The Modern Sacrament of Freedom

Having recently written on the god-like aspirations of contemporary technological development in relation to the problem of GM food, I was struck by Richard Bauckham’s critique of a far more prosaic manifestation of the same temptation—the car.  In chapter 2 of his wonderful God and the Crisis of Freedom, he has this to say about that infernal contraption:

“The modern dream of freeing humanity to be whatever we choose to be by transcending all limits has, of course, produced the ecological crisis.  This has exposed the myth as a dangerous fantasy.  The attempt to transcend all limits has brought us up against the undeniable finitude of the creation to which we belong.  We cannot reject limits without destroying the creation on which we depend.  We cannot make ourselves gods, independent of the rest of nature, supreme over it, molding it into whatever future we choose.  But the habit of trying is not easy to break.  Modern humanity is addicted to the freedom that rejects all limits.

There is no more pervasive symbol of this freedom and its destructive futility than the car.  Cars are the modern sacrament of freedom; they symbolize it and promise actually to give it.  We can glimpse the kind of freedom they promise in the typical television advertisement: an individual driving through open countryside, mountain ranges, and deserts with the widest possible horizons.  Some also navigate through picturesquely narrow streets.  Cars offer individuals the freedom to go wherever they wish, whenever they like, as fast as possible.  They give independence, freedom to be entirely one’s own master, not dependent on others, not even accompanied by others.  They suggest the freedom of escape from any situation and of new opportunities and experiences always to be found along a new road.  They give the feeling of control over one’s destiny.  This is why most car owners cannot imagine living without one.  But, as always, this kind of freedom restricts the freedom of others.  The more people have cars, the more difficult life becomes for those who cannot afford them or are too old or too young to drive; public transport decays, and shops and community facilities are no longer within walking distances.  But the more people have cars, the less the car owners themselves enjoy the freedom they value.  Commuters spend highly stressful hours in bumper-to-bumper, slow moving traffic.  Motorways become car parks.  Roads destroy the countryside the car owner wants the freedom to enjoy at the weekends.  Moreover, since car ownership has become common, cities and most aspects of life in cities have developed in such a way that normal life requires constant long journeys.  The freedom to travel has incurred the necessity to travel.  Again typically of this kind of freedom, cars increase personal independence at the expense of the community.   Many a vast residential area is for many residents no more than a place through which they drive on the way from their houses to other destinations.”

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)

Justice Against the Oppressor–What to do with Imprecatory Psalms

Another gem of a passage from Bauckham’s The Bible in Politics, offering perhaps the most satisfactory discussion of the issue of imprecatory psalms and forgiving enemies that I have yet read:

“The oppressed Christian who discovers Jesus’ solidarity with him must take account of one respect in which Jesus in his suffering prayed differently from the way the psalmists prayed.  Jesus prayed for his enemies’ forgiveness (Luke 23:34), thus practising his own teaching (Matt. 5:44).  The psalmists never did this: their attitude to their enemies is consistently unforgiving.  They pray for God’s judgement on their enemies (Ps. 10:2b, 15), sometimes in the form of solemn and extensive curses (Ps. 69:22-8; 109:6-20).  But such prayers are not unknown in the New Testament (Rev. 6:10).  They need to be accorded a kind of provisional validity, which does not excuse any Christian from the duty of forgiving enemies, but does help us to understand what is really involved in forgiveness.  Jesus’ demand for forgiveness of enemies does not, we might say, simply revoke these prayers, but takes a step further beyond them.  We have to appreciate what is valid about them before we can rightly take, as followers of Jesus must take, that further step.  

First, these prayers spring directly from the psalmists’ demand for justice.  Like the widow in Jesus’ parable, whose demand was for the judge to vindicate her against her adversary (Luke 18:3), the psalmists’ primary concern is positive—justice for the oppressed—but they cannot envisage this without its negative corollary—justice against the oppressor.  Nor, in concrete situations of political injustice, is it often easy for us to do otherwise.  Our prayers in and about such situations are not superior but inferior to the psalms if they do not manifest the psalmists’ thirst for justice and anger at injustice.  As John Goldingay writes, ‘If we do not find ourselves wishing to call down a curse of divine magnitude on some perpetrators of evil, this may reflect our spiritual sensitivity, our good fortune in not being confronted by evil of such measure, or it may reflect our moral indifference.’  Love and forgiveness of enemies should not be invoked to sanction an easy and careless disregard for justice.  The force of Jesus’ command to love enemies is lost if we forget that it presupposes real enemies, and makes no attempt to pretend that they are not enemies.  Love and forgiveness of enemies are authentic only as the costly and difficult step beyond the psalmists’ valid demand for justice.  

