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Toward a theology of freedom

This afternoon I led an hour of a church history and theology class and I directed our attention toward the concept of freedom. Some of the content I’ve generated here on the blog in the past month has come out of my readings and research on this subject. I’ll share a little more of that in this space because I think it is worthwhile. I don’t really have any answers or firm ideas, so this is just me trying to process through these things with the help of some old white dudes. Help me do this.

In my context of white and middle-class America, my understanding of freedom is going to be completely different than that of, say, my Latino neighbors. Freedom is one of the (if not THE) dominant narratives of American culture, but I think the way it’s been appropriated is twisted. Freedom is understood as both freedom from and freedom to. Generally, freedom-talk is dominated by our autonomy and liberty to do whatever we want. What smart-ass kid has not retorted, “It’s a free country!” to another when told, “You can’t do that”? I think Luther is instructive on a fuller understanding of how our freedom is used.

Although we Christians are free from all works, we ought to use this liberty to empty ourselves, take on the form of servants, take on human form, and become human in order to serve and help our neighbors in every possible way. This is the very manner in which God in Christ acted and continues to act toward us. And this service ought to be done freely, having regard for nothing except the approval of God.”[1]

Drawing his concept of freedom from Philippians 2, this kenotic understanding of freedom challenges our traditional understanding freedom to and directs our freedom toward the love and service of neighbor. For Luther, the purpose of freedom is so that we can invite others into freedom. Jacques Ellul says this along similar lines:

The Gospels clearly show that Christ is the only free man. Free, he chose to keep the law. Free, he chose to live out the will of God. Free, he chose incarnation. Free, he chose to die. Note the emphasis on choice. Choice is the most tangible expression of freedom.[2]

The problem though is becoming free ourselves. Peter C. Hodgson writes in New Birth of Freedom: A Theology of Bondage and Liberation:

Freedom is one of those root words of human experiences––like ‘being,’ ‘truth,’ ‘beauty,’ ‘goodness’––for which a finally and satisfying and universally accepted definition can never be found.[3]

So how is it that I come to define freedom? What does freedom mean for me? How does my freedom differ from my neighbor’s freedom, and how do I invite others into something so nebulous and subjective as a freedom which I may not understand? Our starting point is the neighbor, and learning to understand what freedom is for those around us. Jurgen Moltmann writes:

I become free when I open my life for others and appreciate them in their differentness and am gladly together with them. Human freedom is realized by
means of mutual appreciation and acceptance, that is, in personal communion. Then the other person is no longer a limit to my freedom. The other enlarges my limited life.[4]

Freedom involves both risk and responsibility. Currently, my participation in Christ does not lead me into risk and responsibility. I do not feel as if I am living in freedom. I still feel deeply bound to myself, to possessions, to security and to comfort. Hopefully I find the courage to enter into the risk and responsibility of freedom and the interdependence that comes along with it.

What insights, thoughts or experiences do you have on this journey?

____________________

1. Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian

2. Jacques Ellul, The Ethics of Freedom (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), 1976, 51.

3. Peter C. Hodgson, New Birth of Freedom: A Theology of Bondage and Liberation (Philadelphia: Fortress), 1976, 43.

4. Jurgen Moltmann in On Freedom, edited by Leroy S. Rouner (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press), 1989, 44.

The following quote is from Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1962 speech titled “The Ethical Demands for Integration.”

The absence of freedom is the imposition of restraint on my deliberation as to what I shall do, where I shall live, how much I shall earn, the kind of tasks I shall pursue. I am robbed of the basic quality of [human-ness]. When I cannot choose what I shall do or where I shall live or how I shall survive, it means in fact that someone or some system has already made these a priori decisions for me, and I am reduced to an animal. I do not live; I merely exist. The only resemblances I have to real life are the motor responses and functions that are akin to humankind. I cannot adequately assume responsibility as a person because I have been made a party to a decision in which I played no part in making.

Now to be sure, this is hyperbole in some agree but only to underscore what actually happens when a [person] is robbed of his [or her] freedom. The very nature of his [or her] life is altered and his [or her] being cannot make the full circle of personhood because that which is basic to the character of life itself has been diminished.

Incredibly powerful. MLK Jr’s namesake, Martin Luther had much to say about freedom as well. I am captured when Luther writes in The Freedom of a Christian,

A Christian is lord of all, completely free of everything.

A Christian is servant of all, completely attentive to the needs of all.

