Monday, July 10, 2017

Stand Fast in Liberty

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.

This is the key paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. In it, the founders clearly stated their reasons for breaking from the British Government. The British Government, they said, was destroying the rights and freedoms which are the inherent birthright of every human being. A right is a thing a person is entitled to, a thing a person 'ought' to have--not something they have automatically. Like most other possessions, they can be taken away. The government is supposed to protect these rights and when, instead, it begins to destroy them, it is ceasing to fulfill its role and must be replaced. Freedom, the founders thought, was something so fundamental that people have a right to fight for it when it is taken away.

And this truth is not confined to politics. In Galatians 5:1, St. Paul made a similar declaration: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.” There were false teachers in the Galatian church who were trying to lead people away from the true doctrine, who were trying to take away the spiritual freedom which is the right of all Christians. And Paul's admonition was to stand fast in their liberty--in other words, not to give it up, not to let people trick them out of it, don't let it slip away. Just as bad governments sometimes take away people's political freedom, so bad theology can take away people's spiritual freedom. That is why we must stand fast in our liberty--in a sense, be willing to fight for it as a revolutionist fights for his political freedom.

But if we are to fight for our freedom, we have to know what freedom is--and that is not as simple as it sounds. What is liberty? What is freedom? Usually it is defined as the remove of restriction. What makes slavery or tyranny in a civil sense is too much restriction, too much containment. And this concept carries through from the political to the personal. People feel that they are bound in their own nature by the urge to do better ("superego") and the fear of their own faults and selfish nature ("id") Sady Doyle gives this quote, commenting on another quote by Joseph Campbell: "'Atonement consists in no more than the abandonment of that self-generated double monster--the dragon thought to be God (superego) and the dragon thought to be Sin (repressed id).' When the superego's judgment is no longer powerful enough to annihilate us... and the id is accepted by the ego without fear..., our wholeness is restored, our place in the cosmos is found, and we are free." A similar concept is echoed in the words of a song which was hugely popular a few years ago, one line of which runs: "No right, no wrong, no rules for me,/I'm free!" This is a very popular concept--that freedom comes by denying rules and authority. And it is easy to see how such a mistake might arise. But there is a problem with it.

Imagine a pentagon drawn on a blackboard. If you erase two of the lines and replace them with a single line you will create a quadrilateral. If you erase two more lines and again replace them with a single line, you will create a triangle. But if you erase all three lines of the triangle, you are left with nothing. A triangle, if it is to exist at all, must have three sides and a quadrilateral must have four and so on. To erase all those restrictions, is simply to erase the figure altogether. “You may, if you like, free a tiger from his bars; but do not free him from his stripes. Do not free a camel of the burden of his hump:  you may be freeing him from being a camel.  Do not go about as a demagogue, encouraging triangles to break out of the prison of their three sides.  If a triangle breaks out of its three sides, its life comes to a lamentable end." (Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Chapter 3) To exist means to have certain restrictions. To be free of all restrictions is a contradiction in terms--even God is not free in this sense, for He is bound by the lines of His own nature, for it is impossible for Him to deny Himself, for Him to lie, for Him to be other than what He is for He is the Lord and He changes not. Neither spiritual freedom nor political freedom mean an absence of all restrictions. Nor does it mean the absence of all law. In Galatians 5:13 Paul makes a qualification about liberty. He says that it is not to be used as an occasion for sin or, as Barnes paraphrases it, “You are called to liberty, but it is not liberty for an occasion to the flesh.” Following this, Paul lists things which are and are not to be part of the Christians life--in other words, he gives laws. The New Testament is full of laws and commandments. Just as when the Americans threw off the power of Britain, they established a new government with its share of laws and regulations. Just as when the slaves were freed following the Civil War they were made full citizens of America and therefore under all its laws. Just so, someone who is free in Christ is still bound by the laws of Christ. In fact, there is a certain sense in which we have no choice between being free or being bound--rather, we our choice is only what we will be free of and what we will be bound to, for we are always bound to something and free of something else. (See Romans 6:17-22)

