What is it that Americans are fighting for
in Iraq, celebrating on the 4th of July, and holding up as the "light of
the world?" And what is the relationship between freedom and faith?
the Apostle Paul's letter to the Galatians he begins chapter
five with this declarative sentence:
Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke
Let's face it, despite the
fact that we the U.S. refer to ourselves as a "freedom loving people;"
despite the fact that we aspire to freedom in our personal lives, and defend freedom
among the nations of the world, still there is something about freedom that makes
us uncomfortable. It's not that we mind being free ourselves, it's mainly the
thought of what others would do with their freedom if they had it.
certainly don't want our children wandering the streets with the sense that anything
goes. We don't really believe that the teachers in our public schools should be
free to teach anything they want to teach or promote any idea they want to promote.
Television and radio producers should not be free to broadcast any material they
choose to broadcast, after all, there are certain limits to what can appear on
our television screens.
Though we are a freedom loving
people, we are quick to say there ought to be certain limits upon our freedom.
Even Paul in his letter to the Galatians seems to backtrack
from the implications of what his own words clearly attest. For though he makes
the flat out declaration in chapter five of Galatians, "for freedom alone,
Christ has set us free," just a few verses later we find him trying to qualify
and circumscribe the scope of our freedom. "Do not use your freedom as an
opportunity for the flesh." While Paul insists that Christians do not
live "under the law," still he has a long list of behaviors we are to
avoid: namely, "fornication, impurity, licentiousness ... enmity, jealousy,
anger." Having declared that it is for freedom and freedom alone that God
has set us free, the apostle Paul immediately proceeds to tell us what we may
not do in the name of freedom. Sounds like the law sneaking into freedom's house
through the back door to me!
Ironically freedom is
something we are prepared to fight for and if necessary even to die for, but once
we have achieved it, we're all too anxious about the consequences of our victory.
And we quickly try to define it and confine it, to limit and control it. For the
truth is, we don't really trust either others or ourselves to appreciate or handle
freedom when we've found it.
What is it exactly about freedom
that makes us so uncomfortable?
To find out why it is
that freedom makes us squirm, we need look no farther than a story in which we
see Jesus Christ himself acting with an extraordinary freedom.
we enter the scene, we find Jesus
on the road from Galilee toward Jerusalem and he happens to be passing through
a small Samaritan village. Suddenly their little group is caught up in the heat
of racial and religious warfare between Jews and Samaritans, for when the people
of that village discover that these Galileans intended to continue their journey
the next day to Jerusalem, hospitality is denied. For this to happen in a small
village of the middle east in that day and age tells us volumes. It tells us that
the conflict between the Samaritans and the Jews had become so serious that normal
trade and commerce between these two peoples has entirely broken down. The conflict
between the Jews and the Samaritans in those days was as troublesome as it is
between Jews and Palestinians today.
Knowing that Jesus will
not countenance either racism or anti semitism, the disciples urge Jesus to literally
fight the fire of prejudice with the fire of God's almighty wrath. They suggest
that the power of God's wrath might be invoked against the Samaritans for denying
hospitality to their small band of pilgrims. "Lord, do you want us to bid
fire come down from heaven and consume them?" It's clear the disciples had
in mind something quite like our Fourth of July celebration. Only it would not
be fireworks rising up toward the heavens, but the lightening and fire of almighty
God raining down upon the helpless people of that small Samaritan village. Without
hesitation, Jesus turns upon the disciples and rebukes them for daring to suggest
such a thing. And without stopping to debate the issue further, they continue
on their way.
It's at this point that there ensues a wonderful,
moving, poetic exchange between Jesus and the disciples that is so revealing about
how Jesus understood and experienced his own freedom.
begins when a stranger approaches and offers to follow Jesus, in fact he offers
to follow Jesus where ever he will lead. And contrary to what we might expect,
Jesus does not accept the man's offer of total devotion. Rather he utters these
beautiful words which are all the same very sad. "Foxes have holes, and birds
of the air have nests, but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head."
about that one for a minute. It gives us just a clue of what it is about freedom
that makes us so uncomfortable. Here Jesus is speaking of course not so much to
that man who offers to follow, but to the disciples, and to the experience of
being rejected by the people of that little Samaritan village. "The Son of
man has nowhere to lay his head." In one sense Jesus was being literal here.
Having been essentially barred from staying for the night in that little village,
Jesus and his group will have nowhere to lay their heads. But in a deeper sense
Jesus is speaking about the terror of loneliness that attends our freedom. For
if freedom is being cut loose from whatever shackles that tie us down, freedom
also means doing without those ties to community and family and friendship circles
that make us feel part of something larger than ourselves. This is the shadow
side of freedom which Jesus understood so well, for he had chosen to live without
either the benefits or the bonds of marriage, family, children, or career. He
moved like the wind through the villages of his native land, never stopping to
make a home or build enduring relationships with people or any particular place.
He was utterly free -- and very much alone.
