FOR FREEDOM, CHRISTIANS SET US FREE
You can’t even talk about it without talking about what is behind it or beyond it. Freedom! Freedom from what? Freedom for what?
In today’s Responsorial Psalm we acclaim, “You will show me the path to life, fullness of joys in Your presence, the delights at Your right hand forever” (Ps 16:11). We find freedom in God. We value who we are, the land we live in, and our hearts are filled with God’s love and His service. Next Thursday, July fourth, hopefully you can enjoy a long weekend as we Americans will celebrate the birthday of a nation born in freedom. In 1776, delegates from the thirteen colonies formally announced their separation from Great Britain by adopting the Declaration of Independence. This most important of American documents is a testament of our freedom. No word is more important in the American heritage than “freedom.”
Across more than two centuries, Americans have blessed both the day and the act. We have taken immense pride in seeing ourselves, above all, as a free and loving people. As both a nation and a culture, freedom is our first principle. Lord Acton, a nineteenth century English historian, is best known for a single statement: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Another assertion of his is that every human enterprise or institution “is finally destroyed by an excess of its own first principle.” Do you hear this? If our first principle as a nation is freedom, is it also our greatest threat and danger?
The notion of freedom can be seductive and fickle. The first spiritual refugees who landed on these shores declared their freedom from established religions and oppressive governments. Ironically, in the colonies, some of these same refugees created their own established religion and oppressive government! Freedom is a slippery ideal. Someone once said, “You are free and that is why you are lost.” Oftentimes, people have to find a way to get beyond their freedom lest it destroy them. Freedom is an empty concept by itself. You can’t even talk about it without talking about what is behind it or beyond it. Freedom! Freedom from what? Freedom for what?
We have understood freedom almost exclusively in terms of what is behind it. That is, we have seen freedom primarily, often only, as freedom from. Ask anyone what freedom means, and the answer is likely to be about freedom from something – freedom from the authority and rules of parents, freedom from social pressure, or freedom from legalistic religion. The problem is, when freedom is understood only as freedom from constraints, that very freedom eventually becomes a prisonhouse.
This is a lesson even our biblical ancestors had trouble learning. The ancient Israelites rejoiced in their freedom from Egypt and Pharaoh, but they never really learned how to handle this freedom in the Promised Land. In the early Church, new Christians celebrated their freedom from Jewish legalism and Gentile superstition, but their freedom became, as Paul put it, the occasion for sin. Prisoners have focused so long on getting out of prison that this may become the only meaning of freedom – freedom from prison. When they are finally released, they are at such a loss as to what to do with their freedom that they may find a way to return to the security of the penitentiary. But if such freedom only leads to cynicism, if the liberated person only knows what he or she is against, it becomes a questionable freedom. Freedom as only freedom from is a downward motion that is ultimately destructive.
Moving beyond the pitfalls of freedom from means discovering what we are free for. Once we are free from a particular restraint, what new opportunities are we now able to embrace, what new commitments are we finally free to make? If people are liberated from the bondage of addiction, for example, they may find themselves free for being productive, or free for loving, or free for pursuing creative possibilities.
Paul wrote to the Galatians, “You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but to serve one another through love” (Gal 5:1). Our freedom is not something for us to boast about and use selfishly. It is not so much our own freedom we are to love; it is our neighbor whom we are to love and serve. Our freedom enables us to do this.
Freedom is something of a challenge at times! What begins as an apparent challenge or burden, however, often leads us to our greatest joy. Jesus said, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you… For My yoke is easy, and My burden light” (Mt 11:28-30).