Relating to God as Father, true equality and fraternity, and a place in the history that finally matters can only be found in Christ. Without Christ we can have the slogans but not the reality. The French revolution changed the face of Europe and maybe other places but it did not bring us Liberté, égalité, fraternité.
Our society allegedly celebrates diversity, e.g. of religions and sexual partnerships, but it can do so only by pretending that the different things in one “category” are basically the same. All religions are valued on the basis that they all teach us roughly the same values – allegedly. Marriage between partners of the same sex is advocated on the basis that such partnerships are really no different from heterosexual partnerships. As a society, we seem to have a fear of acknowledging difference because we don't know how to do equality without sameness.
Brotherhood has fared no better, even since, belatedly, we have included women in the fraternity. In reality, even a gender-inclusive “brother- and sisterhood of all” tends to embrace only people that are similar to us or whom we like well enough, or maybe all we don’t dislike, including the huge number of people somewhere else on the globe whom we don’t know and have no desire to get to know. We may not fully agree that “blood is thicker than water,” that the bonds of family and common ancestry are stronger than the bonds between unrelated people, but any discussion of immigration shows that most people operate with very firm limits to fraternity.
In reality, few people have a desire to extend equality to those who do not merit it. (Who believes in equal outcomes anymore?) But even “equal opportunities” is something we are hardly eager to extend across the globe, not if it might mean limiting us to create more opportunities elsewhere.
Analysts might say that our shortcoming on equality and fraternity are the result of the fact that the three ideals are in conflict and liberty has won. At the point where treating other men and women as my brothers and sisters would limit my liberty, fraternity has to be kept in check. At the point where fuller equality would limit my own liberty, equality has to be curtailed. So we may make compromises on fraternity and equality but at least we have liberty.
But are we truly free? Do we not see people in bondage to their fleeting desires to such an extent that you just wish they could take a step back and be free to make better choices? Do we not see people imprisoned by peer pressure; their freedom from the norms of one set of people being one side of the coin, on the other of which is strong conformity to one’s own in-group? And do we not all know people whose freedom is limited by norms and laws which they only keep because they don’t think they would get away with it, if they did not keep them?
Are we truly free? Free to flourish in doing good, acting in line with our deepest and most wholesome desires? Are we free in our ability to embrace others as our brothers and sisters? And is that freedom the freedom of someone who is not a blip in world history but a vital link in the history of God’s promises?
Galatians offers us the picture of a better identity. In Christ we belong to God as Father, to each other as brothers and sisters, to Abraham as offspring. In Christ we are given our place in eternity, in society and in history. Christ is the centre point that gives our lives height, breadth and length. Why? Because Christ accomplishes things we cannot do on our own.
Christians are those who are united to Christ. They are so identified with Christ that their “own identity becomes intricately bound to, and intertwined with, that of Christ, to the exclusion of all others” (Bruce Longenecker). This makes it possible for us to relate to fellow Christians as brothers and sisters. This does not mean that we do not love agnostics and Hindus and Muslims, fascists and communists. We know all humans to be created in the image of God and this should shape our relationship with them. We should not want to be exclusive but we realise that Christ makes a brotherhood possible in a deeper sense than we could ever achieve outside of Christ.
Christians know, or at least suspect, that the outcome will not be equal for everyone, but for those who live by grace meritocracy cannot have the last word. The parable Jesus told of workers who all got the same payment regardless of how long they had worked was not told to recommend an economic policy but those who know that there is so much more to life than what we have earned, that so much of it is free gift, will more readily share towards greater equality.
And as they do so they will know again, as the old collect has it, that we serve a God “whose service is perfect freedom” because as our relationship to him and others is more and more grounded in and shaped by love, it is less and less a matter of fulfilling duties and obligations.
Liberté, égalité, fraternité? They are truly to be found in Christ.