The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Article 18 states, "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."
This right, adopted and proclaimed by the General Assembly of the United Nations on Dec. 10, 1948, is less than universal in its practice in our world today. Numerous nations remain closed to the freedom of religious expression or the freedom to actually change one’s religious beliefs. In many nations, it is only on the pain of death that a citizen can convert from the state-authorized religious system.
It is without question that such closure to the spiritual yearnings of human beings is repressive. In fact, it is destructive to the dignity every man and woman has been endowed with by their Creator. "In the image of God He created them; male and female He created them," wrote Moses. God is completely free; so are those created in His image. That image is one of freedom from the constrictive restraints against the conscience in matters of worship.
This liberty, endemic to the natural order, was so serious to God, that He gave the first humans a choice in the matter of their relationship with Himself. "You are free to eat from any tree in the garden ..." were among the first words God verbalized in Scripture, words of liberty, and only then, followed by the one restriction; a restriction designed to protect Adam and Eve from the bondage of guilt and shame. When they transgressed that boundary, the Scripture records that "they hid from the Lord." The result was not greater liberty, but the self-imposed prison of fear and guilt.
The Hebrew and Christian Scriptures bear witness to a God who invites us into a relationship with Himself; a relationship based not on coercion but on the free choice of the individual. God is not seeking unthinking automatons driven by fear, but rather those who are drawn to know the love and mercy of God and share that compassion with others.
I hold to a firm understanding of the Christian Gospel and believe fervently in Jesus as the Way of Salvation. I labor to share that Good News with others. But I also realize that in order for me to have the freedom to embrace and spread the Biblical faith, civil society must allow for my fellow citizens to believe otherwise.
"It is for freedom that Christ has set us free, " wrote St. Paul to the Galatian churches, "Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery." We must seek the freedom of religious belief in all cultures of the world and work against religious oppression and violence wherever it is found.
Rev. Daniel J. Willms is the pastor the Vineyard Free Methodist Church in Walla Walla. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Pastors in the U-B circulation area who want to write a column should contact Catherine Hicks at 509-526-8312, or by e-mail at email@example.com.