Saturday, September 15, 2007

On Christian Freedom

The specific passage is Galatians 5:1a - "It is for freedom that Christ set us free." This sentence is the conclusion of a much more involved argument about the place of circumcision within the proselyte (non-Jewish) Christian community. For St. Paul, accepting circumcision means accepting the boundaries of the law, and St. Paul uses the story of Hagar and Sarah as an allegory for the New Covenant promised in Jesus. It seems limited, then, to a consideration of one's place in an increasingly Gentile Church still dominated by its Jewish element.

Christian freedom, however, figured most prominently in the diatribes of the early Reformation. The single most famous tract Luther published during the years of controversy was entitled, "On the Freedom of a Christian", and its odd dialectic of freedom expresses in some small way the strange, still medieval, nature of ruminations on the subject.
To make the way smoother for the unlearned - for only them do I serve - I shall set down the following two propositions concerning the freedom and the bondage of the spirit:
A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.
A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.

This odd, contradictory approach to the notion of freedom is expressed liturgically in the United Methodist Church in its prayer of confession in the Eucharist celebration, the end of which reads in part, "Free us for joyful obedience."

It is a historical fact that Luther's expression of support for a certain idea of freedom led, in the course of events, to the Peasant Revolt, which revolt was actually a Slaughter of Innocents, with contemporary accounts of deaths approaching one hundred thousand almost certainly exaggerated, while still substantial. The "left wing of the Reformation", the revolutionary anabaptists, personified by Thomas Muntzer, usually repeated the first half of Luther's formula. Muntzer, of course, paid for this error with his life (as did many of his followers). Yet, the appeal of the idea of freedom continues to reverberate today. Personally, I believe it to be the most underplayed, and underappreciated, aspect of Christian ethics.

What are we moderns to make of all this? "Freedom" has so many meanings, in so many contexts, that to attempt to address a theological understanding would seem not only to add to an already overburdened word, but unnecessary due to the marginal nature of theological discourse. Yet, I think St. Paul declaration, whether taken by itself or within its larger context, is still alive with potential meaning even for Americans for whom the word "freedom" has an almost talismanic quality. Part of the way we might begin an appropriation of the idea of Christian freedom is to consider the idea central in spirit if not word to Paul's argument to the Galatian churches - the freedom Christians enjoy is a freedom over and against the dominant views of a society bent on conformity and legalistic literalism. The spirit of life that Christians enjoy through their profession of Jesus as the Christ is stronger than the demands for social, religious, cultural, and other conformities demanded by any allegiance we might enjoy. This freedom, however, is not expressed in license, but in adherence to an ethic of love and self-disregard that places a premium on a refusal to adhere to the competing demands of society, culture, politics, and religion. Rather, we are to live first and foremost for others - in service, even sometimes to the sacrifice not just of our comfort but even our lives. The call of patriotism, the solidarity of class or race or creed all must fall before the demands of freedom.

This, of course, is the briefest of sketches of what is the most potent root of a radical Christian ethic imaginable. I offer it here as a first most scanty brush at an idea that needs to be fleshed out more fully.

Virtual Tin Cup

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