Loving Freedom

This is going to come as a shock to you… but I don’t get the whole haircut thing. My social media feeds are full of people lamenting their inability to get a haircut or a hair coloring, or posting pictures of their attempts to cut their own hair or a family member’s hair with…varying…success while they dream of hair salons being open again (and the people whose hair they cut probably even more so!).

Yes, I will stipulate that I can’t even remember the last time got my hair cut, meaning going to a business establishment, sitting in a chair, and having someone else cut my hair. It’s been at least ten years, and almost certainly more. I’ve been shaving my head since the summer of 2013, but I was buzzing my own hair with clippers at home for years before that. I’m not sure I’ve gotten an actual haircut since George W. Bush was President, since the iPhone was first released, since Blockbuster Video was the go-to provider of home entertainment. So yeah, when I hear people complaining about going 60 days or more without a haircut, I have trouble relating to that.

What I do get, though, it’s that it’s not really about the haircut or the hair coloring. Those things are metaphors for everything we’ve lost or given up in the time of coronavirus, in this season of sheltering in place. I saw someone online criticizing people who are upset about not being able to cut or color their hair by saying, “What are you worried about? You’re not going anywhere! Nobody’s going to see what you look like?” But that is actually the point and the problem, isn’t it? We’re not going anywhere; nobody’s going to see what we look like.

So while in one sense it might feel liberating not to have to shave every day or worry about what our hair looks like, those very things also remind us of our lack of freedom, our loss of freedom to do even basic things that we took for granted or even complained about when we could actually do them freely: get our hair done; buy toilet paper; eat in a loud and crowded restaurant; go to work.

For some of you, the loss of freedom has been significantly greater: it has led to real hardship, either because you have lost some or all of your income in the economic shutdown, or because you work in essential services that put you at a much higher level of risk than the rest of us. For all of us, that loss of freedom has led to a lot of frustration, anxiety, anger, resentment and grief, though some are expressing those feelings more responsibly and constructively than others.

That all raises the question, then, of how we understand the nature and purpose of freedom. Here in the United States, we generally talk about freedom in terms of individual self-determination: to be free means to make your own choices in your own social, political, economic, and religious life. And that understanding of freedom is at the very heart of our identity as citizens. You can see it from the very beginnings of our country: the Declaration of Independence says that our Creator endowed every human being with certain unalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments of the Constitution, was written to explicitly guarantee certain other freedoms, and it begins with an amendment that is focused on guarantees of rights to self-determination, especially the freedom of religion, speech, press, and public assembly. More recently, the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s focused intensely on the freedom to vote for black people, which was being blocked not just through social intimidation by white supremacists like the Ku Klux Klan, but by state and local governments that had passed webs of laws to ensnare black people from being able to exercise their constitutional right to vote, which is one of the most basic acts of self-determination in any democracy.

That understanding of freedom for self-determination is a through-line in our national history and a bedrock commitment in our national values and self-identity; we even describe ourselves as “The Land of the Free.” And that’s because such freedom is a good and beautiful thing, and it is both rare and fragile in the pages of human history, so it is something to be both treasured and protected.

But even as deep and as strong as our commitments are to the freedom of self-determination in the United States, they are not completely absolute. There are still limits on our individual right to freedom and self-determination, and that fact is well-established in U.S. law and society. For example, freedom of speech is one of our deepest commitments, but there are well-established and important exceptions to that, which include libel, slander, claiming or using the intellectual property of others as your own, inciting imminent violence, and so on. What all those exceptions have in common is that in exercising our own rights to freedom and self-determination, we are not free to limit or damage the rights of others to the same thing.

The Christian gospel, though, actually goes much further than that, and I think it has something particularly important for us here as Christians, not just Americans, to consider as we wrestle with these questions of freedom and responsibility. In fact, the question of Christian freedom is a particular theme in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, and the passage we have today is one of the most important places in which he wrestles with that theme. Paul, of course, is writing almost two thousand years before Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the other U.S. Founders, and while he’s very focused on the question of freedom, he’s not very interested in the question of self-determination.

