Friday, July 04, 2008


Continuing with Ellul's thoughts on submission, we're left with the question of what freedom is. In the United States there is no greater virtue, and our churches reflect that priority, at least in rhetoric. The celebrations we held across our country today bear witness to our devotion. But do we truly value freedom, or are we just enamored with the concept?

There is another element that is intolerable for different reasons, namely, freedom. It is true that people claim to want freedom. In good faith attempts are made to set up political freedom. People also proclaim metaphysical freedom. They struggle to free slaves. They make liberty a supreme value. The loss of freedom by imprisonment is a punishment that is hard to bear. Liberty is cherished. How many crimes, too, are committed in its name? ...

But this fervor, passion, desire, and teaching are all false. It is not true that people want to be free. They want the advantages of independence without the duties or difficulties of freedom. Freedom is hard to live with. It is terrible. It is a venture. It devours and demands. It is a constant battle, for around us there are always traps to rob us of it.

But in particular freedom itself allows us no rest. It requires incessant emulation and questioning. It presupposes alert attention, ruling out habit or institution. It demands that I be always fresh, always ready, never hiding behind precedents or past defeats. It brings breaks and conflicts. It yields to no constraint and exercises no constraint. For there is freedom only in permanent self-control and in love of neighbor.

Love presupposes freedom and freedom expands only in love. This is why de Sade is the supreme liar of the ages. What he showed and taught others is the way of slavery under the banner of freedom. Freedom can never exert power. There is full coincidence between weakness and freedom. Similarly, freedom can never mean possession. There is exact coincidence between freedom and nonpossession.

Freedom, then, is not merely a merry childish romp in a garden of flowers. It is this too, for it generates great waves of joy, but these cannot be separated from severe asceticism, conflict, and the absence of arms and conquests. This is why those who suddenly find themselves in a situation of freedom lose their heads or soon want to return to bondage. (pages 166-167)

It may be politically incorrect to say so in this day and age, but in some cases people who have been liberated from slavery long to return to their captivity. They do so not because the institution of slavery is morally good, but because of the security it provides. A slave is (in all but the worst situations) free from having to worry about where he will sleep or what he will eat; his only responsibility in life is to obey his masters, and all else will be taken care of for him.

So it is, all too often, in Christianity as well. The responsibility that accompanies freedom is such a great burden that we happily adopt Muslim concepts of submission and fate so that we can avoid having to take Paul seriously when he tells us that all things are lawful. After all, he also says that not all things are profitable, so surely God must have spelled out for us exactly what is unprofitable. The alternative would require us to evaluate our every action on its own merits, never completely certain whether we might be about to make a mistake.

For all our talk about freedom, freedom is not what most of us actually want. In many churches, Christian liberty is defined as a negative: freedom to not sin. It may be worded positively as freedom to choose God, but in practice it's an ultimatum with no real choice: follow our rules or go to hell.

We don't call it slavery since our master in this case is (allegedly) God, but the only freedom we truly desire is freedom from responsibility. If God has spelled out our every choice for us, we no longer have to worry about the consequences of our actions so long as we're obedient; any action that God commands can only have a positive result, even if it seems to our worldly eyes to be causing more harm than good.

Freedom is actually a rather frightening thing; it requires a high level of accountability from us and promises no security. It tests whether we truly love others or simply hope that things will turn out well for them. Freedom in no way guarantees that things will turn out well for us.

We see this in the political realm, where we surrender a huge portion of our economic freedom (in the form of taxes) in exchange for the government's promise to provide for those in need. In this way we are released from having to genuinely love the poor, the widowed, the elderly and the unfortunate (except, perhaps, for members of our own family - and sometimes even then); they are now the government's responsibility instead of ours. We now have the luxury of retreating into our own little worlds, until even our next door neighbors and fellow churchgoers are merely background noise.

I'll admit that I prefer the safety of the familiar and the comfort of letting others take care of the world's problems; I'll even donate generously to those willing to act compassionately on my behalf so that I don't have to leave my comfort zone. Such giving is not without merit, but neither is it an adequate substitute for genuine compassion if I never go any further than writing a few checks.

It may seem like I've just wandered off on a tangent, but in reality compassion is inextricably connected to freedom. God values our freedom, but he won't force us to claim it. Slavery can be freely chosen as well, however we come to that decision.

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