Freedom is one of those words that seems to have a very straightforward definition. It means being able to do what you want to do. Right? That is the definition presumed in the Enlightenment discourse that has shaped American cultural sensibilities. Freedom is the opposite of being bossed around by somebody else. But here’s the wrinkle. What if you can’t trust yourself to actually do what you want to do? What if you’re like St. Paul, who said, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15). The Enlightenment understanding of freedom is built upon a very optimistic view of human nature that is contrary to the Biblical depiction of a humanity that needs to be liberated from the brokenness of sin. The Biblical understanding of freedom is not freedom from other tyrants but freedom from the tyranny of my flesh. The apostle Paul exudes perfect freedom in his letter to the Philippians despite the fact that the Roman government had literally put him in chains. Based on the Biblical definition of freedom as I understand it, I disagree with those who think our government poses a threat to our freedom; a much more sinister threat comes from our so-called free market.
The early Christians had very low expectations for their political freedom from government tyranny. On the contrary, they expected to be persecuted and were told to rejoice in their persecution. Jesus tells Peter after His resurrection: “When you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go” (John 21:18). When Peter in turn writes a letter to believers under persecution, he tells them, “Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ” (1 Peter 4:12-13). The idea of fighting for your rights not to be taxed by the Roman Empire would get laughed out of the room by the early Christians who were told by Paul: “Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor” (Romans 13:7).
The early Christians did not consider freedom from outside tyrants to be relevant at all. They were focused on freedom from the tyranny of their flesh. Paul describes the quandary of this kind of freedom in his letter to the Corinthians: “‘All things are lawful for me’, but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful for me’, but I will not be mastered by anything” (1 Corinthians 6:12). Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, Christians are set free from the hundreds of regulations of the Jewish purification system that Paul refers to as “the law.” But this freedom to do what they want is a tricky kind of freedom, because it creates the danger of being “mastered” by what you do. When you engage in destructive habits and worship worldly idols, you become a slave to them because they manipulate you into limiting your choices and doing what you don’t really want to do.
So here is the way that Christianity understands what gives us freedom. We cannot be liberated from our slavery to sin unless we become a slave to something else, namely Christ. Paul writes, “Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness” (Romans 6:16-18).
Freedom in the Christian sense only comes through slavery to Christ. Without our allegiance to Christ, we cannot avoid receiving our self-definition from other masters, whether they are greed, career success, political correctness, neurotic parenting, or a host of other spirits in the air that are constantly seeking to master us and give us priorities and assumptions about our choices that restrict our freedom tremendously. The dispassionate, rational autonomous subject of the Enlightenment is a figment of Thomas Jefferson’s imagination. I wish I could share his optimism about the human spirit, but I don’t, because my life is a witness to my own slavery to gluttony, ambition, lust, envy, and a host of other masters. I cannot trust myself with a superficial freedom from the government or any other outside tyrant without constantly crucifying my slavery to my own tyranny and being resurrected into Christ’s freedom.
Now to bring this into today’s big political question: is our government a threat to our freedom? If freedom is understand in the Christian sense, then the answer is no. No matter how onerous the business regulations are, no matter how many types of insurance I’m forced to buy, no matter how high my taxes are, these things have nothing to do with whether or not my sin has enslaved me and kept me from pursuing the deepest desire of my heart which is ultimately to live in pure worship of God and enjoy Him forever. What is a far greater threat to the freedom of my soul is the powerful hypnosis that is exerted onto me by the market that swallows up every creation of God and spits it back out as a commodity which is only as valuable as its sales price. The people who are trying to get me to buy things are much more dangerous than the government that makes me fill out paperwork and pay taxes, because their constant goal is to trick me into wanting what I don’t really want, and that sucks away my freedom in a far more insidious, secretive way than any law imposed on me from Washington could.
Since all that Christians ever talk about is sex, let’s use that as an example. The reason that half of the girls I taught in tenth grade six years ago now have two kids and will probably be stuck in low-paying jobs for the rest of their lives is not because they put a condom on a banana in ninth grade health class. It’s because they got sucked into a culture where everyone wears booty shorts and goes to a club to get tipsy. This culture was created by capitalism. The entertainment industry as we know it is an outgrowth of the extremely lucrative practice discovered in the 1940’s of marketing to teenagers. And nothing sells products better to teenagers than sex. It is the pursuit of profit that has given our popular culture the moral IQ of young teenagers, who are cash cows since they have daddy’s credit card and don’t have to budget their own paychecks yet. The reason that so many kids today are making poor sexual choices with lifelong consequences is because they’re enslaved to a hyper-erotic lifestyle that has been designed to maximize the profit that can be made off of them. Their freedom has been taken away so that Roc-A-Fella and Tommy Hilfiger could make a fortune.
I’m not sure exactly what to propose doing about this reality. It’s not just sex. There’s also a parenting expert industrial complex. There are the home flipper channels that convince you to start planning how you’re going to sell every home that you own as soon as you get the keys and walk in the door. So many different forces from our market are taking away our real freedom, and we’re worried about paying too many taxes. Now, it’s not the freedom of the free market that’s the problem; it’s the gravitational pull of the idols that it constantly produces. I’m not trying to say anything pro or anti-government here. I just want for the same libertarian vigilance and suspicion that has swept through our country to be applied to the market no less than the government.
Markets left unattended do not produce beautiful utopias; they produce harried, over-programmed suburban families, high school classrooms filled with pregnant teenagers, and single moms who choose manicures over paying their rent because they want the same nails as the lady on the back of Cosmo. Yes, people have to be responsible for their own choices, but they’re also being powerfully manipulated and socialized by forces that must be acknowledged and consciously resisted not just by individuals but communities of support. If the American Dream says that the pursuit of profit is how you’re supposed to pursue happiness, then it is incompatible with the type of freedom the Bible has taught us to seek as Christians. It seems to me that getting worked up over government regulations and taxes is a distraction from the much greater dangers to our soul’s freedom that Satan is gleefully exploiting through the work of our market.