One of the things that I have thought long and hard about for the past few months is the whole issue of freedom. I am sure you would agree with me when I say that freedom is not simply exchanging one set of social rules for another. We can all smell the fear and systems of control behind the unspoken rules of our faith communities and social communities and we know that no matter how attractive the packaging looks, this too is not freedom. And yet in spite of this God-given compass for freedom, we always seem to prefer slavery to rules instead of freedom. Our journey always seems to lead us back to the same place we think we’ve left.
It is into this conflicting construct that we must place Jesus. Jesus brings his message of freedom and liberty to a people that were oppressed on two sides. On one hand, they had the Roman imperial power in all it’s might and terrible glory. Rome was not a benevolent master. Rome was to be feared and would not suffer the rebellion of the people of this notorious part of the empire. On the other hand, they had the Priestly aristocracy, the Torah, and the complicated social and spiritual rules that came with them. For the people in Jesus’ time, it was a question of choice between one oppressor and another and it is into this construct that he starts to present a new construct called “the kingdom of God”.
The Kingdom of God was a marvelous concept – a third option – that Jesus puts before the people in his time to help them see that they could move into a wonderfully new construct that was not simply about the afterlife, but that could be lived out here on earth. No longer did you have to be faced simply with the controls, rules and oppression of either master, but rather, you could find a new path in which he, Jesus, was Lord and in which the yoke was easy and the burden was light.
Isn’t this what freedom truly is? Realizing that your choices are not simply one system of control VS another, but rather a third option in which those that the Son sets free are free indeed. Realizing that even though you are in the world, you are not of this world and so you can rise above the simple constructs that rules create. Realizing that you can abandon the appearance of perfection because you are accepted just the way you are – flawed, broken and yet somehow perfect in the eyes of he that made you.
You know what the true scandal of Jesus’ teachings is? It is the fact that even though he preached freedom, he was crucified. Even his disciples were imprisoned and killed and the Jerusalem church that he established was completely destroyed when every trace of Jerusalem was ground into the dust in 70 AD. But therein lies the true beauty of the freedom that Jesus offers in his proposition about his kingdom.
The beauty is that though it may seem like you are bound by a system of control, freedom is not what appears on the outside, but what is really on the inside. So even though on the outside it may seem like you are bound by your obligations to government or society, the truth is that freedom is not an outward appearance, but an inner persuasion. This why Paul, writing years after his conversion, can tell slaves to obey their masters. He is not promoting slavery as the church has said he might have been. To Paul, the appearance of slavery is not real slavery. Obviously it would be GREAT to not have to be sold from one master to another, but even though you are sold to slavery, you can live free because freedom is inside you and cannot be simply taken away by physical chains.
But sadly, it can be taken away by mental and spiritual chains. It is so easy to remain enslaved and to crave the construct of slavery even when you are set free. You can see this in the stories of humanity – from the Israelites preferring slavery in egypt to freedom in the desert, to the people in Stockholm defending their abductors. You can see it as people spiral back into addiction after working hard to get clean and sober and you can see it as people that are freed from modern-day slavery turn around and become traffickers in an underground global business that put them through hell. The saddest of all, though, has to be in the Church. You can see people come to Jesus and be handed a physical and spiritual freedom that they could have never known and still never truly walk in the breadth and depth of the freedom they have been handed preferring, instead, to willfully enslave themselves through guilt, fear, judgement and condemnation.
However, there is hope. In the face of this, you can see traces of what Jesus was really trying to say about freedom being a matter of the heart. You can see it in the determination of the north american slaves that overcame impossible odds to fight for a concept that only existed in their heads. You can see it in the unbreakable spirit of victims of abuse and addiction that may come out with broken bodies, but astonishingly unbroken spirits. And you can see it in the followers of Jesus and especially in Paul as he writes: we are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; cast down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.
I believe that as followers of Christ, we have to honestly ask ourselves a couple of deep questions:
Are you really free or have you traded one system of control for another?
Are you a staunch defender of the rules that both you and other people in your faith community find oppressive, baffling and sometimes downright outrageous?
Do you find yourself wracked with guilt over breaking the rules that your faith community has created, but are not really found in scripture?
Are you exhibiting the signs of a spiritual Stockholm Syndrome all the while not realizing that you are defending the same construct that seeks to control you?
Are you still a victim of a rigid matrix offering an illusion of freedom, but not really giving it?
Are you a defender of a system of benevolent legalism rather than a champion for freedom?
I believe that in Christ we can really be free. We can be free from slavery to sin and slavery to our religious indoctrination. There is a third choice ahead of us – true freedom that can only be found in christ. You can really, REALLY be free.