JOHN 8.31-36, ROMANS 6.16-19
Jesus said, ‘You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
What does it mean to be free? I guess there are two ways of responding to that question. The first answer is that it’s obvious what freedom means; it’s the opposite of being shut up in a cage; it’s about being ‘as free as the wind blows, as free as the grass grows.’ The second answer, however, is that it all depends what we mean by freedom. And once we start thinking along those lines it becomes more of an academic question, something that philosophy dons or political theorists might want to debate.
Assumptions about freedom and being free are all around us. They shape a great deal of what goes on in our society. Just think for a moment about the fracking debate. Should frackers be free to drill deep into the ground under our feet, or should Yorkshiremen and women be free to say, ‘Not in our backyard!’
Different ideas about freedom underlie a great deal of the controversy between Brexit campaigners, who want us to leave the EU, and Remainers who want us to stay. Hardly a day goes by when freedom doesn’t bubble to the surface in their bad tempered exchanges.
Some people believe that freedom is about living in a well ordered society where everyone has the chance to flourish. So for Brexit campaigners that meant voting for the freedom to cut ourselves loose from all the red tape supposedly designed by EU mandarins to tie us up in knots, whereas for Remainers it meant the freedom to enjoy clean air, clean beaches, reasonable working hours and all the other things which the EU tries to regulate.
Some people believe that freedom means being able to say publicly what we really think. For Brexit campaigners that meant being free to say awkward or politically incorrect things, like their claim that Hitler and Napoleon both wanted a united Europe, or that we don’t want people coming into the UK from countries like Romania or Turkey. For Remainers it meant celebrating a Europe where everyone is free to speak their mind, unlike the old Iron Curtain countries where there was no freedom of speech, or Turkey today where freedom is still being threatened. Brexiteers think the EU stifles the freedom to challenge what we don’t like, whereas for Remainers it creates a peaceful space where freedom of expression can flourish.
For Brexiteers leaving the EU is about the freedom to do what we like as a nation instead of having to compromise and accept fudged solutions to all our problems. For Remainers it’s about the freedom to go and live or work anywhere in Europe, wherever we choose, without anyone being able to stop us.
I could go on. Freedom sounds like a simple idea but in practice it can get very complicated because there’s a difference between being free to do something and being free from something. That means we have to make a distinction between freedom from bad things and freedom to do good things. Some people have even argued that freedom is such a complicated idea we need lessons at school if we’re to learn to cope with it when we grow up.
Nevertheless, Christians love to talk about freedom; freedom to worship and obey Jesus, and freedom from poverty or oppression, or from countless other sins. But is it ever possible for everyone to be free from bad things all the time? Isn’t that an illusion or a mirage? Even if we raise the poverty line to make more people free from hardship and want, there will always be someone who falls below it and is comparatively poor. And even if we teach everyone to become more tolerant there will always be someone who gets bullied in the playground.
St John in his account of Jesus’ teaching, and after him St Paul, argued that no one can be really free. We’re all prisoners of our human nature, which traps us into selfish and self-regarding patterns of behaviour. The only thing which can rescue us from this state of ondage is God’s grace, but in order to be set free by God we first have to submit to him. We have to identify with Jesus - to be baptised into his death for us upon the cross - before we can be remade in his image. There’s a paradox at work here. We can never be truly free unless we surrender our imagined freedom of action and become servants of Jesus.
Actually, the term ‘servants’ softens the original meaning because both Jesus and Paul use the word ‘slaves’ when they’re talking about freedom. There’s no one more unfree than a slave, and we think slavery is terrible, there was even a garden dedicated to ending modern slavery at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show, but John’s Gospel and Paul both say we can only find true freedom by becoming slaves of Jesus.
St Augustine, followed later by the reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin, took up this idea and ran with it. They argued that we’re not even free to decide whether to remain as prisoners of our human nature or to become servants of Jesus because God decides everything that happens to us. Some people are destined to remain trapped in their old ways, some are destined to be rescued by Jesus’ death on the cross.
But if we were to go along with Augustine, Luther and Calvin, we would have to accept that Jesus no longer died for everyone, only for the people whom God chooses to save. St Thomas Aquinas, followed by John and Charles Wesley, couldn’t believe that this was true. As Charles Wesley puts it in one of his hymns, ‘For all, for all, my saviour died.” They were convinced that we do have the freedom at least to choose to receive God’s grace. God then rescues us from our old servitude to human nature and grants us the power to begin to be obedient to Jesus instead. And that continues to be the Methodist Church’s position today. We do have real choices.
More than 500 years ago the radical priest John Ball stirred up the Peasants’ Revolt by arguing that everyone had the right to “be made free” from hardship and poverty, but he was still talking about freedom from. His revolution failed because he had no clear idea what he wanted people to have the freedom to do. It was another 300 years, during the English civil war, before ordinary people started demanding the freedom to help make decisions about things, and almost another 300 years more before all men and women got the right to vote.
That’s what the EU referendum offered us. The right to exercise our freedom, to choose between two alternatives, to help decide things. Normally, unless we live in a marginal constituency, our votes don’t count for much because our individual freedom is swallowed up in the will of the majority; whereas in a referendum each vote matters, we’re set free to help make a real difference.
The poet John Milton pointed out, however, that freedom isn’t worth much if we choose to do something unwise with it. We’re only truly free if we’re able to make worthwhile choices. Satan, he said, was free to rebel against God, but that was hardly the sort of freedom which is worth having. So having the freedom to make choices is a big responsibility and that shouldn’t surprise us because freedom comes hand in hand with responsibility.
The freedom to make moral and political choices is unique to human beings. Lions may be the rulers of the jungle but they’re not really as free as the wind blows, or as free as the grass grows, because they’re not free to do anything else. We won’t ever meet a vegetarian lion, and while they may be rulers of all that they survey out on the savannah they’re not free to rule the rest of the world in the way that human beings are. And that unique freedom to make our own choices about how to live gives us the privilege and the responsibility to use our freedom wisely and responsibly as partners and collaborators with God, not as a licence to do whatever we like.
The recognition that it’s our responsibility to see freedom as a precious gift leads on to three discoveries about freedom which people have made gradually over the centuries. First, we can't have real freedom until we’ve learned to be tolerant enough to celebrate diversity. We have to accept and value the freedom of others to hold different attitudes to life and faith, and different points of view. But second, there are limits to freedom, because freedom also depends on security. We need a police force, and laws to protect our freedom. Some attitudes and behaviours are just so extreme that they can never be tolerated and have to be outlawed.
The final discovery is that the tyranny of public opinion can be just as big a threat to freedom as the worst kind of dictatorship. Milton recognised this when he said that we are never truly free when we use our freedom to make the wrong choices. In that situation the lone voice standing up for truth is the only way that genuine freedom can survive. Let’s pray therefore that in all the choices we are called upon to make we may know the truth for then the truth shall make us free.