Freedom versus legalism

Culture | Christianity offers inner change; Islam offers only external rules

Issue: "No time to celebrate," Dec. 1, 2001

After the Taliban high-tailed it out of Afghanistan's major cities, ordinary Afghans-though bombed and poverty-stricken-amazed Western viewers with public displays of happiness.

People played music. (The Taliban had outlawed music.) Children flew kites. (Kite flying was forbidden). People dug up television sets they had buried in their back yards and brought out photographs they had hidden, since TV and photography were outlawed. Young men played soccer. (Also outlawed, after a Pakistani team showed up for a game wearing shorts instead of the prescribed long-sleeved tunics and to-the-ground trousers.)

As soon as the Taliban left, men lined up at barber shops to shave their beards, and many women ditched the burqa, the wearable tent with webbed eye-holes reminiscent of the haz-mat suits used in America for the anthrax scare. Both trendy styles were mandatory under the Taliban fashion police, who whipped violators with steel rods.

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The smiling faces, the dancing in the streets, the hugs for their liberators seemed surprising. Conditioned by the ideology of multiculturalism, we had assumed that the Afghans lived the austere life they did because of their culture.

It turns out they hated living under a regime that forbade the most innocent of pleasures. The radical Islamic regime did not reflect cultural values, just old-fashioned tyranny. Something similar is happening in Iran, with a grassroots uprising against the control-freak mullahs and their Virtue Police. The love of freedom, it appears, is multicultural.

When the United States defeated Japan, the less-than-culturally-sensitive occupying army swept away the cultural legacy of centuries to impose an American-style constitution and make the Japanese free whether they wanted to be or not. For this, the Japanese people-who eagerly embraced not only capitalism but baseball-have been deeply grateful.

But political freedom and cultural freedom-which must mean, among other things, freedom from the culture-both have their origins in spiritual freedom.

Christianity is arguably the only world religion that promises freedom. The New Testament, contrary to the common assumption that associates freedom with moral license, analyzes sin as a type of slavery. "Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin," said Jesus. Sinners are in bondage, as any drug addict or drunk or sexual sinner would have to admit, as well as those who cannot control their temper, appetites, or selfish thoughts. But "if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed" (John 8:34, 36).

Put another way, Christianity is the only world religion that is not all about what a person has to do. Rather, as has been said, it is all about what God does for us. We are not saved by our works, but by the work of Christ, who, by His grace, gives us salvation as a free gift.

In Christianity, virtue comes not through the imposition of external rules, but from a changed heart that no longer wants to be entrapped in sin and that wants to love and serve others. In the connection between spiritual freedom and political freedom recognized by the American founders, someone who is virtuous from the inside does not need a strong political power to keep him in line. Because he governs himself, he can be, literally, self-governing.

Islam, on the other hand, is, like other world religions, a theology of legalism. Whereas Christianity's priority is saving souls, Islam's priority is imposing Koranic law. Christianity focuses on individuals; Islam focuses on societies. As a Nigerian Christian told WORLD, when Christian missionaries come to Africa, they build schools and hospitals. When Islamic missionaries come, they try to take over the government.

Legalism, ironically, tends to be accompanied by immorality. As those who work with international college students know, Islamic students who come to the United States often have big behavioral problems.

Having been brought up in a society that tries to make bad behavior impossible with Taliban-like restrictions, when they find themselves in a society without those external restraints, they often go wild, indulging in all kinds of debauchery. It comes as no surprise that the Sept. 11 hijackers spent their last days getting lapdances in sleazy strip bars. In legalistic religions, morality is purely external and must be enforced by restrictive rules or whip-bearing Virtue Police.

No wonder they see Christianity as such a threat, to the point of imprisoning those eight relief workers-since freed in the Taliban rout (see page 22)-for telling someone about Jesus. If the Afghans were so happy at the merest taste of personal freedom, imagine their joy, burdened as they have been by a legalistic religion, if they could know the freedom of the gospel.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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