by George Clifford
We humans value freedom for at least two reasons. First, the idea of freedom is integral to our self-image, i.e., we generally think of ourselves as being free and widely identify freedom as a primary good. The central narratives of the Old and New Testaments, the Exodus and the resurrection, both have liberation as their defining theme. Second, because we humans believe that we are free, we hold one another morally accountable for our actions. Conversely, we deem it morally unjust to hold a person morally accountable for an act over which the person had no control. Analogously, we blame any wrongs done by a drone not on the drone but on the person(s) who authorized, programed, or controlled the drone.
Given those observations, what do the several biblical exhortations to live as a free person mean for twenty-first century Christians?
Forty plus years ago, the instruction I received in seminary tended to juxtapose freedom in Christ and bondage to sin. The latter pole was clearly evil, interpreted using historical, linguistic, and theological analysis that relied upon analogies with slavery, captivity, cravings, and compulsions. The former pole, freedom, was the good, made possible by Christ’s atoning death. I do not remember anyone paying much attention to physiological factors that might limit a Christian’s freedom.
Today, that juxtaposition of freedom and bondage easily seems inadequate and dated. Personal knowledge or experience of bondage is meager. Slavery, which is almost universally illegal, mainly exists in opportune shadows. Slavery’s tragic legacy in the U.S. and elsewhere at best affords only opaque views of its horrors. We treat addictive cravings as the diseases that they are instead of erroneously viewing addicts as sinners who have chosen to live in bondage. Most importantly, we seem to be in the midst of what Robert Schuller perhaps presciently labelled a new reformation. Theologies of positive living and self-help as paths to freedom are rapidly displacing the old paradigm in which Christ liberates sinners.
Concurrently, contemporary discourse about human freedom in the sciences, social sciences, and sometimes the humanities often focuses on questions of whether the twin determinants of human behavior, DNA and nurture, allow any possibility for human freedom. DNA (i.e., a person’s hardware) significantly determines a person’s physique, abilities, and interests. Nurture – the family(ies), culture(s), and geographies of one’s formative years – shape the brain patterns (i.e., human software) that, along with DNA, determine mental processes.
Perhaps the phrase limited autonomy most accurately describes human existence, sited tentatively and imprecisely between free and determined, but almost certainly much closer to the latter than to the former. Scientific advances constantly re-chart the uncertain boundaries that demarcate where and when humans appear to exercise some measure of choice. Theologians and ethicists ignore these charts at the potential cost of misclassifying human behaviors.
We emulate Jesus when we charitably and situationally understand limited autonomy in ways that manifest love and justice. This framework importantly and broadly exegetes biblical exhortations to live as a free person in terms of human flourishing. Illustratively, the revised model recognizes illnesses unrelated to sin (e.g., a cancer caused by a spontaneous DNA mutation), illnesses caused by sin (e.g., giving an STD to one’s partner after unprotected sex with a prostitute), and illnesses caused by unintentional systemic failure (e.g., lead water pipes installed to provide clean water that we now know can harm the unsuspecting). Freedom may connote maximizing one’s quality of life, healing and forgiveness, or working for systemic improvements while caring for individuals.
In addition to the inherent physiological constraints that limit freedom, human freedom should also have moral limits. John Dunne memorably, if unknowingly, hinted at these limits in his poem, “No man is an island”:
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
Donne’s gender specific language sounds discordant to my twenty-first century ear. In part, that is because I hear the bias and exclusivity his words convey. To say that Donne intended his words to include men and women is to remove his words from their original cultural locus. Women, under English law, had more in common during Donne’s life with chattel than they did with free persons.
Yet Donne’s insight into human connectedness was correct. The death of another person – Syrian refugee, Liberian victim of Ebola, hungry child in drought stricken Bangladesh, affluent nursing home resident, or anyone else – diminishes my existence. Globalization, environmental concerns, and geopolitics relentlessly tighten the bonds linking us to one another.
Additionally, Donne’s anthropocentric language sounds discordant because I increasingly recognize my connectedness to other species and to the earth itself. My actions may have consequences not just for me but also for other humans, other species, and the planet itself. The butterfly effect, chaos theory’s colorful term for the potentially huge aftereffects of a seemingly inconsequential action, reminds me that my exercise of freedom can have multiple unintended, outsize effects on people, species, and things distant from me in time and space.
Both civil government and ecclesiastical structures thus should aim to constrain human freedom in ways intended to optimize and to balance the common good, the flourishing of all creation, and individual liberty. In contrast, mob rule, bullying, every type of autocracy, and the tyranny of the majority are all forms of subjection that elevate the well-being of a few above the common good and that deprive all of equal opportunity to flourish. The exclusionary policies promoted by many candidates in the 2016 elections pander to narrow slices of the electorate; these policies exemplify the breakdown of our civil structures’ commitment to the common good and equal opportunity for all. Similarly, biblical exhortations to live as free persons rightly prompt Christians to reject prior generations’ exclusionary lenses (masculinity, creedal homogeneity, cultural superiority, etc.). Instead, Jesus calls his disciples to support expansively inclusive and connective ethical perspectives. He challenges us to develop an ever-richer, more comprehensive ethic of reciprocal altruism that will eventually widen our civil and ecclesial circles of concern to embrace all creation.
George Clifford is an ethicist and retired priest in Honolulu, HI. He served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years, recently authored Just Counterterrorism, and blogs at Ethical Musings.