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FIRST-PERSON: The oppressive old master

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FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–There are days Americans will always remember. Dec. 7, 1941, Nov. 22, 1963, and Sept. 11, 2001, are but a few of those days when the course of history changed and our country showed itself resolute in its defense of freedom.

A day the world should remember is April 9, 2003, when millions were riveted to news channels broadcasting images from the fall of Baghdad, Iraq. The most profound image was of the formerly oppressed people of Baghdad dancing atop a toppled 30-foot-tall statue of Saddam Hussein.

The crowd was so jubilant that it severed the head of the statue, attached a rope to it and spent an hour pulling it through the streets. Several children — and a few old men — took turns sitting on top of the head as it was pulled along like Baghdad’s newest carnival ride.

Within days the jubilation turned sour as looters ravaged the nation’s banks, government buildings and museums. The people of Iraq had been without freedom so long that many did not know how to act when they were granted it.

Shiite Muslims began to call for the establishment of a fundamentalist Islamic state. Sunni Muslims, uneasy about the possibility of suffering retribution for their years of control over the Shiites, began conducting public relations marches with banners that read, “No Sunni. No Shiite. Only One Islamic Nation.”

Most perplexing was that the crowds, which would not have been able even to assemble while Hussein’s boot was on the throats of the Iraqi people, began protesting the American “occupation” of Iraq with signs that referenced American imperialism.

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Ahmed Kubeisi, a Sunni cleric, told the Associated Press during one of the marches that the United States was only after Iraq’s oil and should “get out before we force you out. … We are the ones who are going to reconstruct our country. We don’t need any interference from America.”

Kubeisi and the remainder of the protestors reflected a serious misunderstanding of history. In January 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell told an audience at an economic forum in Switzerland that force was necessary to remove Hussein from power, but that the world need not fear the rebirth of colonialism. There had never been another nation in history like the United States, he said.

“We have gone forth from our shores repeatedly over the last hundred years … and put many wonderful young men and women at risk, many of whom lost their lives, and we have asked for nothing except enough ground to bury them in,” Powell said.

Profound words from Secretary Powell. Still, the United States will never convince the Iraqis of its motivations prior to the establishment of stability and prosperity. The answer as to the ambitions of the United States will be judged, as they were in past wars, by history.

As the one-year anniversary of the fall of Baghdad approaches, violence has once again gripped the country. Guerillas and foreign fighters have forgotten that Hussein was their oppressor, America their liberator, and they have showed their ingratitude by dragging American corpses through their streets to the cheers of the mob.

Beyond the political and historical implications of the liberation of Iraq, recent events in Fallujah provide a profound spiritual analogy that speaks to all those liberated by Christ. In Galatians 5:1-2, the Apostle Paul wrote, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand fast, therefore, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by the yoke of slavery.”

Newly born into eternal life, the Galatians had the shackles of sin and death removed. They were freed from the law and from their insatiable quest for righteousness in the eyes of God.

The church, however, was threatened by two corruptions of the Gospel: nomism and libertinism. Nomism, or Jewish legalism, threatened the church when Jewish Christians began to persuade the gentiles of their need for circumcision. The libertines threatened the church with their appeals to the seemingly high authority of human conscience. To them, there was no need for law. The result of such thinking was licentiousness.

Paul wrote that the Galatians should not be “burdened again” by their old master. That statement is perplexing since the Christians at Galatia were mostly former pagans who had no knowledge of the living God or the law.

But his assertion was simple really. If the Galatians daily trusted in anything other than Jesus Christ to obtain favor in God’s eyes or misinterpreted what freedom in Christ meant, then they had denied the Lord and the efficacy of His work on the cross. In Paul’s eyes, both nomism and libertinism were as corrupt as the paganism from which Christ rescued the gentiles.

Christ’s atonement for the sins of the Galatians, Paul wrote, required faith in Christ expressing itself in love for their brethren and those outside the church. Complete and utter dependence on Christ — daily fellowship with Him through the Holy Spirit — produced moral behavior and the “fruits of the Spirit.”

Countless millions throughout history have experienced the grace of God through Jesus Christ. I have experienced it, unworthy as I am. But in order for me to live in the grace of Christ daily, I must realize that faith is not rigid adherence to a set of principles. Nor is faith serving my conscience.

My faith, which I recognize as a marvelous gift from God, comes from the realization that He “graces” me even today. I was not “rubber stamped” with grace as a 7-year-old. Grace is not checked baggage that I pick up at the end of my flight through life.

God lavishes his grace on me and all of His children daily. Those He has called to Himself cannot live in Christ without it, and we cannot avoid the same extremes that threatened the fledgling church at Galatia without it.

I do not want to be bound by a law, the law, or any law. I do not want to follow my conscience. When I serve any law or my conscience, I assuredly go astray and inevitably trust in something or someone other than Christ. I desire to follow Christ.

Imagine the citizens of Baghdad building a new and bigger statue to Hussein. Imagine a city where lawlessness or license prevails. Both scenarios are equally unappealing. The real hope for Iraq is that its citizens will use their newly granted freedom wisely.

That is my prayer for myself and all those who follow Christ. He has given us freedom, but only the freedom to follow Him instead of our oppressive old master or any new authority.
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Gregory Tomlin is director of communications at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.