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A Strange Freedom

What is it that Americans are fighting for in various conflict zones around the world, celebrating on the 4th of July, and holding up as the "light of the world?" And what is the relationship between freedom and faith?

In the Apostle Paul's letter to the Galatians he begins chapter five with this declarative sentence:

"For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery."

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.

We 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.

As 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.

It 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."

Think 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 not open.

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."

Clearly Jesus is very much in touch here with the down side of freedom.

To 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.

But 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.

In this world everything to which we may become attached requires that we sacrifice our freedom.

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.


By 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."

"Free?" she asked. "Free for what?"

"Just free." Lincoln answered. "completely free."

"Free to 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 say."

"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."

Scary, 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!"


Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.