By Clint Wilson

These past few years of American cultural life have provided the preconditions for what could become what the Romans called a bellum romanum, an all-out war waged by one side toward those considered to be barbarians. To state the obvious, challenges around the morally fraught issues of abortion and gun control are presently enflamed to new degrees, and stand, perhaps rightly so, at the white-hot center of this emerging (yet old) battle. The cultural anger on all sides is palpable, with various positions pointing toward the barbarity of the others. Each side claims their rights, presupposing a vision of freedom and justice that is largely untethered from any shared moral framework. And so Americans talk past one another, or spin their wheels debating on social media, the most limited and dangerous spaces of social dialogue. Let freedom ring, right?

I’m an American. Americans love to talk about freedom. Some of us even sing, “I’m proud to be an American / where at least I know I’m free.” We love Braveheart: “You can take our lives, but you can never take our freedom.” An early national motto, now resurgent in certain quarters, was “Don’t tread on me.” The love of freedom runs deep in the American psyche, and for good reason. Ours is a nation grounded in “inalienable rights”; but as was clear from the French Revolution, rights used wrongly can quickly become the enemy of freedom; they can become tyrannical, especially toward the vulnerable.

And Christians must ponder a deeper question in our times: How are we to square our notion of freedom and rights with a God who in Christ shows us true freedom precisely by being tread upon, and spit upon, and hoisted up on a cross for the life — and freedom — of the world?

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We are not as free as we think. In fact, I believe we are simply becoming wild.

In his collection of poems entitled This Day, Wendell Berry drives this very point home:

As for the word ‘wild,’ I now think the word is misused. The longer I have lived and worked here among the noncommercial creatures of the woods and fields, the less I have been able to conceive of them as ‘wild.’ They plainly are going about their own domestic lives, finding or making shelter, gathering food, minding their health, raising their young, always well-adapted to their places. They are far better at domesticity than we industrial humans are. It became clear to me also that they think of us as wild, and that they are right. We are the ones who are undomesticated, barbarous, unrestrained, disorderly, extravagant, and out of control. They are our natural teachers, and we have learned too little from them.

I think Berry is spot-on. It is we who are not inclined to stay within the bounds God has created. We see God’s structures as strictures, we see his commandments as oppressive. And this has led us, even (and perhaps especially) in America, to have a broken and, at points, even wicked understanding of freedom. We think we will find freedom through holding onto created things, but without God, those things become our ultimate, and they shoulder the weight of our hope and love, which they cannot finally handle. Only God can set us free. But where do we start?

We must start with admitting that we often don’t actually believe that only God can make us ultimately free. We believe that political power will make us free. We believe that a perfectly curated house and yard will make us free. We believe that rock-hard abs or how many boards we serve on will make us free. We believe that where our kids go to school will make them free. We believe that if we can just be a little bit more successful without ever failing, then we will be free. The problem is not that these things aren’t good, but rather we place on them a weight they cannot bear.

We cling onto our language of “rights” in ways that are injurious to our neighbors, in ways that defy common sense. What is true of abortion is also true of gun violence: every false idol demands human sacrifice. And yet, people from different political perspectives soothe themselves to sleep at night convinced they are taking a stand for “my rights!”  We are at war with one another, while using the same ammunition.

Immanuel Kant once said, “From the crooked timber of humanity a straight thing was never made.” We have taken one of the greatest pillars of our national life, our freedom, and have created a culture where the slaughter of innocents is the collateral damage of “our rights.” We should be ashamed of ourselves. We can twist the greatest, noblest truths towards wicked ends. Lord, have mercy. But rights do not exist without their source, the righteous God who shows us true freedom, and endows us with the same so we may live for the sake of others, for the sake of human flourishing and the common good. Our rights are derivative of the righteous one, having their source and their summit in God. Thus, they only make sense to the degree they are aligned with God’s most basic commands.  On the straight timber of the cross, a divine body was made crooked and our healing paradoxically comes through conforming to this reality.

Christian: Your right is to lay down your life for your neighbor. True freedom is cruciform. True freedom does not come at the expense of the innocent, for the truly innocent one relinquished freedom and died to release us from such lies.