And there are many ways in which being being bound by the laws of a good nation are different than being bound by the laws of a despotism; there are a lot of ways in which the restrictions of a citizen are better than the restrictions of a slave; a lot of ways in which being a servant of God is better than being a servant of Sin. The Devil, like the despot, has no real right to rule us, whereas God has a right to demand our allegiance. Sin, like slavery, has no thought of the good of those in its power, where as God and a good government make laws for the good of the governed. Satan, like Pharaoh, demands that his slaves make bricks without straw, while God provides us with the power to follow His laws. And there is always some kind of degradation in slavery as there in sin, where as God gives us the honor and dignity of sons and citizens. Still, I think there is a deeper answer to this question and I'm not at all sure I know what it is. But I think I know at least part of the answer and Paul gives us that answer in Galatians.

It is very significant that in Galatians 5:13-15 he links liberty with love, as this is a point Paul makes several times in writings, especially in Romans and 1 Corinthians. In contradistinction to the false or libertine use of liberty he places love and, particularly, love in service: "By love serve one another." Love, he continues, is the fulfilling of the law, something he also says in Romans and which harks back to Jesus' words about the greatest commandment. In 5:15 he adds that if we do not have love, if we all live for our own interests, we will destroy one another, like a pack of biting, quarreling animals.

In other words, the liberty of which Paul is speaking here is not simply an abstract liberty, but a liberty for a purpose. The Christian is set free, not merely to be free, but in order to love. One might even say that a Christian is set free to serve. At first sight, this appears to be a meaningless evasion. If you told a slave that he was free--but only free to be a slave--he probably would not feel very much better about the situation. Nor would the Founding Fathers have been particularly impressed if Britain had answered their Declaration of Independence by pointing out that they were perfectly free to obey British law. But if we look more closely, we can begin to understand.

Frequently the kite used as an illustration of this point. If you're flying a kite and cut the string, it will not continue to fly. It is the limitation of the string which makes it possible to fly in the first place. However, there is a more fundamental point to notice here. If a kite cannot fly, it is useless. Other than as decoration, there is no real use for a flightless kite. A kite is created for the sole purpose of flying and if it loses this it is henceforth good for nothing except to be cast out and trodden under the foot of men. If you lock up a kite and prevent it from flying, this is tyranny. But the limitations of the string when the kite is flying is not tyranny because it allows the kite to fulfill its purpose.

And we as human beings were created for love--we were created to love God and to love one another. It was for this and for this alone that the world was made. Physical slavery is oppression because it treats a man as a physical possession, as something man was not created to be--and the slavery of sin is a far greater oppression, because it prevents man from loving God and loving His neighbor, the thing which in the very beginning he was created to do. In the same way, the heresy at Galatia was introducing a kind of slavery because it was forcing people in a dependence on the Jewish Law which God (who gave that law) had never intended. It was forcing men to become earners of their own salvation which, first of all, isn't possible, and second of all is a burden which God never placed on man. God never asked man to make the bricks of salvation without the straw of grace. This all is slavery and oppression, because it prevents people from being what God meant them to be and forces them to be something else. That is why it is only the Truth which can set men free, for it is only by the Truth that we know what freedom is, since a thing can never be free until it knows what it was meant to be.

Because this freedom is founded on truth and on the purposes of God, it is a freedom which allows for growth and development. A line from a Southern Gospel Song describes the "freedom" of a sinner with these words: "Free as a feather in a foolish wind, I'd go anywhere it blew." A feather blowing on the wind is free in the sense it is not restricted, but it also accomplishes nothing. A rolling stone gathers no moss. But the freedom which Christ gives is like the freedom of a tree planted by a river of water, free to put down its roots unopposed and to gain all the nutrients it needs. It is free to become something, to grow. Simply because one part of it is bound the rest of it can be free to do things it could never accomplish. The maple tree releases its seeds in a kind of helicopter pod which floats easily on the wind. But this seed does nothing so long as it is floating on the wind. It is only when it falls into the earth and is bound that it begin to grow, to produce its sweet sap, and to raises its green leaves to Heaven.

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