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Freedom: A Universally Positive Good?

Themes of freedom and emancipation appear as the theme of countless modern stories:

  • breaking out of prison
  • fighting a revolution
  • fleeing an oppressive government
  • escaping an abusive parent or spouse
  • owning a dream business

We cheer on the protagonist as they reach their goal, which ultimately will be some variation on the theme of “freedom”. It’s assumed that everyones to have charge of their own life, be their own boss, have as much independence as possible with no one telling you what to do, where to go, what to think. These train our heart to desire independence from our earliest years, with no consideration whether this end is desirable.

Independence equals Maturity?

I have a son in his 20s. His independent nature was usually the first thing anyone noticed about him. But this nature soon had to come up against the presence of three younger siblings who always had to be taken into consideration. Something as simple as having his own bathroom would be living the good life. Unsurprisingly, once he moved out and had his own bathroom and as much privacy as he could ever want, he realized God was not exaggerating when he stated “It is not good for man to be alone”.

He also discovered how much he had to learn about navigating the details of adult life and maybe he didn’t mind so much coming to us as his parents for us to tell him what to do about some of the complicating details that clutter adulthood. He wasn’t helpless. He found himself a lot stronger than he thought and is thriving in many ways. He also learned that freedom can be overrated.

Early on, he had also displayed a bent towards entrepreneurship. Now I’ve never started my own business, outside of the obligatory foray into multilevel marketing everyone tries at least once. Despite my inexperience I know you may quickly miss the safety of a sure paycheck and the feeling of not being responsible for not only whether a profit even happens, but also perhaps the livelihood of others. My son may someday chose starting a small business, but for now, he opted for having a boss, along with steady income.

A Home or a Cage?

The relative good or evil of a wall or a border is in the eye of the beholder. It can be seen as protection or it can be seen as a prison.

Traditionally, Eden is portrayed as a walled garden–and certainly according to the biblical text had borders. Within these bounds, the Serpent whispered lies to Eve, that God was holding back, holding out. There was more beyond the walls. She wanted to break loose of the limits and got what she wanted and soon regretted it. She and Adam found themselves on the outside wishing they could get back in.

Then there’s the Prodigal Son, who longed for “freedom” from his father’s authority. He was granted his request, but quickly longed for home, even if it meant a demotion from son to servant. The classic archetype of the prodigal is now absent from modern stories, which instead include children and spouses leaving abusive homes for a relative paradise. The real life versions of “emancipation” do not have as many of these happy endings, but rather result in the children or spouses soon missing the presence of the family that used to make them feel constrained.

Hebrew Cosmology as shown in Genesis has this whole world as a stage before heaven, enclosed by the firmament. This enclosure can, much like the garden, be seen as a protective enclosure provided by our loving Creator. Yet the World has narrated endless fantasies of escaping those bonds and fetters of the earthly realm, assuming there are better things beyond, that we are stuck in second class and there is a first class mode of travel God is withholding.

But the Bible is clear that we do NOT want to be caught outside of the city gates when he returns. Paradise is inside the walls and the outer darkness is not freedom. Gehenna outside the Eternal City is full of weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Is “Freedom” an Illusion?

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus states that a man cannot serve two masters but only one–the two options being God or Mammon. There seems to be an assumption that there will be at least one minimum. We are designed to be devoted, to pick a team, to worship. We long for validation, we seek approval. And ultimately, we would have to admit that we are lost children who don’t know where we are going or what we are doing without help. We are sheep who, without a shepherd, will likely follow each other off a cliff.

Prisoners sent to solitary confinement prove time and time again that like the castaway muttering to his beachball Wilson, a life without others descends quickly into madness.

Levites Were Indentured Servants?

I’m reading through Numbers for about the tenth time in my life at least, and I’m always left with the feeling that a modern person plopped into the role of a Levite would be complaining of a raw deal. All the other Israelites got tracts of land and freedom to chose their own profession and enjoy the land of milk and honey as they pleased once everyone got set up in the Promised Land. But the Levites received very precise instructions for their role.

“Behold, I have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel in place of every firstborn Israelite from the womb. The Levites belong to me.”

Numbers 3:12

Levites did not pick their own profession. They could not own land. They worked inside the cities, dependent on what the rest of Israel brought as offerings. It does not sound “free” in the way we think of freedom. Modern life has very few positions of honor that are also a life of service. Additionally, very few consider taking pride in anything inherited, rather than earned.

The closest thing today might be the honor most give to those who serve in the military to protect our country. But if we found that someone was enlisted at birth, we would call them a slave and be quickly organizing protests to make a case to demand their emancipation.

But it seems like being in a society where one fits automatically by birth into a certain segment of society, where knows their place in the mosaic from early on might be a relief. We long to belong, to know our place in this world, but are fed stories about heroes and heroines born into a place of their own but see it automatically as a prison from which to escape. The only place we are allowed to accept is one chosen by ourselves. The only possible happy ending would be to be the “master of our fate” and “captain of our soul”.

Good Slavery?

So I think I’ve established that “freedom” is relative and not automatically a positive thing:

To be free of social ties is to be isolated and alone. To be free of family ties is to be an orphan. To be free of a boss could very well mean unemployed. So the ultimate “freedom” might be to become like poor Fezzik from The Princess Bride, who considered being the servant of Vizzini–the most annoying, irascible master you could hope to have–preferable to his former life as described by Vezzini:

[to Fezzik] And YOU! Friendless. Brainless. Helpless. Hopeless! Do you want me to send you back to where you were? Unemployed? In Greenland?

Vizzini in The Princess Bride

So if freedom isn’t automatically good, should we consider whether slavery is automatically bad. The apostle Paul answers this in his letter to the church in Rome, and I could not offer better words to finish these thoughts. From Chapter 6 of Paul’s letter to the Romans:

15 What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, 18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. 19 I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.”

20 For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21 But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. 22 But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

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