The Exodus story, which was the basis of my Sunday reflection this week, lies at the heart of both Judaism and Christianity. But, as we’ve seen time and time again over the past couple of months, while Christianity presents a strong challenge to the spirit of Empire, it breaks from Exodus by not telling the story of political freedom from Empire. Jesus did not start a revolution and was not the kind of political Messiah many hoped he’d be. Instead, when the New Testament picks up on the themes of freedom and bondage, it spiritualizes them. For Christians, freedom is no longer primarily conceived of as political liberation, but as freedom from the bondage of sin and death. Today I’d like to reflect on this shift. Has Christianity betrayed its origins in this apparent abstraction of freedom?
I don’t think so. In fact, rather than abstracting the idea of freedom, I think the Gospel radicalizes it.
I’m going to be begin by citing a words I’ve referenced a few times already in this space, from former Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey:
As Christians we must be the sworn foes of persecution, of arbitrary imprisonment, of racial discrimination, of crippling poverty and hunger. We shall throw ourselves into these causes of freedom in the name of Christ; and our Christian discipleship will be tested by our practical concern for our fellows. But we shall be aware that while these issues are easily stated in terms of freedom from, awkward questions arise when we go on to questions of freedom for. (Freedom, Faith and the Future)
What he’s saying is that political liberation is only half the battle. Self-determination and political autonomy are wonderful, but are on their own value neutral. The Egyptians were ‘free’; the Romans were ‘free’; European slave-holders were ‘free’. That certainly didn’t make them good. You can be politically free but use that freedom to create your own tyranny. In this case, all it does is create a new need for further political liberation. We see this concern in the Exodus story itself. God doesn’t just free the Hebrews and let them be; rather, God sets them free and then gives them the Ten Commandments. The Law does not exchange one form of bondage for another; rather the Law is a crash course in what true freedom looks like: Freedom for God’s ways is freedom from not just social and political oppression but also from the oppression of our own unhealthy attachments and appetites — the kinds of things that perpetuate injustice in the world and prop up oppressive systems.
This is the theme of liberation that Christianity picks up on. When Paul calls the Holy Spirit the “Spirit of Freedom” he reminds us that we have indeed been freed from the Principalities and Powers that tie us to the old ways of being in the world, the ways that are acts of death, not life (see Rom 8.14-17). When I wrote a reflection on this passage for Pentecost last year, I summarized this bondage as:
“The old ways of the world are bondage, and bondage to fear: fear of death, certainly, but also all of the other fears that hold us back: fears of rejection, fears of scarcity, fears of being seen, fears of failure, and on and on and on. So much of what is ‘sin’ is rooted in fear. The ‘normal’ ways of the world keep us small, less than the full, mature, and strong children of God we were created to be.”
The flip side of this is also true: While you can be politically free but spiritually in bondage, so too can you be spiritually free while in political bondage. While yes, if given the choice political freedom is better than political bondage and we must always be on the side of the God who Frees, political bondage does not prevent us from living as full citizens and adopted children and co-heirs of God’s Kingdom. In other words, one’s socio-political circumstances have nothing to do with one’s status with God; they may very well limit many things (and for that the world must repent), but they cannot limit the good fruit one’s life can bear.
This in itself would, I think, be enough to show that spiritual freedom is a radicalization and not a betrayal of the idea of freedom. But there’s another side to this that is perhaps even more important. Jesus himself radicalized the law by spiritualizing it. It isn’t enough, he says, not to murder or to commit adultery; if you really want to be free, you must also not seethe in the anger that leads to murder or indulge the lust that leads to adultery. This movement in no way means that Jesus is good with murder and adultery, but rather that they are the bad fruit from bad trees that need to be entirely uprooted by tackling them from their source. To use another metaphor, the things we observe as sinful in the world are merely the symptoms of the disease of sin; we have to treat the disease and not the symptom. And the same is true of the New Testament’s movement away from political liberation towards spiritual liberation.
In order to truly change relationships of oppression, we have to free ourselves from the spiritual condition that motivated and supported them. We see in the Exodus story how the freed Hebrews would at times look back wistfully at their days in Egypt, where they at least had some predictability in life and knew where their next meal was going to come from. They needed to learn how to be free. And, more importantly, if the dynamic between Egypt and Israel was ever going to change, so too did the Egyptians need to learn how to be free — how to stand on their own feet, how to run their economy and households without slave labour, and to look on the people they had enslaved as persons and not as possessions.
If we take an example closer to home, in the American experience, the men and women who had lived as slaves were freed, but that did nothing to change the hearts of those who were invested in slavery, and who still believed the old lies of white supremacy that had propped it up. And so they created new systems to oppress Black people, the so-called Jim Crow laws which strategically left them disenfranchised, poor, and on the outside of public life. This is to say nothing of the unofficial systems — the KKK, lynch mobs, “sunset counties” and the like — which terrorized Black communities and took Black lives with impunity. A century later, the Civil Rights Movement undid many of those structures, restoring Black Americans to public life and dismantling official segregation. But this still did nothing to change the hearts of those who were invested in segregation, and who still believed the old lies of white supremacy that had propped it up. And so the generation that followed saw the phenomena of “white flight”, the hollowing out of public education, and the “school-to-prison pipeline” which still impact American public life to this day.
The point of this isn’t to point fingers at the American situation — it is but one manifestation of a universal dynamic — but simply to show that as important as political liberation is, true freedom isn’t possible without also liberating hearts and minds.
And this, I think, is how the Christian “spiritual” appropriation of the Exodus story radicalizes the story rather than whitewashing it. It is honest about the human condition. Dismantling official systems of oppression is one (big! important!) step; but as long as the spiritual and intellectual systems upon which the oppression had been built still exist, it will only go so far in enacting the true change that is needed. Without a true revolution of the heart and mind, any political revolution will always fall short.
I feel like this is as good a place as any to bring this series on Empire and Spirit to a close. I’m sure these themes will continue to pop up in the coming weeks and months and we must always be on the look out for too-easy readings of our tradition that let us off the hook. Over the past few weeks we’ve seen how the Gospel challenges the claims of our human power structures, and exhorts us to reject those claims and to work instead to create the new kind of community that God longs for — a community of genuine love, of relationships that cross all the boundaries the world sets up, of showing up for ourselves, for each other, and for God, and of the true spiritual freedom that makes all the rest of this possible. And this is why, even as this blog transitions back to its more customary “spiritual” themes, this won’t be a retreat from or an abandonment of the important issues of justice in the world that have been so much in focus this Summer. For Christians, the “spiritual life” is not some abstract ‘love and light’ self-help program. It is nothing short of living life for the life of the world.