According to Luther there is this duality to our freedom. We are completely free from [fill in the blank] and we are also completely free to [fill in the blank]. However, freedom is bound by love. Our freedom emerges from the freedom of God and ends at the beginning of our neighbor. The only way we can transgress the boundary of our neighbor is in and through love. Luther states:

Although we Christians are free from all works, we ought to use this liberty to empty ourselves, take on the form of servants, take on human form, and become human in order to serve and help our neighbors in every possible way. This is the very manner in which God in Christ acted and continues to act toward us. And this service ought to be done freely, having regard for nothing except the approval of God.

God, though completely free, took on the form of a servant in the incarnation. Through Jesus, God rejects power and uses God’s freedom to submit to, to serve and to empower the broken and weak. Freedom finds its ultimate expression in how we relate to others, not in how we behave to and for ourselves. The expression of freedom in the incarnation is one that binds itself to the well-being of others in a way that gives life.

This puts new perspective on the restrictions that Christians attempt to legislate against marriage equality. Or the ways in which churches restrict women and people who identify as queer from full participatory life within community. God help us restore agency, honor, and humanity to those whom we have stripped it from.

No, not Vandross. Though the silky smooth stylings of that Luther seem appropriate on Valentine’s Day, I prefer Martin Luther’s take on love.

In Thesis 28 of the Heidelberg Disputation, Luther states:

The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. The love of [humanity] comes into being through that which is pleasing to it.

In his explanation of this statement, Luther reveals the differences between the love of God and the love of humans. People, he says, love what is pleasing to us, and that which is good or attractive or beneficial to us. We orient our love toward the people or things and places that we, as products of our consumer culture, dictate to be beautiful and deserving of our love.

On the contrary, God’s love, according to Luther, turns its attention toward those things that we would not find to be beautiful, valuable, good, or deserving of our love. God’s love is oriented toward the people and things and places that our human love neglects––that which is unlovable. “Rather than seeking it’s own good,” Luther says, “the love of God flows forth and bestows good.” God redefines beauty by loving that which we would never call beautiful.

Conforming our love to God’s love means orienting our love downwards. God’s love is oriented downward toward the poor, the broken, the marginalized, and those who are invisible to us by way of a culture of denial that refuses to be inconvenienced by the suffering of the Two-Thirds world and those underneath the surface of the privileged First World.

Martin Luther fiercely challenges our understanding of love. Loving that which is (by human standards) already lovable, and loving in order to receive love in return is contrary to God’s love. Rather, imitating God means directing our love toward that which our culture does not deem lovable. This entails redefining who and what is beautiful and who and what is deserving of love. It means a allowing our love to be determined by mercy instead of personal gain, selfishness and hopes for reciprocity. For ourselves, it means fully living out of the reality that we are truly and deeply loved by God as we are, and that we do not need to constantly worry about proving ourselves and our worth to God or to anyone else. This is radically difficult in the face of a system that spends so much time, energy, and resources to convince us that we are not good enough, pretty enough, lovable enough, and that we do not have enough stuff or the right stuff to satisfy our needs. Luther claims that we are beautiful because we are loved, not loved because we are beautiful. In other words, we are all beautiful because God’s love determines beauty. And God loves a lot.

Lets actively seek to redefine both beauty and love by following God in praising and loving that which is contrary to what our consumer culture deems beautiful and of worth. What might that look like for you?

Martin LutherGetting messy with Martin

Our faith communities would do well revisit Martin Luther’s understanding of the Christian as being simul justus et peccator, simultaneously righteous and a sinner. This is especially true when it comes to the issue of inclusiveness in our churches. Luther’s assessment completely levels unofficial hierarchies of holiness and dismantles the all too visible wall that divides between who is in and who is out. When God became human in the person of Jesus, our attempts at becoming like God by trying to escape our humanity were exposed for what they were: bankrupt. Rather, we were taught how to be more fully human. To be human is to be messy, but it is also to love and be loved. “Therefore,” writes brother Martin, “sinners are beautiful because they are loved; they are not loved because they are beautiful.” May we learn to see everyone as beautiful, rather than loving everyone who appears to be beautiful. May we stop fooling ourselves into thinking that we even know what beautiful, ugly, normal, abnormal, or in and out look like. We are always, every one of us, all of those at all times. They blend together in such a way that prevents us from distinguishing between them. How do we teach ourselves to live in this space? I have a feeling it is a very messy place, but it is a place I want to move into.