True Freedom


I don’t know what I expected when I looked up this Sunday’s lectionary text. Some spiritual guidance, I hoped, for what has been a challenging and historic week in the United States. Many people are confused, angry, and worried about the future — while others feel their longest hoped-for political dreams have become reality. The air is full of tension, even on these sunny summer days, and it seems as if the nation has somehow cracked open.

These words greeted me — a lesson assigned for the day by churches around the world — with no regard to any particular political crisis or specific cultural context. In this passage, Paul is worried about the division in the churches of Galatia, a conflict that threatened to destroy the kinship these early Jesus-followers had found in God and in community.

And his advice to help them overcome their discord? Remember your freedom.

Galatians 5:1,13-25

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.

Freedom. What do you think of when you hear the word freedom?

For me, it mostly conjures memories of Fourth of July picnics or driving up California’s coastal highway in a convertible with the wind in my hair. I think of soldiers fighting for freedom and enslaved people liberated. The Berlin Wall falling and Pride flags waving. I associate freedom with celebrations and achievements, with politics and history.

I sometimes forget that freedom involves choice — my choices, your choices, the choices made by communities and nations. Yet today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Galatians reminds me that freedom is just that — to be free is to be able to choose.

And Paul asks his readers to do something odd with their freedom. “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters,” he proclaims, “only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.”

Use freedom to become bound by love to your neighbors.

He draws a contrast between freedom to do whatever one wants, listing fifteen self-directed desires — an index of personal temptations and public agitations — that cannibalize community. We are free to choose to “bite and devour one another” in a chaotic frenzy of dissension and division, distancing ourselves from life-giving relationships and peaceable association with others.

We have that choice.

The other choice is this odd, paradoxical one. We can choose to bind ourselves in love to others. When we elect to tether our lives to the lives of others, surrendering self-absorbed desires, we discover virtues that set us on a path to a deeper freedom. Paul refers to this as “life in the Spirit,” to know our full humanity in and with God.

There’s nothing new in reading this passage in Galatians this way. Indeed, it is a pretty traditional interpretation of these verses. To be honest, I’ve often struggled with that tradition. This rendering of freedom has often been used to subjugate women, the poor, and marginalized people. Don’t raise a fuss, don’t stir up trouble, and don’t get angry. Accept your situation and you’ll know love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. That’s the better path. Docility is true freedom.

The problem with the traditional version is that it wasn’t about freedom. When those with power and authority tell you how you must act, that you must not go against the rules and you can never make a mistake or express a negative emotion, you don’t have much say in the matter. You are handed a list of appropriate behaviors and feelings — and told that if you depart from the list your salvation is in jeopardy.

You’ve no choice in the matter. That’s not freedom. That is control.

Freedom involves choice. Always. A truly free people must be able to choose. To choose to do things that wind up biting one’s own self in the rear-end. To choose to be angry and quarrelsome and stir up all kinds of trouble. Freedom means electing to do stupid, hurtful things. I’ve chosen from the list of fifteen self-indulgences a whole lot over my lifetime. I’ve sometimes even been rewarded for making such choices.

And, like you, I’ve sometimes felt the sting of shame from choosing poorly.

I’m rethinking this passage. What does it mean to freely choose a neighbor-centered life?

Frankly, I feel angry right now. I want to march down the street yelling and screaming and quarreling with every single Trump voter I see. When I look at the “bad” list I’m currently guilty, guilty, guilty of enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions — not to mention that I’d like to get drunk to forget all this messed-up political garbage we’re going through.

WASHINGTON, DC – JUNE 25: Law enforcement officers prepare to break up an altercation in front of the Supreme Court building following the Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health decision overturning the 50-year-old Roe v Wade case, removing a federal right to an abortion. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Out of fifteen “works of the flesh,” I currently score eight.

What to do? Paint on a happy face? Control my emotions? Love those Supreme Court justices or the January 6 insurrectionists? Do I summon every power of will? I love them. I love them. I really love them….I really do.

I may as well call my therapist now.

The neighbor-bound life doesn’t force positive emotions and deny negative ones. Instead, to see one’s self in relation to others rearranges our emotional life and how we act on what we feel.

Anger, for example. In the neighbor-centered life, anger might arise from love. If you love your neighbor as yourself, you want the best for that person — justice, freedom, dignity. To feel angry when someone limits your neighbor’s humanity is an expression of love. You might feel angry when someone isn’t kind to others or when something is unfair to them. Anger can often be an expression of love.

All of the virtues — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control — work in tandem with justice and mercy, with a regard for the well-being and dignity of others, and with understanding and compassion. These neighbor-centered virtues are of a piece with God’s desire for every human being to live in peace “under his own vine and fig tree.” When what we think of as negative things — anger, impatience, stirring up trouble — are experienced as neighbor-directed desires, they cease being of the “bite and devour” sort and can actually serve to increase our capacity for community. You feel angry with and for others. In effect, choosing to empathetically bind our lives to the lives of our neighbors fosters freedom for everyone, including ourselves.

That’s what a covenant is. That’s what a vow is. That’s the nature of true freedom. Freedom means that one has the power to choose. We can choose self-indulgently —on the basis of our own desires and power — and continue on a path of dissension and violence, or we can choose to be in solidarity with and for one another.

But we have to choose. Which do we want? Every day, the headlines and cable news reveal the choices we’ve been making. And, if one is honest about it, few people are happy and most feel that they are losing their freedom. The acting out, the lashing out, the list is ugly and long.

That means we’re choosing poorly. Because, sadly, we’re picking the worst versions of ourselves.

We need to understand that in choosing our neighbors we are choosing a path toward truer freedom. It doesn’t mean we’ll magically agree or that the problems that got us here will be fixed. But it does mean that we can, at the very least, create new possibilities that don’t involve hatred, violence, and civil war. Freely deciding to love our neighbors is the bond of liberty most needed right now.

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