July 4, 2018 is coming soon. Two weeks from today America will celebrate another Independence Day with parades, backyard barbecues, fireworks, and so much more. This is the festive holiday in which Americans celebrate one of her most cherished values, freedom.
Freedom as Americans understand, is a “We the people” thing that embraces democracy and individual rights. In other words, America regards freedom as the ability of each person to think, speak, and act without restraint so long as such expression neither harms nor violates the freedom of another individual. So every person is individually autonomous and decides for themselves the sort of life they wish to live.
I’m not sure where this idea of freedom originates but we find it thoroughly embedded within modernism. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant defined freedom as, “…the alone unoriginated [sic] birthrite of man, and belongs to him by force of his humanity; and is independence on the will and co-action of every other in so far as this consists with every other person’s freedom” (The Metaphysics of Ethics). Freedom then, according to Kant, is the right of self-rule for every individual by virtue of their birth. In other words, freedom is a part of the created order of life. Among America such freedom is also understood as a truth that all people have posses by virtue of their creation. As stated in the Declaration of Independence, “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.”
While freedom from the tyranny of oppressive rulers is a good thing and something I do appreciate, there is a problem for Christians with how freedom is understood in America. To put it bluntly, nowhere in the Bible is this understanding of freedom found. That won’t stop some people from misusing the Bible by proof-texting a passage of scripture from here or there, to make it affirm the American idea of freedom. Nevertheless, freedom as it is generally understood in America is not a part of the Bible. Those that try making it so offer one more example of how people co-opt the Bible to a later developed worldview. The Bible has a different view of what freedom entails but understanding that requires going back to the beginning Genesis and the original sin.
“The original and continuous sin is taking possession of the power to decide for ourselves what is good and evil or right and wrong. Yet neither Israel nor anyone else, including us red-blooded Americans, were ever created to live independent of God’s rule.”
You might recall how after placing the man and woman in the garden, God gave them permission to eat of any tree except the one tree known as the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:15-17). So although much permission was given as to how these two people would utilize there abilities in taking care of the garden, they never were given total liberty. They were prohibited from acquiring the power to determine for themselves what is good and evil. However, the desire for having that knowledge and the freedom it appears to offer, rather than relying upon God, is too much to resist. So in comes the the serpent saying to the woman “God knows that on the day you eat from it, you will see clearly and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5). The text goes on telling us how the woman saw how good the tree would be — even for the purpose of gaining wisdom. So she eats from it and gives some to the man to eat as well.
And there it is… Verse 7 says “Then they both saw clearly…” They got what they wanted but at what cost?
Since I read the Genesis creation narrative as a text offered to Israel during her exile, the story is more than just about the origin of sin. The sin here is the sin that Israel continued making and it’s the sin that we continue making as well. The original and continuous sin is taking possession of the power to decide for ourselves what is good and evil or right and wrong. Yet neither Israel nor anyone else, including us red-blooded Americans, were ever created to live independent of God’s rule. As people created in the image and likeness of God, we were made to live dependent upon our Creator and that dependence means listening and obeying his word.
What America considers to be freedom is the first form of slavery. You see, once we take the power of knowing good and evil so that we can determine for ourselves what is right and wrong, freedom becomes a good we never can fully acquire. There is always another obstacle in the way… another war to fight, an appeal to make before the Supreme Court, and some more money spent chasing “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” So freedom has become the pursuit of removing anything that hinders or restrains us from living as we have determined for ourselves. This pursuit itself then becomes the object of desire (Highfield, God, Freedom, & Human Dignity, 103-104) which makes it an idol we serve, making us slaves to the grind.
But for those of us, like me, who love freedom, there is some good news. Jesus once said to his followers, “You are my disciples if you remain faithful to my teaching. Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (Jn 8:31-32). So if it is freedom we want, then know that it is Jesus who gives us the opportunity to be free again. This opportunity isn’t a path where we can say whatever we want, live however we like, chasing after life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Instead, Jesus gives us the opportunity to live life as God created us to live, free from the tyranny and slavery of our autonomous selves. With this opportunity we gain the freedom to truly live as humans by recognizing Jesus as Lord so that God may rule over us again. That’s why Jesus says that we’ll know the truth that sets us free if we remain faithful to his teaching. True freedom is living in submission to King Jesus, as his servants, by remaining faithful to his teaching so that God’s will is done in our lives as it is in heaven.