Tuesday, September 21, 2010

One-Third Free

“I stand before you today only one-third free,” said Sarah Shourd, the American hiker freed from Iranian captivity after more than a year. She spoke these words at a recent press conference and was referring to the fact that her fiancé and a friend are still in Iranian custody, accused of espionage.

She continued, “That was the last thing that Josh said to me before I walked through the prison doors. Josh and Shane felt one-third free at that moment and so did I. The only thing that enabled me to cross the Gulf from prison to freedom alone was the knowledge that Shane and Josh wanted with all their heart for my suffering to end.” She then went on to say that she would now turn all her attention to gaining freedom for the remaining hikers.

Being a student of religions, my first thought on hearing her words was the bodhisattva vow. According to Mahayana Buddhism, bodhisattvas take a vow stating that they will strive, for as long as it takes, to free all sentient beings from bondage and lead them to enlightenment. In other words, a bodhisattva will not enter Nirvana until all enter Nirvana.  To use Christian language, they will not enter heaven until all enter heaven. They are not saved until all are saved.

It is a noble sentiment. As a Christian, I wish there was more of this attitude in my Christian religion. But as a pastor I have seen a different attitude. Christians say they believe in eternal heaven and hell, and they rejoice in their salvation. But they do not seem very disturbed at the thought that their neighbors and friends will not be spending eternity with them.

They seem unconcerned that, according to their model of salvation, most of humanity will spend eternity in hell. They certainly would never think of delaying entrance into the pearly gates until all are saved. In fact they seem eager to leave this vale of tears behind and get to their celestial reward.

It is disturbing that the Buddhist religion seems to demonstrate more compassion than Christianity in this regard. It certainly isn’t Jesus’ fault. Christ demonstrated supreme love and compassion. He willingly went to the cross, and experienced death and hell for us!  He worked tirelessly during his ministry and gave his life for our salvation. But I don’t see this Christly attitude in his followers.

When Sarah Shourd stated that she was only one-third free, her words struck a chord in my heart. I don’t know what her religious convictions are, but her attitude felt profoundly Christian. 

Can any human being feel content until all humans are free? Can any Christian enjoy freedom from sin and death until all are free? How can any Christian rest until they do everything they can to ensure that all are saved? How can any person walk through the heavenly gates knowing that loved ones have been left behind?

According to religious statistics from the year 2000, one third of the world’s population is Christian. (That is a very generous figure that includes all forms of Christianity and counts all nominal Christians. The real number of sincere, active, believing Christians is certainly a fraction of this figure.) But if we accept the figure – and furthermore assume that the Christian gospel truly presents the way of salvation - it means that we are only one-third free.

So we either change our apathetic attitude toward those facing eternal imprisonment or we reexamine our model of salvation. Anything else is hypocrisy. We either join Sarah Shourd in directing all our attention to freeing our companions on this earthly journey – or we rethink our doctrines of heaven and hell. 

But to enjoy a life of freedom while believing that others are still facing endless imprisonment and torture is unconscionable … and unchristian.
Photo is of American hikers Shane Bauer, left, Sarah Shourd and Josh Fattal.

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