Saturday, September 08, 2012


There's a lot of talk of freedom during election campaigns. In the US we also have a semantic love for liberty. Overall the idea is to be as unconstrained as possible without negatively affecting anyone else.

I've always had a hard time with this idea. I've never been able to figure out exactly how we determine the effect of our actions on other people. When are we doing harm to others? When are they just being too sensitive?

Freedom and liberty work great as campaign slogans, but the details can bog you down.

Can someone use their freedom to give up freedom? Could a democratic election result in a dictatorship, if the free voters freely chose?

There's a lot of issues surrounding freedom, which is why philosophy exists and why there's no shortage of libertarian debates to be had (go to any message board anywhere and type five simple letters: obama - and if your posting privileges aren't immediately revoked, you'll understand the cultured nuance of the topic).

But what if our idea of freedom isn't really freedom at all? What if our striving for unconstrained rational pursuit of our own good isn't the end all and be all of life? That might make things a bit more complicated.

That's exactly my proposal.

As a Christian attempting to live in this world of ours, it seems important to understand how to approach freedom from the perspective of the God who created it in the first place.

The Bible is full of paradoxes and unexpected reversals - it's what keep us on our toes. Freedom is no different. Christian faith calls the ability to make unconstrained choices a kind of slavery - and the single-minded adherence to someone else's preferences, freedom.

It blows the mind a bit, I know - but stick with me.

In Corinth, Paul encountered some Christians enjoying their freedom - doing anything their hearts desired, living unconstrained. He rebuked them saying, "everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial." Beneficial to whom? Certainly not to me. I know we humans are prone to immediate gratification over long term benefit, but I'm smarter than that; I'm rational. I can plan for the future and make the right decisions for me.

I'm responsible - even more so because I have the moral code of a Christian. I can use liberty better than anyone else.

That's not freedom. We can't take our selfishness, bless it with faith, morality, and reason - and call it righteousness. When our own benefit/happiness/desire is the focus of our actions (even good, moral actions), we're enslaved.

In Romans Paul calls it the law of sin and the law of grace. Sin is our desire to put ourselves first - that doesn't change when we do it in a way that is culturally and morally acceptable. Christ came to free us from our slavery to self.

This law of grace, though, is not just a free-for-all; it is deeply rooted in the creative purpose of the world. We are interconnected. Everything that happens affects everything else. Human beings were not created to look after themselves - but to maintain God's creation in the way God intended.

We're supposed to make sure everything goes according to plan. This is real freedom - when we're relieved of the need, the drive, the desire to satisfy ourselves, to look after ourselves. Only then are we free to enjoy the world as it was intended. We no longer have to think about when it's ok to indulge ourselves; we are free to truly love others.

How does that work? Christ serves as the model of freedom. He came with a single-minded devotion to love. That love, so extreme, it could only be proven by a brutal, but willing, execution for an innocent man. That's what freedom looks like - it's sacrifice.

Of course that doesn't entirely leave us off the hook for making decisions. None of us has that direct a line to God, to know instinctively what to do in any given situation. We can't either simply say that we'll do only for others - that is also a form of slavery (no different, really, than chattel slavery, except it's willing).

No, true freedom involves living into the creative purpose for the world. Read Genesis 1 and 2 again - creation is not a gift for humanity; humanity is a gift for creation. Jesus took time for himself. He partied. He vacationed. It's not just about self denial. This freedom is a bit more complicated.

I can't tell you exactly how to live free (I think we're supposed to reason that out together - which might just be a useful purpose for government), but I can tell you it never involves asking the question, "what's best for me," and it never involves envisioning ourselves outside the community.

The United States gives people the right to live enslaved to themselves. We have a thing, often called freedom, that allows people to cut themselves off from others, to live independently, to do what they want (so long as it doesn't overly upset others). That is not freedom, but slavery - and it doesn't have to be rewarded.

We can value individual choice as a nation, as a society, as a people. We can, and should, be a place where people are unconstrained to do as they please. We do not have to collectively celebrate it. We do not have to idealize it and praise it and lift it up as an example.

Ultimately what people want is not freedom to choose, but freedom from consequences. That freedom just doesn't exist.


Mark said...

I think you raise some interesting points, but I also think you are glossing over the freedom in free choice vs. the freedom of giving up that choice to God. What I mean is that it is no small thing that we get to choose whether or not to follow the path set out for us by God and though you may call that sort of willing enslavement freedom, the ability to freely choose that end is very important and, moreover, should be celebrated.

God gives us this choice because without it, there would really be no true love or true devotion there, merely automatons programmed to do his will. So this spills over into the United States as well. We should celebrate the freedom we have to choose to live our lives the way we see fit knowing that if we use that freedom to follow God it is all the better. We could make the same choices (sort of) in a country with less freedom and it would carry more or different consequences. Fortunately, we don't have to do that right now and to me that is something to be celebrated because I can choose to follow God's plan and that freedom freely.

Not celebrating or at least recognizing that distinction can lead to indifference in influencing the world around us. If we as Christians care only about the freedom we have in God that is simply the other side of the same coin. If we were electing Christ as the dictator of our world and then could be sure of the intentions then that makes the giving up of freedom nice and easy. But we aren't that lucky... we are tasked as the care takers of the world and to dismiss freedom of choice as something unimportant is to miss out on the whole love side of the equation. The more freedom you give away to someone other than God and yourself, the less impact you have in doing on earth as it is in heaven.

Ryan said...

I don't mean to imply that our ability to choose is unimportant. It is vitally important; it defines us as human beings. I was hoping to highlight two things: that unconstrained ability is not what was intended for us and should never be celebrated as such, even as we allow it's expression. Second, society is not obligated and should not let such ability dictate it's values. The responsibility of the human community is to provide consequences for someone using their unconstrained ability in destructive ways. I don't think we can properly do the second part without recognizing the first. Unconstrained ability is a gift, but it is not the goal. True freedom is being free from the control of our decisions and desires.