A Tale of Two Freedoms
Posted by Inagrace Dietterich
What might it look like to use our freedom to live more and more into God’s economy? What implications might this have for our daily work? How might this shift the way we think about work and enter into our daily tasks?
This post identifies and unpacks two freedoms: freedom FROM and freedom FOR. The next post will explore the more particular freedom of the Christian and draw out its implications for daily work.
God’s kingdom, the new creation, has an economy that is consonant with what God is doing and that reflects God’s own character. This is God’s own mission. Yet we find ourselves in the midst of a different economy, one formed by the assumptions and priories of American culture. We can’t simply wake up one morning and live fully in God’s economy. How do we open ourselves up to live more and more into God’s economy? We are called to live every day as a response to God’s grace and as a witness to God’s desires for all of creation. This is part of our sanctification, part of what it means to live more fully into the way of Jesus. As we are being formed more fully into the image of Christ, we live more into our full humanity, which includes living more fully into God’s economy.
One way of thinking through this is to explore more fully the question of freedom. This word is and has been a kind of buzz word in American society from early on in our history. As a result, talking about freedom in our culture as a Christian typically brings all kinds of baggage with it. We begin, therefore, by reminding ourselves of how the language of freedom is routinely used in American culture.
Personal Freedom as Freedom from Constraint.
When people in American culture talk about freedom, usually what is meant is freedom from constraint. In personal terms, this is the freedom to do what we desire. We can do anything, everything, or nothing. We consider ourselves to be autonomous, independent individuals; nobody can tell us what to do. So freedom from constraint, at least within the limits of the law, is a cornerstone of American society. As long as we are not demonstrably harming another person or their interests we are free to do whatever we want to do. There will, of course, be disagreements about what counts for harm and therefore about the limits of our freedom, but most people agree that citizens should be granted as much latitude, as much freedom, as possible.
Maximizing individual liberty is at the heart of Western societies and their economies. To be clear, however, this agreement about the important role of freedom is not a substantive agreement about what such freedom is for; rather, it’s an agreement premised on the assumption that we cannot agree on the specific good or goods we should pursue with such freedom. So because we cannot agree on what the good is, we set up procedures to make it possible for each individual to pursue what he or she thinks the good is. Freedom means pursuing my own understanding of the good, my own understanding of happiness, as long as this harms no one else.
Such personal freedom presupposes the power to make choices, yet this freedom may, ironically, be the source of our greatest bondage. The most dangerous bondages are the ones we don’t even recognize as enslavement. What happens when our imaginations have been so colonized that while we may have choices, all of those choices remain deeply rooted within a single framework, a single way of thinking about our lives and what will count for happiness and success? How many people, for example, feel free not to pursue the American Dream? Not to strive to be successful in the eyes of the world? Not to spend one’s life accumulating more and more things the world says we simply must have to be happy?
Political Freedom as Freedom from Oppression.
Given the importance of personal freedom in American society, it’s not surprising that the language of freedom also plays a central role in American political discourse. We are told that our country stands for freedom here and around the world, and we are repeatedly reminded that “freedom isn’t free” and that countless persons across time have sacrificed their lives for our freedom. And even though we rarely stop and ask exactly what this freedom is that we celebrate and defend, it’s hard to imagine anyone being against it. Freedom is like apple pie and motherhood.
Best we can surmise, this political freedom is personal freedom writ large. If individuals are to be as free from constraint as possible, so our society as a whole is to be free both from external and internal forces that would impinge upon our ability to be self-governing and self-directed. This contrasts with those societies whose citizens find the shape of their daily lives fundamentally shaped by either internal or external forces of oppression.
Although few would disagree that political freedom is something to be cherished, we rarely reflect on all the ways in which such freedom is secured and sustained. As a society, the stories we tell about freedom suggest that our civil order could only have been created, sustained, and ordered through bloodshed. (When, for example, was the last time you heard someone extol the incalculable debt we owe to elementary school teachers for protecting our liberties by teaching citizens in our republic to read, and write, and think?) As such, there is a huge mythology around the notion of freedom, and not just for our country, but for every country that values freedom. Such mythology not only justifies the past, but justifies what we should be willing to do in the future to defend this freedom as we have come to understand it.
