My one concern here is for mature Christians, disciples of Jesus. I have to state that up front because what I am about to say is open heresy in the other major ethos and theology of our day.
Freedom is not a Christian virtue. It is not a virtue at all. It is not something that you can earn, practice, or become. Freedom is a gift. We are given freedom by others and ultimately by God. We have freedom as rational creative creatures, but it is immature to claim it for our selves.
When have you ever seen someone claim their freedom, insist on their freedom, and create a better relationship, a better family, a better community? I have seen lots of people take responsibility for themselves, their children, their neighbors, their world and change lives for the better. I have seen us plaster the language of freedom on thousands of selfish acts.
Freedom has become a virtue in our ethos today. We want freedom, we celebrate freedom, we claim freedom, we defend our own freedom. Freedom has become an end unto itself. It has become a good. All of this is weird and a little sick for followers of Jesus.
In America we celebrate the virtue of Larry Flynt publishing Hustler because he is practicing his freedom. Because he is “owning his freedom,” we see that as a liberative story. I am disturbed less by Mr. Flynt than by the narrative that celebrates freedom as an end unto itself. He is virtuous because he set himself free from the constraints of society in publishing pornography. We celebrate unquestioningly people breaking free from social, religious, moral restraints. Then we grieve when we see the victims but cannot understand how that happened.
The western narrative in its American form is the lone male, usually white, usually fit, setting himself free from social constraint to face an uncertain but glorious future unconstrained by community, ethics, or values others than those he chooses. We celebrate people acting free in their sexuality, of course, but also in many other ways. This is incredibly adolescent. It leads to death. Next time you watch a movie, count the “collateral damage” wracked up in the pursuit of freedom.
I used to teach an eighth grade religion class, and I began by asking them what it meant to be an adult. We often don’t aim our lives at anything because we never take the time to figure out what we are trying to become. I wanted to build a picture of what a mature Christian looked like with them; so I would ask, How do we define adulthood in America today? The answers always came down to what you could do once you become an “adult”: cigarettes, beer, pornography, and voting. But what does adulthood really mean?
Adulthood is the voluntary taking of responsibility for yourself as a child of God, for your neighbor as a part of God’s family, for our communities of faith and geography, and for the world around us. It means growing in your ability to love God, your neighbor, and your self. I add care of creation from our original humanity. It is not the choice or choices we can make that make us adults; it is what we choose to do. It is choosing to live and love in particular ways that we should celebrate, claim, and defend.
In the process of choosing virtuous lives we give freedom to others to live, love, and pursue happiness. But we cannot succeed to be a free people if our ideal is just claiming freedom for ourselves. As a father, I choose to provide for my family, to be home with them when I can, and to live virtuously so that they don’t have to fear my behaviors or the repercussions of them. They cannot have safety, security, and health without those choices. If I live as lech my wife and children, my community, and the world will suffer in obvious and not so obvious ways for longer than just my life. My good is in their good. I practice virtues both at home and at work because I have made covenants to do so, and so that I can provide my family a secure home, provision for their needs, and care for their bodies, minds, and spirits. I am free to do this because my father and mother did the same for me. I am free to do otherwise I suppose, but not if I am to keep my integrity.
We now must face that freedom as a virtue is destroying other virtues in our lives. In fact many of the traditional virtues are acts of restraint in the face of freedom. When we choose to follow Jesus we choose not to be free in all our choices. It is ironic that this gives us true life and freedom.
The practices of our faith are intended to make us the kind of people who will choose to act in virtuous ways no matter what others do, no matter what our situation is, no matter what even our desires may be in this particular moment. We are born and formed as a people of God, just as my children are my offspring by birth but formed as my children by living and loving and learning from me.* They will choose to act as my children, or far more importantly as God’s children, in every decision of their lives. Or not.
As we face headlines of renewed violence in our world, we have to stand at the edge of this new valley of the shadow of death and say, How do I follow Jesus here? How do I live as a child of God here? How do I see God’s rule of love and peace here? This is the crux of discipleship.
On Sunday, Peter will try to pull Jesus back and say you can’t go there. Jesus’ rebuke isn’t “I am free to do as I please.” He doesn’t remind Peter of his freedom as God’s son or a son of humanity. He rebukes him and tells him that his mind is in the wrong place. He didn’t rise from prayer on the Mount of Olives and practice the virtue of walking away. He took responsibility for us and all humanity in fulfilling the will of God knowing the cost of that decision. In doing so he gave us freedom from sin. What we do with that freedom matters for ourselves and our world.
Will we take responsibility, grow up, and care for our selves, our neighbors, our world? Or will we just be free?
*I use “I” and “my” in relation to my family, but it is really “we” my wife and me. Truth is she is far more virtuous and responsible than I am.