Yearning to breathe free

What does it mean to be free? A majority of Britains just declared that leaving the European Union is an essential element of their freedom. In this country, we are apparently stuck in the assumption that unhindered access to any kind of fire arm is an essential element of our freedom.

What does it mean to be free? Epictetus, a first-century Stoic philosopher, taught, “He is free who lives as he wills, who is subject neither to compulsion, nor hindrance, nor force, whose choices are unhampered, whose desires attain their end, whose aversions do not fall into what they would avoid.”[1]

In 1883, Emma Lazarus penned the words that were soon inscribed on a bronze plaque in the base of the statue of liberty in the port of New York.

(…) Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand / A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame / Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name / Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand / Glows world-wide welcome; (…) / “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she / With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

What does it mean to be free? African slaves and their descendants sang and taught us to sing freedom songs of hope and determination. Starting in 1965, the Rolling Stones sang a different song of freedom, “I’m free to do what I want any old time…, I’m free to choose what I please any old time, … I’m free to please what I choose any old time, … I’m free to do what I want any old time…”

What does it mean to be free? The descendants of Jacob were slaves in Egypt when God sent Moses to Pharao to demand their freedom. When Jesus began his ministry in Galilee, he declared in his first public teaching that God had anointed him to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, to let the oppressed go free. Freedom is God’s business. Freedom is God’s will for God’s people. Human beings yearn to breathe free because we are made in the image of God.

There are more than fifty references to freedom in the New Testament, each of them adding complexity and dimension to what Paul calls in his letter to the Romans, “the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). Things are not so glorious in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Galatia was a region in Asia Minor where Paul had founded several largely gentile congregations. When he left to continue his proclamation in other parts of the Roman empire, other missionaries arrived in those congregations, arguing that the gospel Paul had preached was incomplete and deficient. They taught that in order to truly belong to God’s people, gentile believers must adopt the Jewish practice of circumcision and obey Jewish law. Some gentile believers may have been receptive to that kind of teaching because in the daily struggles of living God-pleasing lives they longed for the structure that comes with having lists of do’s and don’ts.

But when Paul heard about these developments, we wrote the angriest of all his letters on record. His gospel was a proclamation of the boundless grace of God, who in the death and resurrection of Jesus had saved humanity, Jews and gentiles alike, from the power of sin and death. In Paul’s eyes, any effort to supplement God’s saving action in Christ with old or new sets of rules was a denial of the gospel. Christian life, Paul insisted, is life in Christ, life grounded solely in the death and resurrection of Jesus and shaped by the power of the Holy Spirit. “For freedom Christ has set us free,” he declared, adding, “Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

What does it mean to be free? Paul is not addressing freedom of speech or a people’s freedom to choose their government, nor is he referring to the absence of economic or political oppression. To him, something more fundamental is at stake.

Human beings are creatures, contingent beings who, in the words of Bob Dylan, “are gonna have to serve somebody.” As creatures we are either subject to the lordship of God the creator or to that of some other, unworthy lord. And again and again, we have chosen for ourselves other lords, idols not worthy of our submission and we find ourselves in bondage to them. To give you an example, the right to purchase and carry guns has become an idol when in response to mass shootings in schools and dance clubs all we allow ourselves to imagine is arming Kindergarten teachers and DJs.

Paul is not making a constitutional argument; he knows that something more fundamental is at stake. God in Christ has freed us from bondage to unworthy, oppressive lordships. We are made in the image of God. We were never meant to live as slaves, in bondage to any powers without or within, but as free children of God, in the realm of God’s lordship. And now that Christ is risen from the dead, we are free because Christ has made us his own. We are free, because we belong to him.

In verse 13, Paul urges his readers not to use our freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence. The sovereign self I may imagine myself to be outside of my relationship with God and my fellow-creatures is not sovereign at all, but only self-centered. It’s all about me, myself, and I – my freedom, my pleasure, my desires, my rights, my flourishing – I am completely turned in upon myself, not free at all, but a prisoner of my fears, my doubts, my wants and my worries.

What does it mean to be free? It means to trust that I am loved. It means to trust that what God has done matters more than what I have or have not done. It means to trust that I don’t have to earn my place among God’s people. I belong because I am loved. You belong because you are loved. And having been freed from fear and self-concern by the love and faithfulness of Jesus Christ, we live within that liberating love by participating in it. We learn to love as we are loved. Paul writes, in rather paradoxical language for an argument about freedom, “do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.” We are free in our belonging to Christ. We are free to become slaves to each other—not masters and slaves!—but slaves to each other in complete mutuality. What a curious freedom that is. In chapter 6, Paul further illumines this mutuality writing, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” The law is not abolished, but fulfilled by Christ, fulfilled in love that seeks to serve the well-being of others.

Some of you may know who Learned Hand was. He served as a federal judge for more than 50 years before retiring in 1961. Three times presidents considered nominating him for the Supreme Court. But each time they picked someone else. Many have considered Hand the greatest American judge to never sit on the Supreme Court. He was an early opponent of Hitler and a critic of antisemitism and as a judge, he defended freedom of expression and civil liberties. But Hand was also committed to judicial restraint and believed that the courts should avoid second-guessing the decisions of legislatures. In 1944, he gave a brief speech in New York’s Central Park, where 1.5 million people gathered for an event billed as “I Am an American Day.” I had never heard of Judge Hand until I read his speech last week, and I was moved by his words, moved, no doubt, because words like his are so seldom heard these days and so sorely needed. Hand aimed his remarks at 150,000 newly naturalized citizens:

(…) Some of us have chosen America as the land of our adoption; the rest have come from those who did the same. For this reason we have some right to consider ourselves a picked group, a group of those who had the courage to break from the past and brave the dangers and the loneliness of a strange land. What was the object that nerved us, or those who went before us, to this choice? We sought liberty; freedom from oppression, freedom from want, freedom to be ourselves. This we then sought; this we now believe that we are by way of winning. What do we mean when we say that first of all we seek liberty? I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it. And what is this liberty which must lie in the hearts of men and women? It is not the ruthless, the unbridled will; it is not freedom to do as one likes. That is the denial of liberty, and leads straight to its overthrow. A society in which men [and women] recognize no check upon their freedom soon becomes a society where freedom is the possession of only a savage few; as we have learned to our sorrow. What then is the spirit of liberty? I cannot define it; I can only tell you my own faith. The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the mind of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias; the spirit of liberty remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded; the spirit of liberty is the spirit of him who, near two thousand years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never learned but never quite forgotten; that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest. (…).[2]

I pray that in these tumultuous times we may have to courage to live and grow in God’s liberating love.


[1] Epictetus, Discourse, 4.1.1.


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