We can all be free.
Maybe not with words.
Maybe not with looks.
But with your mind.
When I was in high school, I spent some time in Japan—ostensibly to teach English, though I don’t recall doing much of that. The trip as a whole is a bit of a blur, but I remember one young man named Ken and I don’t expect I’ll forget him soon. We climbed Mount Fuji together, and he assaulted me with questions about America and American freedom in particular. He said the word “freedom” like a spell, the way some people talk about Camelot or Eden. We sat in the back of a rickety old van, bouncing up and down ancient roads where he told me of his plan to move to America. “I want to be free,” he said, eyes shining. “I want to be free! I want to be free!”
Whether or not Ken ever moved here, I do not know, but I would like to know what he found if he did. Americans see freedom not just as an institutional priority, but as a sacred birthright. In the Declaration of Independence (our most prized national possession, with a title we’ve heard so many times it’s easy to forget just how brazen and audacious it is), the Founding Fathers listed “liberty” as being on par with life itself. Modern times have diluted that equivocation down to “born free.” I recently saw a debate on Facebook that summed it up nicely. When one well-intentioned person suggested that the U.S. government needed to give its people more freedom, another shot back “Nobody can give you freedom.”
It is interesting in all this grandstanding about freedom that we rarely stop to consider what freedom actually is. I suppose most of us would, when pushed to it, say that freedom is simply being able to do whatever we want. But even the most ardent, flag-waving, Southern-bred, red-blooded American (cowboy boots on his feet, “Life” and “Death” tattooed across his knuckles) doesn’t hold that everyone ought to be allowed to do whatever they want.
The Old West tried it, and it was a spectacular failure. We romanticize it, but it’s truly one of our country’s darkest chapters, filled with wanton violence and, ironically, unchecked slavery.
So, we might condition “freedom” to mean that everyone ought to be allowed to do whatever they want as long as it’s not hurting anyone else. But then we quickly find that the definition of “hurt” becomes notoriously slippery. Just how much can you protect people from getting hurt before you’re forced to impede their own desires to do what they want? We see the tension of this drama played out in D.C. every single day.
And it’s the same conundrum that Christianity runs into. Pastors are forever trumpeting about “Freedom in Christ,” but feel the need to quickly qualify it. It’s amazing to watch how beautifully we can talk about the freedom Jesus brings, and then—lest we be misunderstood—tamper any expectations people might have about “Freedom in Christ” being a little too free. “Jesus came to set you free!” pastors proclaim from the pulpit. “Now, that doesn’t mean you get to do whatever you want!”
We might be excused for wondering, then, what on earth it does mean.
It’s interesting that the Bible never feels obligated to weave such conditional language into its own missives on freedom. Quite the contrary, Paul says, simply: “It is for freedom that you’ve been set free.” And that is that. It couldn’t be plainer. Yes, somebody can give you freedom. And, yes, you’ve been given it.
So why, then, does it so rarely feel that way? The faith feels like a box. Our idea of freedom remains “doing whatever we want” and that’s certainly not anything you need to be a Christian to do. In fact, to hear many pastors tell it, becoming a Christian is the exact opposite. Their vision of becoming a Christian involves coming to terms with a very low view of your own desires. What you want is bad. What you want to do is wrong. You don’t get to do it anymore. There’s your “freedom.”
So, here we find ourselves. Led into a cell which our captors repeatedly insist is freedom. Offered a snake and are told it’s a fish.
Any time we are saying something that seems to make the Good News seem a little less good, we ought to be asking some serious questions about what we’re getting wrong.
Let’s return to my friend Ken. Despite what he believes, America is not appreciably freer than Japan. Americans might value freedom more than other countries, but contrary to American opinion, very few countries are actually wanting for it. Upon arriving here, Ken would have found himself subjected to many of the same laws and restrictions he found back in his native country.
The difference is not how much we’re allowed to do but, rather, who we’re allowed to be.
Japan has religious freedom aplenty, but there is not much in the way of religious diversity. The culture is largely nominal in their allegiance to Shintoism and Buddhism, and Christians make up a very small (less than 1%) and shunned part of the community. Ken was a Christian, and he was free to be one. He could do it. No one would impede him. But the freedom to do whatever he want came at the price of being accepted for who he is.
This has always been America’s idea of freedom, even if we have a difficult time articulating it and a much more difficult time realizing it. For all of our vaunted freedom, our history is littered with failure of granting that freedom to anyone whose identity seemed odd or off to us. We’re more into freedom in theory than we are in actuality. Things are getting better, perhaps.
And this is what the American Church has gotten wrong too. When Jesus offered freedom, he offered it not by allowing people to do whatever they wanted to do, but by allowing them to be who they were. Slaves, lepers, Romans, Gentiles, prostitutes (women in generally, really) and the poor were all treated, by him, as equals. It was as rare then as it is now.
His offer of freedom was the freedom from barriers society had put on them. The barriers they had put on themselves, really. “Where are those who condemn you?” he asked the woman caught in adultery, after he’d sent the people who sought to stone her on one hell of a guilt trip. “They are none, Lord,” she said.
“Then,” he said. “Neither do I.”
This is freedom. Someone who will send everyone who seeks to limit us packing. Setting us free from those who define us by our mistakes. Dying to ourselves is resurrection into a life without limits. It’s resurrection to love without condition. All that remains is for us to put our old self—with all our judgements and prejudices and critiques—to death and wake up to beauty.
“Freedom isn’t free,” the saying goes. That’s true—truer than we often realize. Our freedom comes at the cost of our lives. But what a freedom it is.
We aren’t “born free.” Not really. But we can die free. It’s the only way to go.
The American Church has done a miserable job of this. By making faith a matter of what you do and not who you are, we lose the idea of freedom altogether. Our idea of being a Christian is a long list of things you need to stop doing. Stop watching pornography. Stop being gay. Stop getting drunk. Stop watching this kind of TV show or voting for that kind of policy. Stop being rich. Stop being homeless. Stop caring about the environment. Stop being so prideful. Stop getting so mad. Stop being so depressed.
The list could go on. Some of these are excellent things to pursue. Some are nonsense. Some are trivial bigotries we’ve grafted on to the Gospel. The point is, none of them are at the heart of the Gospel message. Jesus’ own mission statement was “I have come to set free the captive.” That’s acceptance.
The heart of the Gospel is freedom, and that freedom is to be whoever we are, without judgement or condemnation. It’s not just Good News—it’s the best news there is.