That’s important, because if we simply pull out the first verse or two from his letter, it might sound like something that Patrick Henry or Samuel Adams could have bellowed in a rousing speech in the 1700s: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” But Paul is not talking about the tyranny of an English king or taxation without representation; he’s not talking about the right to self-determination at all. Paul is talking about a kind of freedom that he considers even more important than that, a freedom that protects the integrity of the Galatians’ faith and the very state of their souls.

Paul founded the church in Galatia, which was in what we would now know as central Turkey, in the region of Ankara. As he typically did, he gathered and cultivated the original Galatian congregation, trained local leaders, and then left the congregation in their care as he moved on to found other churches. But sometime after, a group of apostles came to Galatia that disagreed with Paul on the question of whether Gentiles had to observe the Jewish Law when they became Christians.

They began telling the Galatians that they weren’t “real” Christians because they weren’t observing the ritual practices of the Jewish Law, especially the practice of circumcision. This letter in the New Testament is what happened when Paul found it, which is that he completely flipped out. He has such an extreme reaction because he believed that, by accepting that they could not be saved outside the Jewish Law, they were effectively denying their salvation that they received directly from Jesus Christ. The whole point of the gospel, Paul argues, is that we are saved directly and fully through Jesus Christ. That’s the first thing he means by “freedom” in the passage: that we are free and freed to live in Christ solely through God’s grace.

That doesn’t mean we are free in the sense of absolute self-determination, though. Which is why Paul also says, “for you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.” The point of freedom in Christ, Paul says, is to be free to love and serve others as Christ did: not because we’re obliged to do it, not because our salvation depends on it, but simply out of our Christ-like love for others.

So freedom in Christ means we’ve been set free from the captivity of things that try to limit us and control us and keep us from being able to fully love God and others, to keep us enslaved to self-centeredness, self-indulgence, and self-service. That’s what he means by “the desires of the flesh;” that’s what that list of the “works of the flesh” all have in common: they are all ways of practicing self-interest or exerting power and control over others for our own benefit. It doesn’t mean they don’t still have power; it doesn’t mean they don’t still offer temptation. But they don’t have control; we have the freedom to love and serve others, not simply ourselves.

And we also have the responsibility, as followers of Christ to do so: not the responsibility of law, but of love. “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment,” Paul reminds the Galatians and us: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The really amazing thing of where we find ourselves in this precise moment of the pandemic is that whether we should love our neighbors is at the heart of one of one of major points of conflict as a nation: whether we should wear masks when we go out in public. It is sometimes getting framed in terms of freedom as self-determination: I shouldn’t have to wear a mask if I don’t want to, it’s my body and I have the right to decide what risks I want to take for myself.

Which may be true, but it’s also irrelevant; we’re not being asked to wear masks to protect ourselves from the virus. While there is some debate over the precise percentages, the current scientific consensus is that wearing a homemade cloth mask does very little to protect you if other people are not wearing them. However, it significantly reduces the chance that you will infect others, especially if you are an asymptomatic carrier of the virus (which is common), and are therefore unaware that you even have it, and even more so if they are also wearing a mask.

So you literally can’t be self-centered by wearing a cloth mask; rather, wearing one is a is a simple but powerful declaration that you are intentionally loving your neighbor as yourself, manifesting the fruits of the Spirit that Paul named: maybe not joy, per se, but certainly love, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control are all embodied there. And right now, we can use as much of that kind of fruit as we can bear and harvest.

This is loving freedom means for Christians: the freedom to love as Christ has loved us, as Christ loves this entire beautiful and broken world. And so in this time of the coronavirus, let us dedicate ourselves anew to that kind of loving freedom in and through and for Jesus Christ: in our lives and our neighborhoods and our nation, in big ways and small, through all our words and actions, and for the love of God and our neighbors.



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