Freedom from Oppression or Freedom that Oppresses?

The great apostasy of modernity, argues David Bentley Hart in Atheist Delusions, lies in its concept of freedom, its abandonment of the Christian (but indeed, not merely the Christian; Aristotle understood this quite well too) understanding that freedom was about being true to one’s nature and proper end, not simply about the removal of every external impediment to one’s actions.  Modernity, indeed, says Hart, has gone to the extreme of regarding every consideration, every objective value outside of the abstract individual will as an “external impediment,” and hence is committed to a kind of nihilism:

“Modernity’s highest ideal—its special understanding of personal autonomy—requires us to place our trust in an original absence underlying all of reality, a fertile void in which all things are possible, from which arises no impediment to our wills, and before which we may consequently choose to make of ourselves what we choose.  We trust, that is to say, that there is no substantial criterion by which to judge our choices that stands  higher than the unquestioned good of free choice itself, and that therefore all judgment, divine no less than human, is in some sense an infringement upon our freedom.” (21)

In the classical understanding, says Hart,

“true freedom was understood as something inseparable from one’s nature: to be truly free, that is to say, was to be at liberty to realize one’s proper ‘essence’ and so flourish as the kind of being one was . . . true human freedom is emancipation from whatever constrains us from living the life of rational virtue, or from experiencing the full fruition of our nature; and among the things that constrain us are our own untutored passions, our willful surrender to momentary impulses, our own foolish or wicked choices.” (24)  

The highest freedom, then, argued Augustine, was not posse non peccare — “to be able not to sin” — but non posse peccare — “not to be able to sin.”  What this meant, then, was that too much of purely external freedom, certainly in its extreme modern form, undermines true freedom, for it is a guarantee that one will go far astray from one’s proper end, that one will lose the freedom that comes from within, the self-control of a virtuous character.  However, for the ancients, inward freedom does not thereby dispense entirely with outward freedom, for it was necessary to have a genuine agency in order to develop virtue; a certain external scope to exercise free choice was thereby essential to allow internal freedom room to grow and to practice itself in action.  The slave was therefore incapable of virtue and genuine freedom.    

Christianity, however, radicalized the disjunction between outward and inward freedom.  The classical model of freedom still emphasised the autonomous subject, since freedom was the result of self-possession, the ability to be fully in control of oneself.  Christianity, however, would insist that even this freedom was bondage, because it was inevitably tainted by sin.  Only when we relinquished this striving for self-mastery, and instead acknowledged that we are not our own but Christ’s could we be truly free.  Perfect freedom then is to be a bondservant of Christ, as St. Paul will put it.  There is thus a radical interiority in the freedom of a Christian that, it would seem, remains wholly blind to the external embodiment of this freedom.  This is particularly so in the Protestant doctrine of Christian freedom, in which the freedom of the Christian coram Deo can coexist with complete external bondage, and in which any claim to have achieved freedom in the earthly realm is illusory, since it is always tainted with the bondage of sin.  


Understandably, this line of thinking has seemed unacceptable to many modern theologians.  It appears to be a stance of complete political quietism, encouraging a dangerous complacency about injustice, inasmuch as it suggests that all that matters is the liberation of the soul from the bondage of sin, no matter how many physical chains remain.  This is the doctrine, they will rant, that would preach the gospel to African slaves, while happily continuing the slave trade.  This is the doctrine that upheld apartheid.  They are no more happy when they read it in Paul.  Paul may have said that in Christ there is neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, and yet he betrayed his message (or perhaps, some other pseudo-Paul later on inserted a different message) by calling for slaves to obey their masters, calling for wives to submit to their husbands.  The freedom of the Gospel, on this reading, is empty and indeed oppressive if it does not involve a change in external relations, a real empowerment of individuals.  The shrewder critics may even venture that this radical interiorization of freedom contributes in some way to the development of the modern autonomous subject, the concept of the naked unconditioned will that Hart identifies as the great modern heresy — that Luther, Kant, and modernity are all part of the same voluntarist line of development.


How can we then bridge these two dimensions of freedom?  Does inner freedom in Christ flow outward into an external freedom, does it break the bonds of oppression?  Does Paul’s gospel have any of the political import that so many today want to find there?  Richard Bauckham has some extraordinarily helpful things to say on the subject in The Bible in Politics, insisting both that the inward liberation of a Christian does not need an external corollary to make a meaningful difference, but that nonetheless, animated by charity, it does not rest content with oppression, which it will overthrow in due time, and often in mysterious ways:

“The interrelation between the dimensions of freedom is most frequently posed in terms of the relation between inner and outer freedom, or ‘spiritual’ and ‘secular’ freedom, or existential and structural freedom.  These pairs are not stable or easily delimited, but it is possible to distinguish broadly between, on the one hand, the economic, political, and social structures of freedom, and, on the other hand, the kind of personal freedom which is possible even despite oppressive structures.  That the latter kind of freedom is real and important can be seen, for example, in such extreme cases as Soviet dissidents in the Gulag, remaining free, in their thinking, of the system which oppresses them unbearably, or in the Christian martyrs under the Roman Empire, who could be regarded as the most truly free people of their time, in their refusal to let even the threat of death cow them into submission.  Such freedom in and despite oppressive structures is not only real but essential to the cause of liberation from essential structures.  It is only out of their inner liberation from the system that Russian dissidents can publicly protest against and hope to change the system.  It needed a Moses liberated by God from resignation to the irresistible power of Pharaoh to lead the people out of Egypt, and it needed the gradual psychological liberation of the people themselves to free them from Egypt even after their escape from Pharaoh’s army.  

The point is that real freedom cannot be confined to one dimension.  Inner freedom cannot rest content with outer unfreedom, though it may have to suffer the contradiction in circumstances where outer freedom is unattainable.  Where the experience of existential freedom happily coexists with structura oppression, merely compensating for it rather than reacting against it, it is to that extent inauthentic.  Admittedly, one should not press the point where, for example, the churches of the oppressed make life bearable in otherwise unbearable circumstances.  African Independent churches in South Africa, for example, provide liberation from the psychological and physical ills of life under apartheid, even if they do remain notoriously apolitical [this was written in the 1980s].  They are not to be blamed in the way that oppressors who promote purely ‘spiritual’ versions of Christian freedom for those they oppress must be condemned for abusing the gospel.  But the most impressive example is that of American black slaves, who while experiencing the liberation of the gospel, which gave them inner freedom from the dehumanizing effects of enslavement, were certainly not reconciled to their chains.  On the contrary, their experience of the liberating God sustained a longing for outward freedom which was both eschatological and realistic.  

The contribution of the New Testament’s insghts into the nature of real freedom as liberation from enslavement to self-interest and freedom to give oneself for others is also important in this context.  The oppressed who long for freedom are not truly liberated from the system which oppresses them so long as the freedom they desire is only the freedom their oppressors have: freedom for themselves, no matter what this entails for others.  In such circumstances the struggle for liberation is simply a mirror image of the system it opposes: it becomes ruthless in its own interest, creates as many victims as it liberates, and produces a new kind of tyranny in place of the old.  Outward liberation worthy of the name requires people who have been freed to live for others, and for all others, even for their oppressors.” (116-17)

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