On the outskirts of Moscow, there is an Orthodox Christian memorial. The site, known as Butovo, once belonged to a private estate. The Soviets expropriated the land after the revolution and turned it into a firing range. It was there during Stalin’s purges that more than 20,000 “enemies of the people” were shot and buried. I walk among the mass graves on a snowy, steel gray February morning. Nearby, a large board displays dozens of black and white photographs from the late 1930s. They are Soviet secret police mug shots of priests, monks, and nuns just about to be killed: Bishop Serafim (Chichagov) († December 11, 1937), the priest Vladimir Ambartsumov († November 5, 1937), the nun Anna (Makandina) († March 14, 1938), and many more.

I stop and contemplate their faces. Like the saints in Orthodox icons, they seem to look through and beyond this world into eternity. I see terror yet peace, exhaustion yet ecstatic anticipation of another life. And there is spiritual defiance. These men and women had been stripped of every legal and political right, yet are strangely confident that a righteous God holds them safely in his hands. Under the most awful circumstances of persecution, Butovo’s victims discovered what Christians really mean by freedom. I find myself thinking about the United States, how in recent years I have worried about the future of a legal right to religious freedom in our society. Now I understand things differently. The faces of Butovo speak to me. Though about to die, they are free “in the Lord.”

The question of freedom lies at the very foundations of Christianity. Soon after Christ’s death, Paul defended Christian freedom against those who insisted that Gentile converts must fulfill all the obligations of the Jewish law. In the fourth century, St. Augustine stood against the Pelagians, arguing that only God’s grace sets a person free from sin. Martin Luther returned to these themes in the sixteenth century. He proclaimed that faith alone saves us from earthly powers, liberating us to serve God’s purposes.

These Christian understandings of freedom have shaped Western political thought in decisive ways. Liberal democracies often have constitutions that guarantee freedom of conscience. A separation of Church and state embodies a basic Christian commitment to the inherent dignity and freedom of every human being with respect to ultimate questions of God and salvation. Liberal democracies have, in turn, influenced the Christian churches. For many Western Christians, life in a liberal democratic order is what they regard as the essence of freedom.

Butovo and the Russian martyrs call this assumption into question. A liberal democratic order and a legally guaranteed right to religious freedom are worth endorsing, but they are not the ultimate freedom of which Christians speak. As a spiritual reality, freedom does not depend on specific legal or political arrangements. We can be free even under conditions of religious persecution.

This kind of freedom is not just a personal, individualistic matter. It also defines the Church, which is most truly itself as it proclaims and manifests spiritual freedom. No earthly power should dictate how the Church understands truth or organizes its internal affairs. The Church will normally abide by the laws of the land. It must, however, cultivate a freedom of mind and spirit that enables it to judge by its own criteria what is ultimately just and good.

This distinctive Christian approach to freedom differs from a liberal democratic order in fundamental ways. Attention shifts from a right to religious freedom guaranteed by the state to the spiritual freedom cultivated by the Church. The emphasis on personal freedom of expression, so central to a liberal democratic order, is balanced by a concern to guard the integrity and freedom of religious communities. We are no longer just individuals standing naked before a state that recognizes and protects our rights. We are embedded in a religious tradition mediated by church teachings and practices, growing in spiritual freedom as we participate in the Church’s life. What a particular individual believes is less important than what the Church believes. And what the Church believes is expressed not primarily as abstract theological propositions, but rather as a way of life together. Spiritual freedom arises from an existential encounter with a transcendent power, what Christians call God, and this freedom is sustained and deepened by ongoing worship and discipleship in a community of faith.

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