To be sure, as many authors and political philosophers have noted, freedom and “rights” language wouldn’t even exist as it does without the preconditions of a Judeo-Christian climate. Historian Tom Holland has made an analogous point — the Beatles would never have sung All You Need Is Love were it not for Christ and his cross. Domitian’s choirs were not interested in singing about his love. Clearly, notions of rights and freedom have been fueled and funded by the Christian worldview. Thanks be to God!

But many of us are seeing that we are not free — we are far from free, if this is how we live. We become slaves to power, anxiety, depression, fear, jealousy, anger, and ultimately, death. We have become slaves to a cultural climate where moral absurdities seem logically irrelevant to our crooked casuistry, as we justify our “principles of democracy and freedom” at the expense of our most vulnerable: children. What is this logic of lies? Gun violence and abortion alike will be shown to be the cost of our insanity and our cowardice.

Where then is true freedom found? St. Paul provides the answer:

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Gal. 5:13-14)

True freedom is found in Christ alone, in worship of him, and in serving like him. He is both our message and our model.

The paradox of freedom in Christ is that it is not inconsistent with binding ourselves as slaves to Christ — to others. How can this be?

A few years ago I acquired a baby camera for my son’s room, so we can know if he is asleep or awake, if he is content or hatching an escape plan. Upon setting up the camera, you are required to give it a name, so I called it “Kidcatraz,” jokingly, of course. But my son sits and sleeps in this little crib, which closely resembles a prison cell, right? Why is this okay? It is okay because being bound does not necessarily equal a lack of freedom; rightly binding ourselves in service of the who is maximally free creates more freedom, promotes more life, as we mature toward the point of safely stepping out of the crib and walking in freedom toward the Father. My point is that binding ourselves to the right strictures create the right structures to grow us into a life of true freedom.

To be clear, this is not a justification for inviting the vulnerable to be subservient to oppressive “religious” demands. These are all too common and need to be opposed wherever they’re encountered. But the paradox of Christianity is realized as we say, like Mary, “Yes” to the will of the Father. Such a yes brings forth life and salvation. Such life necessarily lifts up the lowly and casts down the mighty from their thrones. True freedom in Christ deals the deathblow to all forms of false freedom, rights, or power that oppress the likes of Mary and her beloved child. God promises that perpetrators of abuse, and those institutions that harbor abuse, will indeed be cast down. In various quarters, we are witnesses of this.

But like Mary, saying yes to this life, this love, requires the denial of what is ours by right for what is ours by divine grace through submission. By curbing our rights, we gain our neighbor, and become truly human for the first time. It is a failure of our moral imaginations that our notion of freedom and rights have become untethered from basic compassion and common sense.  Have we not seen this as well in our inability to tolerate masks for the sake of the vulnerable?

Christians especially should be doing everything within their power to protect the vulnerable. Instead, our wicked forms of freedom allow for the slaughter of innocents, and we see no change. From Columbine to Sandy Hook to Uvalde, and countless other examples, nothing has changed. Nothing. For some, perhaps for many, even to suggest that such conversations should be had is a mark of wavering patriotism. God have mercy on us sinners. If only we could learn that true freedom comes precisely through protecting the vulnerable.

The paradox is that when we become free in God, we become free for others. Our job is no longer our salvation. Our kids are not our messiah. Our body is not our greatest hope. Our prestige is not where our identity is found. Our “rights” do not become our anxious obsession. Instead, we become more freely given to our jobs in a healthy way. We become parents who can love our children in realistic and life-giving ways. We can pursue health of the body in a way that is rooted in love of fitness, not the idolization of it. And we find our lives bearing the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

My fear is that in nearly every cultural battle from abortion to gun rights, different sides double-down on a notion of rights that is divorced from corporate responsibility and is rooted in a  skewed concept of freedom. But the Church must model a different way, or a truer notion of freedom, if we are to be the Church of the cross of Christ. Let us take heed, for it seems we are not free; we are the wild ones, bowing down to our false notions of freedom. But lest we forget, the cost of idolatry is too high, for every idol demands human sacrifice.

About The Author

Fr. Clint Wilson is rector of St. Francis in the Fields Episcopal Church in Louisville, KY.

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1 month ago

Brave, honest and scriptural. Lord have mercy on us.