by those who would like us to leave the EU are based explicitly on this idea of political freedom. The European Union encumbers us, we are told. It stops us from doing what we as a country would like to do. It treads on our right define the way forward.
You might think that the position of the Remain camp would draw on a different set of arguments, but they are essentially the same. The Remain camp argues that we should remain in the EU because the alternative is much worse. Outside the EU, they argue, we would lose our power to control and influence key economic decisions. We would be encumbered, trod-on by the wild vagaries of the global political and economic climate.
Both argue different things from the same political text book – that I am free when you don’t tread on me. This vision of political freedom is hardwired into how we think about politics. But as Christians we are challenged to offer a different voice – the voice of Christian Liberty. Christian liberty stands in contrast to political freedom because it asserts – somewhat paradoxically – that we prosper and flourish, that we are at liberty not when everyone gets out of our way, but when we offer ourselves unquestioningly in love and service to God and each other. The liberty of the Christian does not come when others don’t tread on us, the liberty of the Christian comes when we love and serve others as God loves and serves us.
Thomas Cranmer sums this idea up better than I can in the second collect from Matins, the Collect for Peace.
O GOD, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom.
The liberty of the Christian does not come in throwing off all those external things that get in our way, our liberty comes, paradoxically, in giving all that we have away to follow Jesus.
This is not just a political ideal, but a deep truth drawn from our understanding of God as Trinity. As we worship God as Trinity we do not worship and idea or a complex theory. In the Trinity we are drawn into the divine life, as Jesus says in John’s Gospel, we are drawn into all truth.
The liberty revealed in the Trinity comes not because the persons of the Trinity get out of each others way, keep to their own areas of influence, and not tread on the other. The liberty of the Trinity comes because of their mutual indwelling with one another. The Father emptying himself in the form of the Son. The Son giving up of himself in the Spirit, and the Spirit leading us into all truth.
This liberty that the Trinity draws us into comes when we care more about what others need from us rather than whether they will tread on us.
Christian liberty is not so much a political manifesto as the pattern of Christian discipleship which is revealed to us in the life of our God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Our God as Trinity. As we engage with the world, as we come to make defining political decisions, as we will on June 23rd, we are charged to draw not only from our understanding of political freedom, but also our appreciation of Christian liberty as we enter the ballot box.
It may not come as a surprise to you to know that as I come to consider the upcoming referendum – certainly the most important political decision this country has made in my lifetime – I am drawing on these Christian principles to vote to remain.
My reasoning is not whether I will be richer if we stay in the EU, or if I will be less encumbered, more trod on if we go it alone as a country. My personal position is that however imperfect the systems, however strange and strained the relationships, I can’t get passed the historical fact that European society is more integrated and more at peace with itself because the structures and systems of the European Union. This flawed, imperfect and very human institution has encouraged a culture of mutual self-understanding which has taken us out of our historical silos and shown us the paradoxical freedom of being together.
That is not to say that one cannot draw from these great traditions of Christian liberty and make the opposite case. That if we leave we could remake and restart those relations of mutual understanding with nations throughout the world – particularly those in the Commonwealth – which we have been hindered from exploring because of our membership of the EU.
I have even seen it argued from some more radical campaigners of leaving, that only if we leave will we truly be able to stand in solidarity and mutual understanding with all humanity – and not just those lucky enough to live in our small damp northern continent.
As we all come to consider how we will vote in little over a months time today is an opportunity for us all to reconnect with one of the deepest truths, but also the deepest paradox’s of our faith. That in the Trinity God shows us what it is to live in perfect, mutual, self-giving harmony.
This is political image which human institutions can never hope achieve. But through the Trinity we are drawn again and again into a recognition that Christian liberty is not about getting rid of things that stop is from doing what we want to do. Christian liberty comes from the grace that draws us out of ourselves and into love and service of God and one another.
That we are free, not because others don’t tread on us, we are free because we serve others and give of ourselves to each other, as God gives himself for us.