Yet for those of us followers of Jesus who find ourselves in societies that tend to think of personal and political freedom as the highest good, and therefore the protection of it being almost self- justifying, we might pause to reflect on a couple of sobering truths. While it is true that certain kinds of freedom (say, so-called freedom of religion and expression) are to be rightly valued, it’s sobering to remember that the one whom we worship and serve, as well as his Jewish forbearers, lived under various oppressive regimes their entire lives. What are we to make of the fact that when the God of the universe chooses to become incarnate in human life, this God freely chooses to live under Roman occupation? Such political oppression does not seem to have thwarted what Jesus understood as his mission. He was still a free man in many important respects. Even in recent history we have seen such freedom-in-the-midst-of-oppression replicated. For example, during the heyday of the Soviet Union, there were more Christians worshiping on any given Sunday morning in the USSR than there were in Western Europe. This suggests that personal and political freedoms as they are often understood, while certainly not to be gainsaid, are not for followers of Jesus the be-all and end-all of life. This is perhaps most clearly understood once we see how negative freedom (freedom from) is almost always best understood as in service to positive freedom (freedom for)and how when the former is divorced from the latter, the former is often reduced to little more than license.
Once we shift the discussion about freedom away from simply “freedom from” to “freedom for,” we find ourselves in a much different and far richer discussion. The tradition of the church has long assumed that the freedom we find in Christ is not simply negative freedom, freedom from something, but also a positive freedom, freedom for something. True freedom is not simply freedom from constraint, but being liberated for something. The Israelites weren’t freed from Egyptian bondage just because God thought freedom from constraint was a good in itself. They were freed in order to worship God truly and fully and to enjoy the human flourishing that such right orientation would make possible.
Now it’s true that to be truly free for something usually demands we be honest about that which may constrain us from fully exercising our freedom. Yet as suggested above, it’s not enough to focus simply on freedom from without pressing on to ask what are we freed for. Christians have long insisted that it’s not enough for us to be simply free from something. Indeed, the Apostle Paul insists that our calling is be liberated from the bondage of sin so that we may become servants of Jesus Christ and the fully human life Jesus Christ makes possible. Too often the gospel can be reduced to our being freed from the consequences of our sin in the life to come. Although this is good news, it’s only a part of the good news. God has not only freed us from the consequences of our sin, but God has also freed us from the power of sin so that we might live more fully into our true humanity—to live into life as God created it to be. Yes, we needed to be freed from our sin, but this was not the sum total of God’s purpose. We were freed so we might together live more fully into God’s fullness. This is our freedom in Christ.
In a similar way, the Apostle Paul reminds us that we as humans live under the shadow of death. The fear of death drives a lot of human action, and it is part of what we are called to be liberated from in and through Jesus Christ. It’s within this context that we understand the martyrs of the church. While many consider it noble and honorable to die for your country, many regard dying for your faith and its convictions as silly or foolish. For followers of Jesus, laying down one’s life only makes sense in light of Jesus having conquered death. Thus death and the fear of death no longer have a hold on Christians; they no longer constrain or limit them. We are freed to live boldly because death is not the final word. Such freedom from the fear of death makes possible a certain kind of freedom for: freedom to risk living into a way of life that embodies God’s design for human flourishing. God didn’t just cancel death in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Rather, part of the good news of the resurrection is that new possibilities are now available because the fear of death has been overcome. In this there is great freedom.
Questions for discussion and reflection
- When you think of “freedom” what comes to mind?
- How does American culture shape our view and experience of freedom?
- What is the difference between “freedom from” and “freedom for”?
- How does the gospel shape our view and experience of freedom?
The Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.