What does it really mean to be free? In 1939, the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer chose to return home from the United States to Nazi Germany even though Germany had just embarked on a disastrous war and even though he was a sworn opponent of Adolf Hitler. He chose to leave a free country and return to a dictatorship. He chose to give up his freedom.
Explaining why he had done so he wrote thus to a friend: ‘I must live with the people of Germany through this difficult period in our national history. Christians in Germany will have to face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation, in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose but I cannot make that choice from security.’
This wasn’t a sudden change of heart. It was what Bonhoeffer had always felt deep down about his Christian faith. In a sermon given in 1932, he had said, ‘To be free is to be in love, is to be in the truth of God. Someone who loves because they have been made free by the truth of God is the most revolutionary person on earth.’ From that moment he was casting himself as the kind of person who can only be really free if they are standing up for what they believe to be right.
Paul says that Abraham was a revolutionary too. He and Sarah struck out into the wilderness, leaving behind a safe and secure lifestyle, and choosing instead to live purely by faith alone, believing that what they were being called to do was right. They went on hoping even when hope seemed hopeless. They believed in sheer grace, in the God who makes the dead live, who keeps his promises even when they seem impossible.
Christians, says Paul, are called to be heirs of Abraham - to live dangerously, placing themselves outside the law of Moses, relying on ‘the God who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead’. For Jesus was raised from death as the proof that revolutionary faith, not hidebound tradition, is what counts.
No wonder that Bonhoeffer went back to Germany. he also had the example of Jesus, who began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man had to endure great suffering, and to be rejected and put to death. He spoke about it so plainly that Peter rebuked him. But Peter was not thinking like a revolutionary. He was like Bonhoeffer’s friends, who pleaded with him not to go back.
What Peter failed to understand was that there can be no resurrection without self-renunciation. Any would be follower of Jesus must take up his or her cross and follow the master. Whoever wants to save their life will lose it. What does anyone gain by winning the whole world, by clinging onto the illusion of freedom, at the cost of their true life or what they truly believe?
What can he or she give to buy back their life once it is lost? Instead, we must not be ashamed to hold fast to our faith in Jesus Christ crucified. That’s why Bonhoeffer went back.
But Bonhoeffer lived a long time ago. ‘Thank God,’ we might say, ‘That the challenges which faced him no longer face us.’
It strikes me that Abu Qatada is a religious revolutionary too. Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer he has been prepared to go against the tide of public opinion, to speak out in God’s name, to challenge the prevailing authority and to lose his freedom. And it’s we, or at least British governments of both Left and Right, who have locked him up - and rightly so. His teaching incites people to acts of hatred and violence. He’s a menace to civilization not a bulwark of it. And, unlike Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he isn’t willing to go home. He’s spent years fighting extradition to his own country. Most of all, although he believes - like Bonhoeffer - that he’s living and preaching the truth of God, although he is a kind of revolutionary, he isn’t the right kind. He isn’t someone who loves, or who lives and acts in the power of love.
In our Lent course - based on this year's Christians Together in Britain and Ireland Lent course - we have been thinking about ordinary Christian people who, like Bonhoeffer, have had the courage to stand up for what they believe - like the Christians who have challenged decisions by their employers to prevent them wearing crosses or crucifixes at work, or who have argued their right to practise what they believe even when it prevents gay people from enjoying the rights they also have enshrined in law. However, unlike Bonhoeffer, I guess these modern champions of Christian freedom might not see themselves as revolutionaries so much as counter-revolutionaries. Their mission is to turn back the tide to an era when more traditional Christian values prevailed. And we have to ask ourselves, therefore, whether their actions are always motivated by love as well as by a desire to uphold the truth. Remember how, in his sermon, Bonhoeffer linked the two things inseparably together. ‘To be free is to be in love,’ and ‘to be in the truth of God.’
Freedom in Christ is not the freedom to be self-indulgent, to have, or believe or do whatever we like or happen to think is true. But neither is it the freedom to tell other people what they should do. Nor, in the final analysis, is it even freedom of speech, or freedom for minorities - such as believers - not to be oppressed. It’s nice to have those freedoms. They are our right as human beings. And that’s why we can get into trouble with the law when our rights clash with the human rights of other minority groups. Yet in the end what matters most before God are not these human rights but the freedom to love our neighbours, the freedom - in other words - from self-absorption and self-centredness so that we are enabled to know and to feel what it must be like to be in someone else’s shoes, and to love them as we love ourselves.
Ultimate freedom is the freedom to let go and let God, to renounce self and, to lose life itself - if necessary - in the pursuit of truth and love. That is what Bonhoeffer did. He went from a free and democratic society in the United States back to a dictatorship in Nazi Germany, where he ended up on a scaffold in the pursuit of what it really means to be free.
Sir Walter Scott is a romantic poet who is now out of favour, but in 1993 he was quoted by the heroine of the film Groundhog Day:
The wretch, concentred all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonoured, and unsung.Those lines, from his poem, ‘Breathes There The Man’, encapsulate the theme of the movie - that it’s only when we stop being self-obsessed and inward-looking that we become someone who is no longer a wretch but, instead, is worth knowing; someone who changes the world for the better and makes other people feel better about themselves. In the film the anti-hero, self-regarding weatherman Phil Connors, spends an eternity learning this lesson. In real life there isn’t much time to learn it. Only God can save us from ourselves.
So, how do we do it? How do we let God saves us from self-absorption and set us free? John Wesley said, ‘Embrace the will of God, however painful, daily, hourly, continually.’ Someone else has said that in order to live we have to stop being afraid of dying. And finally, another Christian thinker has said that following the way of Jesus and the way of the cross must begin with small steps. Later, he says, we will look up and discover how far Jesus has led us along the way to freedom.