What exactly is the “freedom of a Christian”?
I intended to begin this post with my own story about that common, human experience of asserting our individuality over and against the “parental system”. The standard conversation goes something like: “I’m not a little kid anymore. You can’t tell me what to do” followed closely by “All my friends are doing it”. The stereotypical response by parents is: “As long as you are living in my house you live by my rules” followed closely by “Just because your friends jump off a bridge doesn’t mean you have to.”
But then last night, I flipped on the news right as the President was paying respects to the Capitol Police officer who was lying in honor in the Rotunda. Less than a month ago, that very spot was the crime scene where the officer had lost his life and his was not the only life lost in the violence of that day. We dare not forget that as people stormed the Capitol on January 6th, shouting “This is our house” and claiming to “defend freedom”, this officer’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness was taken away forever. And his wasn’t the only life taken that day. This was a stark reminder that what we do with our freedom is much more than a child’s dilemma. It is deadly serious business upon which the well-being of the world depends.
What is freedom anyway?
Freedom is a common human longing which I like to think is a consequence of being created in the image of God. God possesses ultimate freedom, able to choose freely and without constraint. However, even at the height of our perceived personal freedom, human beings never escape our captivity to sin (see the post from last week). This led Luther and the Reformers to argue that humans DO NOT possess “free will”. Yep you read that right, but go ahead and read it again… it’s your choice… I think!
If you haven’t encountered this thought before it may seem a bit jarring since “free will” is deemed to be a hallmark of human existence. It’s what separates us from the other animals, we think. The freedom of our wills allows us to make choices, we think. And Luther never argued that we don’t have the ability to choose. He argued that we don’t have the ability to choose rightly. To put it another way, given the choice, we will choose ourselves or the little bubble around us. That tendency to live “curved inward” is how Luther defined sin and we can’t escape it by our own will. Our will is not free to simply “choose better”. It is in bondage to self.
That’s the whole point of that little story about eating forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden. Once the archetypes of humanity saw gain for themselves, the illusion of free will quickly evaporated.
It’s also the point St. Paul makes in Romans chapter seven. Paul was trained as a Pharisee, a Jewish man steeped in God’s law and its meticulous and faithful interpretation. He KNEW the right thing to do but he couldn’t choose to do it.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. -Rom 7:21-23
I think we verbalize this truth when we say, “we had no choice” but to act in a certain way. Our choices are always conditioned. They are never truly free. That’s why Luther wrote “Bondage of the Will” and if you want to take a deep dive into theology, there’s a fun place to start. The argument is not whether we can choose to have eggs or toast for breakfast. Rather it’s the scriptural and social truth that humans are incapable of getting out of our selfishness on our own. For that we need not just help but a whole new way of being.
If the son makes you free, you will be free indeed
Jesus says these words in John 8 after a discussion with religious leaders about the concept of freedom. They claim to be descendants of Abraham and “have never been slaves to anyone” so they have no need to be “set free”. It seems the whole Egypt experience has slipped their mind but I think it’s more than forgetfulness. We are talking about different concepts of freedom. Freedom isn’t simply what you are not. It’s recognizing fully who you are.
Following his encounter with these leaders, Jesus spends an astounding amount of time healing a man born blind. John narrates an extensive back and forth conversation with people wondering who is this now “seeing person” and what exactly happened to end his blindness. When these same religious leaders ask Jesus if he thinks they are blind too, he says, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.
It’s a remarkable statement that seems non-sensical but in the context of the whole conversation, perhaps it helps to think about it like this: “If you admitted your bondage you would not have sin, but now that you say “We’re free”, your sin remains.
So what does this mean for us?
There is so much to say here, more than enough for a book I imagine. I will not do the full issue justice here but let’s focus on the intersection between personal “rights” and the responsibility for others necessitated by living together in a society. We like to say “this is a free country” and life is best when we are “free to live as we choose”. But we have always realized there are boundaries to freedom. No one is completely free to “do as they please”. In fact the scriptural word for that is “licentiousness” which unfortunately has taken on sexual morality connotations when in fact the word is better thought of as “the license to do what I please” regardless of its affect on others. Maybe that kind of freedom sounds liberating but in the hands of sinful people, history has taught that it brings the worse kind of enslavement.
Luther wrote a good deal about freedom. In addition to what I’ve already mentioned, perhaps his most famous piece was a treatise to Pope Leo X called, “The Freedom of a Christian”. It was born out of the theological arguments of his day contrasting justification with works-righteousness but he begins by stating a remarkable paradox that remains as applicable today as then:
A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.
A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.
Ours is not simply a freedom from but also a freedom for. In other words, true freedom is not simply in what one can do for the self, but in what can be done for and with others. It’s a larger freedom. A more life-giving one. When we ponder this kind of freedom, the freedom to choose relationship even at a cost to self, to choose the neighbor’s welfare as well as my own, THEN we begin to approach the freedom of God. God’s freedom is bound to God’s choice to love. Ponder that for a minute or two…
The smaller version of freedom, the seductive lie about it, is evidenced by the tragedy at the Capitol. In the exercise of a frenzied and extreme view of individual rights, and in defense of ‘freedom’, a few hundred people violated the rights and freedoms of millions of others. “This is our house” they said, and that is true but only so far as it belongs to ALL the people. They believed to be defending “freedom” but in the process the whole country seems to be even more captivated by lies and division.
“My rights end where yours begin” the common saying goes. The question for humanity is not simply whether we are able to be free from tyranny but whether we can find the freedom to live together on a fragile speck of space dust moving through the vast ocean of space? Scientists might see that as an evolutionary question, as some speculate that the next evolutionary change will be driven by our choices instead of random mutations. Yet it is also a spiritual question, best answered I believe, but that little word: Love. God is free to Love…unconditionally. Perhaps helping humanity turn “inside out” is what the Jesus event is all about. Maybe that is what Paul was trying to say in his letter to the Philippians:
Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.
What do you think? How do we manage our freedom with our responsibility toward others? How do we respond when those things are out of balance? What is necessary for unity in a very divided and diverse community?