by Fr. Lawrence Farley
From my happy home north of the forty-ninth parallel, I look southwards with appreciation for the American vision of freedom. The American national anthem says it well: its star-spangled flag waves over the land of the free and the home of the brave. Anyone that has labored under political tyranny, whether in Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, or other regimes that took draconian steps to curtail the freedom of its citizens, can easily appreciate the American vision as well.
Certainly all the disciples of Jesus Christ can appreciate and love freedom. In a sense, the Gospel is all about freedom—so much so that certain books about the life of St. Paul highlight this aspect of the Gospel. Books bearing the title, “Paul, Apostle of Liberty” (by Richard Longenecker), or “Paul, Apostle of the Heart Set Free” (by F.F. Bruce) testify to this centrality of freedom in the life of the Christian. St. Paul himself writes that this freedom is both the goal of the Christian life, and also the proof that the Spirit is at work. In Galatians 5:1 he says, “For freedom Christ has set us free”, and in 2 Cor. 3:17 he affirms, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” Any preacher of this Gospel will cry out, “Let freedom ring!” The Church might even be described as “the land of the free.”
Freedom, however, is not simply a political reality. It is a spiritual one as well. Moreover, the spiritual aspect of freedom transcends and transforms the political aspect. Take, for example, St. Paul’s teaching about slavery in 1 Cor 7:20-22. In this passage St. Paul urges his readers not to worry about the state they found themselves in when they were baptized—including the state of slavery. None of these external things mattered ultimately. If they were circumcised, that didn’t matter. If they were uncircumcised, that also didn’t matter. And if they were slaves (as many of them were), that didn’t matter either. Slavery, for St. Paul, was primarily a matter of the heart, a spiritual condition, and whether or not one was externally a slave was largely irrelevant to one’s spiritual progress and inner life. If one was externally a slave, one was still a freedman of the Lord. If one was externally free, one was still the slave of Christ. Concepts of external slavery or freedom thus had been radically relativized. What really and eternally mattered was whether or not was one a Christian—whether or not there was freedom in the inner heart. The outer condition would one day pass away. Only the internal condition would abide eternally.
This was not simply the approach of St. Paul. The apostle here simply echoed the teaching of his Lord. In John 8:31f, we read that Christ spoke to those who outwardly had become His disciples and who had given Him a hearing, and He told them that the truth would set them free. They took this very badly (perhaps because they were smarting under the Roman yoke, and yearned for liberty from such external slavery and tyranny), and they said, “We are descendants of Abraham, and have never been in slavery to anyone.” Christ responded that they were indeed slaves even so. He said, “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not continue in the house for ever; the son continues for ever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
Here we learn that true freedom depends ultimately not upon the political reality in which one finds oneself, but rather upon the state of one’s heart. Rome, or Nazi Germany, or Soviet Russia might oppress and enslave the body. If Christ has liberated us from the power of sin, we remain free nonetheless. The opposite is also true: if Christ has not liberated us from sin, then we remain slaves, whether or not we enjoy political freedom. True freedom therefore depends not upon one’s external condition, but upon the inner condition of the heart.
This truth presents a challenge to America, Canada, and to the political west, for it poses the question, “Are we truly free?” Enjoying unencumbered and free elections, enjoying the liberty to protest the decisions of one’s government, and enjoying the freedom of the Press to write according to conscience and desire, these are all good things. But they do not constitute the essence of freedom. True freedom is not political, but spiritual, and it consists first and foremost in freedom from the chains of sin. In many ways, we in the west are not free from these chains.
Consider the spiritual state of the west as a whole: we are the most affluent of nations, consuming far more per capita of the world’s resources than anyone else, and suggestions that we curb our rate of consumption often produce indignation—a clear sign that we are slaves to our appetites. The west consumes most of the pornography produced—a multi-million-dollar industry. At home, we slaughter our unborn at a horrific rate, and jealously guard this practice as if it were a human right. Drug addiction and the crime associated with it flourish and grow unchecked. Our streets are violent places, and this violence continues to escalate. Even our schools suffer violence, and children go there carrying weapons. The west might be the home of the brave, but as a culture we still wear the chains of sin, and chains are no less real for being invisible. As a culture, we have departed from God, and have found that this departure does not produce inner liberation but slavery.
This is hardly surprising, for only Jesus can give real freedom. Only Jesus can free us from bondage and guilt and the power of sin. Only Jesus can break the chains of addiction and selfishness. If those in America and the west remain bound by these fetters, they do not live in the land of free. True liberty only comes with the righteousness and the spiritual power bestowed by Christ. He alone makes us dwell in the land of the free. Let freedom ring. Let all people everywhere run to Christ our liberator. He alone can strike off our chains, and bestow the glorious liberty of the children of God.
(Fr. Lawrence Farley, converted to Orthodoxy in 1985 and then studied at St. Tikhon’s Seminary in South Canaan, Pennsylvania. After ordination he traveled to Surrey, B.C. to begin a new mission under the OCA, St. Herman of Alaska Church. Fr. Lawrence is the author of a number of books concerned with Orthodox Christianity and is a regular contributor to the OCA website.)