Second, the psalmists’ prayer for justice serves in principle to protect their concern for justice from degenerating into vindictiveness, even if it does not always do this in practice.  The prayer is essentially for God to execute justice, and draws the psalmist, beyond feelings of personal vindictiveness, into a desire to see God’s justice prevail.  Admittedly, it is possible for talk of divine justice to be used in the interests of personal revenge.  But the believer who is genuinely open to God in prayer is subordinating his own judgement of the situation to the standard of God’s righteous judgement. . . . 

Third, the referring of the situation to God’s justice is the first step towards love and forgiveness of enemies.  In expressing to God their rage against their oppressors and their desire for vengeance the psalmists are at least submitting and yielding those wishes to God, even relinquishing them to God.  Personal vengeance can be renounced, because one’s cause has been entrusted to the just God who claims vengeance as his own concern (Deut. 32:35-6; Rom. 12:19). . . . In the course of repeating Jesus’ demand for love of enemies—blessing, not cursing them (12:14), not retaliating (v. 17)—he [Paul] forbids his readers to avenge themselves (v. 19a), but does not require them to renounce their concern for justice.  Rather this can be left in God’s hands (v. 19b). This then frees them to treat their enemies forgivingly and to welcome their repentance (v. 20).  Where those in the grip of personal vengeance msut be frustrated, like Jonah, when repentant enemies are spared judgment, those who have committed vengeance to God can promote and rejoice in the compassion by which he at once safeguards and surpasses justice.  They can pray for their enemies’ forgiveness.” (pp. 65-67)


Gleaning from Richard Bauckham

Readers of my old blog may recall that around two years ago I was wrestling for several months with how to understand and apply the Old Testament economic laws–their relative moral and judicial significance, in particular.  Well, the conclusions that took me six months and research and writing to haltingly articulate, Richard Bauckham, with disarming surefootedness, manages to establish in five splendid sentences of his book The Bible in Politics (which, by the way, I cannot recommend highly enough, and hope to be blogging frequently about over the next week or two).  I here quote most of the fantastic paragraph in which these five sentences appear:

“The law, as we have seen, is concerned with broad principles of social morality and with illustrating their specific application.  The specific examples include both laws enforceable in the courts and moral exhortations.  Leviticus 19:9-10 [the law of gleaning] is not in the form of judicial lw and, we may guess, would not normally have been enforced in the courts.  But on the other hand, it would have been open to the elders in any particular local community to choose to enforce it with legal sanctions.  In any case it had the force of social custom, which in small, close-knit communities like those of ancient Israel can be very effective. In such a society, social disapproval, which itself is inseparable from shared religious beliefs, can be as important a sanction as legal punishment.  Thus to insist that these verses envisage private charity rather than state welfare–or vice versa–is to introduce anachronistic distinctions.  Morevoer, as this example illustrates, the distinction between moral and civl law scarcely helps us with the problem of modern relevance.  Whether we consider it a moral or civil law, Leviticus 19:9-10 is a culturally specific* law.  It was an effective means of provision for the poor in the economic circumstances of ancient Israel, but would not be in modern Britain, where, on the one hand, most people are not farmers, and, on the other hand, the majority of the poor, who live in the inner cities, will not be much helped by the food they could gather on country rambles.  The relevance of this law for us can be discovered only by discerning the principles at work in it.  How far these principles can or should be embodied in social legislation in our society, rather than being matters of purely voluntary social morality, is something we have to decide in the concrete circumstances of our own society.  No attempt to distinguish between moral law and civil law in ancient Israel will help us there.


*all italics, except this phrase, are mine.