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The word freedom means many different things to many different people in our culture. Lately there has been a lot of conversation about Stewart Brand’s 1984 speech in which he declared that “information wants to be free”. (In the same paragraph he said that information also wants to be expensive, but that part of the quote has disappeared in our public discourse.) People are ruminating on whether that sentence means that information is inexpensive, whether information wants to roam without limitations, whether it wants to be politically free. For twenty-five years we’ve been debating what Brand meant and that is just one use of the word free! Freedom also has powerful political connotations. We are the land of the free, we let freedom ring, when we’re mad at France we call our fried potatoes freedom fries.
For us, freedom means we don’t have a King, that we rule ourselves. But it also means we can do whatever we want and we resent when government interferes with our bodies, our guns, our money. Freedom evokes summer vacations and the backseats of cars and long stretches of highway. And sometimes our use of the word freedom makes no sense at all. This week Fox and Friends, a morning cable news show, was doing a Fourth of July food special and they had representatives from the restaurant Hooters there and the news anchor said, “Nothings spells freedom like a Hooters meal.”
In today’s world, and in the ancient world, the word freedom meant many different things to different people. The apostle Paul knew he had to be careful when he used the word in his letter to the Galatians.
Paul and the Galatians go way back. Paul started the churches in Galatia and knows them well. He writes this letter to them out of frustration. He has heard that since he’s left, some teachers have come to the churches and instructed their members that they must be circumcised and follow more of the Jewish law in order to be Christians.
The letter to the Galatians is argument against circumcision and the need for Christians to follow the Jewish law. Paul is arguing that following Christ means one no longer has to follow every detail of the Jewish law, because Christ fulfilled the law himself. However, you can imagine the reaction if one of our modern politician’s platform was to abolish our laws entirely.
We would be upset! As much as we may talk about freedom in our country, if suddenly murder or theft or brutality was legal, we would be seriously unhappy. We know that laws are necessary to reign in our wild, jealous, angry, selfish impulses.
In the same way, Paul is predicting his audience’s objections. Paul knows that the Galatians are afraid if they abolish the law, that people will just run wild! If there is no law, what is to stop people from adultery and murder and generally bad behavior?
When you are free, it means you used to be bound to something. In our country’s case, that was English rule. In the Galatians case, it means the Jewish law. But Paul explains that in the freedom from Jewish law, they are now bound to something else—each other. Paul 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 thing that will keep the Galatians in check is their love for one another. When a person acts out of love for the other, he or she will refrain from doing harmful things. Paul reminds the Galatians that the law can be summed up as “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
In this new freedom, Paul calls them to live in that spirit of love, rather than gratifying everything their bodies might want. Paul does not want them to be slaves to the Jewish law any more, but he also doesn’t want them to be slaves to their bodies either. Following the spirit is the third option.
So, what does it mean for us to be free. Are we slaves to each other in love, or are we yoked to something else?
Somewhere in the last week I read or heard a story about a woman from a Middle Eastern culture who came to the west for the first time and was shopping. Now we in the West might look at a woman in a head scarf or hijab and feel real pity for the oppression she is under. We might long to show her the freedom women in the west experience. This particular Middle Eastern woman was not used to shopping by sizes. In her home country, she had a relationship with a dressmaker who would make things just for her. So, she had no idea what size she was. The shop she was in was pretty fancy and when she asked the shopkeeper for help, the shopkeeper sneered that they did not have sizes that would fit her. She said that women should be a size six or smaller and if they were not, the store did not carry their size. At that moment, the woman from the Middle East had an insight. Western women were just as oppressed as Middle Eastern women—just by a different power. Western women were oppressed by the cultural pressures to be thin and attractive. Never before had this woman worried about her shape or her weight. She had always been at home in her body, but in an instant she saw herself as unworthy and ugly.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that story. I don’t consider myself enslaved by our culture’s idea of beauty, but I spend well over a thousand dollars every year on haircuts, make up, whitening toothpaste, pedicures, new clothes. And every morning I spent at least twenty minutes putting on make up, blow drying my hair, straightening it, making sure I’m wearing earrings and clothes that match. I think sometimes we can be so entrenched in our culture, that we don’t even realize we’re at some level enslaved by it. I’m certainly not going to experiment with freedom by not grooming myself any more.
We are all bound to things that are not God. We may be bound to dysfunctional families, our work, expectations that others have for us, expectations that we have for ourselves. We may be bound to more ominous things: abusive relationships, drugs, alcohol, adulterous sex, power, money. Trying to extricate ourselves from all these binding things so we can live in the freedom of Christ can be tricky.
Thankfully, Paul gives us markers to look for to see if we’re living into our freedom by following the Spirit. These markers are a gift from God that are given out of God’s grace. They are the fruits of the Spirit’s work in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Everyone knows someone they think of as a saint. Some person who is just so kind, it’s almost hard to believe. Well that person often can be described as having several—if not all—of the characteristics described above. We are all eligible to receive those gifts—and it starts with choosing the freedom Christ offers us from whatever it is we are bound to. Christ has the power to unshackle us from whatever we are enslaved to, but then, of course, we are bound to him and bound to one another.
And that may be too threatening for some people. Being bound to Christ and to other Christians can be challenging. Real, deep relationships take enormous effort. Learning to love your neighbor as yourself is no picnic. Especially when your neighbor is a big pain in the neck. But that kind of intimacy and conflict and reconciliation are the kind of experiences that start shaping us as people of patience and faithfulness and gentleness and self-control.
The messy, human, holy relationships of Christians loving God and loving each other is freedom, even if that freedom feels more like a hot church on a Sunday morning than something more ecstatic and fitting the word “freedom”. But freedom is as much an internal shift as a set of external circumstances. A single, unattached, independently wealthy man who rides his motorcycle along the shore of northern California, may not experience nearly the freedom of a little old lady in a nursing home who has said her morning prayers faithfully for 80 years and knows with all certainty that she belongs to God.
For true freedom comes when are bound—bound to God, bound to love, bound to one another.