At the root
and heart of the matter freedom makes us uncomfortable because it reminds us of
our isolation, our loneliness, our lack of connectedness to anything comforting
in this world.
Freedom is scary because it puts us in
touch with our vulnerability. They say for example that there's nothing quite
as exciting as skydiving.
Diving out of the open door of that little airplane to descend free fall through
the heavens. Down, down toward the earth, the feeling of utter freedom and exhilaration
is so amazing, and so mixed with fear of what will happen if the parachute does
Which is not all that different from sending your
child off to public school for the very first time, or better yet, seeing your
daughter head out the door on a date with her first serious boyfriend. Clearly
freedom is sometimes scary, to say the least. For it's frightening to think what
can happen when a person is truly free! And then the gospel writer takes the discussion
to an even deeper level. For yet another person comes up to Jesus offering to
follow wherever he might lead. This time the potential disciple has just one reason
for delaying the hour of decision: "Lord, let me first go and bury my father,
who has just died." But Jesus turns upon him as he has just turned upon the
disciples: "Leave the dead to bury their own dead." And another comes
up to him, offering to follow wherever it is that he may lead. And this one too
has just one request: "Let me first say farewell to my family." And
Jesus turns for a third time and says: "No one who puts his hand to the plow
and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."
Jesus is very much in touch here with the down side of freedom.
cut oneself loose from all the bonds and loyalties, to country and people, to
family and friends, all in the name of being free, this is scary indeed. In fact,
one might easily draw back from freedom and turn again to slavery of one kind
or another. One might prefer commitment to ones family, and binding ties to one's
people, to home, to job, to career, rather than accept this gift of freedom.
the thing is unless we accept God's gift of freedom, we will never become who
we are meant to be. If the child never ventures beyond the comforting walls of
hearth and home; if the adolescent does not cut the ties and head on off into
this dangerous world to chart his or her own way; if we as adults cannot at least
for one small moment cease trying to live up to the expectations of others, and
claim our freedom, we can never mature, and grow.
world everything to which we may become attached requires that we sacrifice our
That's certainly true of government, which taxes
our paychecks, and passes laws that circumscribe our very comings and goings.
That's certainly true of family...in fact taking on the responsibilities of a
family requires perhaps a larger sacrifice of one's freedom than almost anything
I know. Not to mention the freedoms that we sacrifice to much lesser things. Like
houses and cars and furniture, and all those possessions that end up taking possession
of us. In this world anything that we grow to love, eventually ends up costing
us a measure of our freedom.
That's the one thing that distinguishes
our relationship with God from every other relationship. This is what Paul understood
when he said: "For freedom Christ has set us free." For God grants us
our freedom unconditionally, without merit on our part, and without restriction
as to how we may use it.
God is the great emancipator of
our souls. The only one who can truly set us free.
way of illustration, Leith Anderson tells this story about Abraham Lincoln in
his book "A church for the 21st Century." "Abraham Lincoln went
to visit a slave auction one day and was appalled at the sights and sounds of
buying and selling human beings. His heart was especially drawn to a young woman
on the block whose story seemed to be told in her eyes. She looked with hatred
and contempt on everyone around her. She had been used and abused all her life,
and this time was but one more cruel humiliation. The bidding began, and Lincoln
offered a bid. As other amounts were bid, he countered with larger amounts until
he won. When he paid the auctioneer the money and took title to the young woman,
she stared at him with vicious contempt. She asked him what he was going to do
next with her, and he said, "I'm going to set you free."
she asked. "Free for what?"
Lincoln answered. "completely free."
do whatever I want to do?
"Yes," he said. "free
to do whatever you want to do."
"Free to say whatever
I want to say?"
"Yes, free to say whatever you want
"Free to go wherever I want to go?" she
asked with skepticism. Lincoln answered, "you are free to go anywhere you
want to go."
"Then I'm going with you!" she
said with a smile.
Of course we can't be sure that such an
encounter ever took place between Lincoln and any such slave girl. I suspect that
the story is part of the process by which we make legends out of our leaders.
Not an entirely negative process, for you see, we need some ideals to live by.
In this particular story President Lincoln is given practically the status and
standing of God.
For who but God could truly grant us the
gift of our freedom -- not a freedom which ties us down to endless chores and
duties and responsibilities. "For freedom God has set us free."
frightening, exhilarating and wonderful all at the same time. Like taking that
leap out the open cockpit door of the airplane flying at several thousand feet
above the earth... Like the little child running off to school for the very first
day... Like the adolescent embarking upon that first serious romance... Like any
of us charting the course of our lives without reference to any outside responsibility
or obligation, which we are able to do in the final analysis, simply because,
God has given us this great gift. And because no other can or shall ever be able
to offer such a gift, we know, within our very heart of hearts, that if God is
truly that gracious, we can only respond like the slave girl. "If you really
and truly mean it when you say you're offering me my freedom, then I can choose
none other; I'll be going with you!"
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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.