Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Christian Freedom

Freedom to choose is one the ‘rights’ we all think we have.Yet global culture today seems poised between visions of freedom that look more like destructive license, and ways of life that restrict the liberty of huge sections of society such as women, ethnic or religious minorities, or the poor who have little access to the wealth that brings opportunity. In the gospel, Christ offers us freedom, but what does that mean? What kind of freedom does he offer?

In 1520 Martin Luther wrote a short work called ‘The Freedom of a Christian’. In it he celebrated the freedom all Christians possess: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.” In faith, a Christian is freed from the demands of law, of external human requirements that override personal conscience or liberties. The Christian enjoys what St Paul called the ‘glorious liberty of the children of God.’ Yet this is only half of the picture of Christian freedom in Luther’s mind. The other half he summarizes in the statement: “The Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” In other words, the Christian, having received her freedom from Christ then freely surrenders that very freedom to become the servant of others.
It seems at first sight an odd argument. What might make a sane person seemingly turn their back on the delicious freedom from obligation, freedom to choose, freedom to act as they wish, only to become a slave again? The most straightforward answer is in the simple insight that for the Christian, freedom is a gift not a right.

In the Enlightenment, freedom was very much a right. It was ‘self-evident’ to Thomas Jefferson that ‘Liberty’ was one of the ‘inalienable rights’ of human beings as defined in the American Declaration of Independence. Yet ‘Freedom’ in the New Testament has a metaphorical power that it does not possess for us today – it is a metaphor of freedom from slavery. For a Christian, freedom is not an ‘inalienable right’. It is something forfeited by sin, and restored by the grace of Christ. It might not have been this way.
Because of this, Christian freedom comes with a sense of obligation and indebtedness. It is still true gift, yet it carries with it a sense that you are in the debt of the giver, not in a binding way, but out of sheer gratitude and wonder. It elicits the desire to do something, anything to honour the giver. St Paul, as usual, puts it succinctly: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love, become slaves to one another.”

There is in Christian theology another answer to the question of why followers of Christ are called to surrender their ‘freedom’ to become a slave all over again. A Christian anthropology does not see humankind as neutral agents, perfectly balanced between good and evil, quite capable of choosing one or the other. That was precisely the Pelagian heresy opposed by St Augustine and many others since. We experience instead a bias in our nature, an instinct to choose our own interests above those of others, to be jealous of those who succeed, to be angry with those who cross us, to ignore those who need our help. Christian redemption on the other hand offers freedom from such destructive habits. It offers freedom from a guilty conscience, and the power of the Holy Spirit in the discipline and fellowship of the church, to learn new patterns of behaviour and new instincts.

A Christian vision of freedom, is paradoxically, freedom NOT to do what I want. It means freedom from the compulsion to follow the slavish and often destructive desires of sinful human will – the very desires which as we saw earlier so often destroy relationships, lives and communities. It means the ability to say ‘no’ to actions and impulses which fail to express God’s will for humankind as revealed to us in Christ, the Scriptures and the Christian tradition. Christian freedom does not give me carte blanche to act as I choose, to indulge whatever desires may rise out of my heart, but there is a higher order of freedom, freedom to be who we were created to be, creatures capable of and naturally inclined to self-sacrificial love, freedom to say no to myself and yes to the good of my neighbour, wife, children, friend or even enemy.

We are experiencing what some commentators have called ‘the crisis of freedom’. The challenge faced by many contemporary societies is whether they can retain the important liberties gained through technology and political emancipation, yet at the same time, not allow such freedom to become destructive of the very things which bind people and communities together. This vision of freedom as the sheer gracious gift of God, which carries a deep sense of indebtedness and which evokes the desire to please the giver, offers a radical alternative to heteronomous repressive demand. At the same time, the notion of freedom as liberation from destructive and selfish desire, becoming capable of the very self-sacrificial love which God in Christ displays at Calvary, builds community and relationship.

The result is a vision of a community not (as in many ancient societies) where some are masters and some are slaves, nor (as in many modern ones) where everyone is a master, and none are slaves, but one in which all are free, yet are called to choose the path of being slaves of one another - only this time it is freely chosen service, not unwilling conformity. Such a vision of common life whether applied to a nation, a business, a university or a neighbourhood holds the promise of harmony which comes only through the willing, freely-chosen surrender of freedom. Yet it is the church, which first and foremost is called to live such a common life. Today, in our current crisis of freedom, that is perhaps its greatest task.

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