Freedom is a word that is thrown around a lot in this country, used to justify a political agenda or distract from the true issues at hand. “Fight for freedom,” “let freedom ring,” and “don’t take away my freedom” are phrases heard on a daily basis in politics and general conversations. What does it actually mean to be free?
The reason I pose this question is because I believe that the “American” concept of freedom, founded on thinkers such as John Locke, is an entirely different concept from the freedom we find in the Church. Though it is the same word, there is a wide discrepancy when it comes to defining it. Whenever I hear people using the word “freedom,” I feel like Inigo Montoya in the Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do no think it means what you think it means.”
For the political philosophers like John Locke, freedom is the complete separation of the individual from any social structures or institutions that would inhibit one’s ability to act entirely in one’s own self-interest. The only guiding principle of the individual and government, what keeps society from utter chaos, is the principle that one can do anything one wants as long as it does not infringe upon the rights of others. It is a concept of freedom defined by radical individualism and subjectivity, and often uses the word “from”: freedom from government, from oppression, from responsibility. Thus, it is not the role of society to provide quality options nor is it anyone’s right to make any choice, while helpful, on behalf of another person; it is simply the role of society to not interfere with one’s own choices, allowing for the most possible choices. Simply put, someone with five choices is more free than someone with three choices, and no matter what those choices are, both should be free to continue looking for more.
What is entirely lacking from this conversation is the quality of choices made available. If one thirsty person is given five options to drink (crude oil, Clorox bleach, mouth wash, salt water, and rotten milk) while another person is given only one option (water) which person is more free? Clearly the second person is more free because none of the first five choices would quench thirst. What if, in the same situation, the government mandated that crude oil, Clorox bleach, mouth wash, salt water, and rotten milk were illegal to drink, and that one could drink water? It would be entirely non-sensical to be enraged by such a mandate, for the former options are poisonous to the human person and the latter is good for one, and yet, I suspect that there would be those protesting on principle: “You can’t tell me what I can and cannot drink!” This, I say, is a distorted view of a freedom and a very misguided way to relate to others.
Freedom as a Christian concept is one defined by relationship with God, self, and neighbor, and often uses the word “to”: freedom to flourish, to worship, to live peaceably with others. Unlike the radical individualism and subjectivity above, it is a recognition that there are things that are objectively good and bad, and that the only choice one needs is the choice of the good. In this way, we as Christians have recognized for two thousand years that we are on this journey together, as one Pilgrim Church, not in competition with one another for rights and resources, but in cooperation with one another for the building of God’s Kingdom.
A Christian conception of freedom must also look at one’s ability to choose within oneself, namely, one’s Free Will. While God has given each human the Free Will to choose to act free from God, this does not mean that we are absolutely free: in many ways, our freedom of choice is limited. The greatest culprit of this limitation is not the will of other individuals. It is sin. Through sin, our choices and encounters contrary to God’s will, we are left less able to choose what is good. It’s easy for us to look at others, particularly those with addictions, and say, “Why can’t they just have the will power to stop doing that.” As I mentioned in Sin, A Social Problem, original sin and social sin are very real and very destructive because they strip people this ability: children who are abused, addicts of every kind, and individuals born into violence must deal with tremendous burdens inhibiting their free choice. They are not free in an ultimate sense because the psychological, physical, social, and economic factors are often too heavy to bear. When we sin, the effect is the same for us: we cloud our judgment and confuse our conscience with what is wrong, making it easier and easier to sin until we are in fact less free to do what is right than we were before. At no point are we without the freedom will entirely, but we must always recognize, in ourselves and in others, the ways in which our choices are very limited at times (think about how we act when we are hungry, angry, lonely, and tired… are we truly free to act perfect in those situations??) and to treat everyone with mercy and forgiveness.
This is how Jesus, our great liberator treats us and how we hope to treat others. But what Jesus does is much greater: He frees us from our sins, our situations, our inhibitions so that we may love more truly. Jesus forgives us of our shortcomings, recognizing that we are only able to do so much without his help, but also makes us more able to do better the next time. True freedom is a life in Jesus. To be free, thus, is to be able to love the good, the objective truth that is God.