Even apart from these celestial gifts distinguishing the saints from other living people, there are further ways of recognizing their superiority. For instance, Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, summoned to him all the peoples to worship the image that he had set up (cf. Dan. 3:1-30). But God in His wisdom so disposed things that the virtue of three children should be made known to everyone and should teach everyone that there is one true God, who dwells in the heavens. Three children, captive and deprived of their liberty, spoke out boldly before him; and while everyone else, in great fear, worshipped the image, and even if not convinced did not dare to say anything, but was virtually speechless, like beasts dragged along by the nose, these children behaved very differently.
They did not want their refusal to worship the image to go unrecognized or to escape notice, but they declared in the hearing of all: ‘We do not worship your gods, 0 king, nor will we bow down before the golden image that you have set up.’ Yet the terrible furnace into which they were cast as punishment was not a furnace for them and did not manifest its normal function; but as if reverencing the children it kept them free from harm. And everyone, including the king himself, through them recognized the true God. Not only those on earth, but the angelic choirs themselves were amazed at these children. (St Symeon Metaphrastis,, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 33936-58)
As we celebrate Independence Day in the United States, we can think about the nature of freedom by considering the narrative in the Book of Daniel about the Three Youth in the fiery furnace. Those 3 Jewish children though captives exiled in Babylon were able to exercise their free will despite their enslaved existence. The Babylonians on the other hand though living at home as free citizens also lived in fear of the king and were not able to exercise their consciences but rather lived the king’s lie. So who was truly free – the slaves who had free will or the citizens who had no right to refuse their king’s demands?
Christian freedom means the right to live the godly life even if threatened by punishment of death. Choosing martyrdom for Christ is the greatest example of choosing free will. Christian freedom is not just about making all kinds of consumer choices, or being able to express oneself without constraint. Christian freedom is far greater than any rights guaranteed in the Constitution or in the Bill of Rights. As becomes obvious in the Orthodox spiritual tradition, freedom is denying oneself in order to follow Christ. As St. Mark the Monk noted Christian freedom, has nothing to do with unrestricted self-expression ( Counsels on the Spiritual Life, Kindle Location 1717-1718). Rather the Christian is one who is able to deny the self in order to conform himself to the will of the Creator. This is something all of us Christians in America need to consider. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
“Dostoevsky shows that suffering lies in the very nature of man as a free and morally responsible being, that nothing can eliminate it as long as man remains what he is, and that the purpose of human evolution is not to abolish suffering, but to explain its meaning, for only those who are not afraid of pain are matured and truly free people.” (Nicholas Zernov, Three Russian Prophets, p. 93)
“In a universe where values are relative and individual autonomy reigns supreme, personal responsibility is a doubtful proposition. Responsibility implies accountability to a higher authority than the face in the mirror, there is no need for shame or guilt. Even if you get caught, it is always the fault of someone else: your parents, your teachers, the government, faulty genes (again your parents! And no need for repentance if you can obtain the services of a clever lawyer!). Dr. Victor Frankl was an admirer of the United States and the many freedoms enjoyed by its citizens, but with some caveats. ‘Freedom…is a negative concept which requires a positive complement. And the positive complement is responsibleness..[which] refers to a meaning for whose fulfillment we are responsible, and also to a being before whom we are responsible…Freedom threatens to degenerate into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness..the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast [of the United States] should be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.’” (Daniel B. Hinshaw, Suffering and the Nature of Healing, p. 81)
Theologically speaking, freedom and free will have particular connotations in Orthodox thinking that they don’t have in secular culture. Modern Western culture, influenced by the Enlightenment, sees true human freedom as the ability of an individual to shake off the shackles which society imposes on the individual’s thinking. Freedom in popular thinking is defined more as the individual choosing to do whatever that person wants to do. Government, society, law, all become oppressors of the individual as do tradition, culture, social or religious norms. Freedom means freeing oneself from the expectations of others.
Theologically though freedom has more to do with the path we choose in life and the consequences of those decisions. God places before each individual life and all its choices. There is a path that leads to humans being more godlike, and there is a path which leads away from God. We are free to choose the path we will follow, but the paths have very different consequences for ourselves and for all of humanity.
One path, which does follow human choice also means we become more attuned to ourselves as individuals, isolated and alienated from all others. On this path, we lose our belonging to humanity as a whole, we lose our sense of being a relational, interdependent being. We choose our way into a confinement, a slavery to self which ends up being guided by sin. This path seems like the greatest personal freedom but it also involves ever increasingly becoming a slave to self, to sin, to death.
The other path also requires choice, and sometimes is a difficult path, but in it we choose to maintain our relationship with God and with others. It is a path of love which leads to self denial – for the good of the other. We sometimes may feel we are giving up personal freedoms to follow a path of another – of God. But it also is the path which enables us to become most godlike. It involves free choice, but the choice is to limit one’s self interest. It means not making self preservation the greatest good, but to choose to make love for others to be the greatest good.
If we follow the first path we do end up being slaves to self, sin, death and Satan. It may maximize our sense of being freed from the constraint of others. We choose our way to that end. But it does separate us from others and from God, and thus is death. But God who is love willingly provides redemption for those who find themselves in that dead end. No matter how far down that path one may walk, God provides the way out. But, we have to choose to accept God’s offer.
“…let him hear the whole truth of the matter: that every human soul has bowed down under the evil yoke of slavery imposed by the common enemy of all and, being deprived of the very freedom which it received from the Creator, has been led captive through sin. Every captive has need of ransoms for his freedom. Now, neither a brother can ransom his brother, nor can anyone ransom himself, because he who is ransoming must be much better than he who has been overcome and is now a slave. But, actually, no man has the power with respect to God to make atonement for a sinner, since he himself is liable for sin. ‘All have sinned have need of the glory of God. They are justified freely by his grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus’ our Lord.‘” (The Fathers of the Church: St. Basil Exegetic Homilies, p. 317)
God’s love for us never ends, even when we choose our way to slavery to sin and death. We will find in that enslavement that we are not free to grow in godliness or to attain eternal life. God provides us a way out of that enslavement to sin and death. We cannot free ourselves of it, but God offers us life if we choose our way back to Him.
In the United States, July 4 is celebrated as Independence Day which many Americans consider to be the very basis for personal freedoms. We can as Christians look at history to see how Christians in past Centuries (long before there was a United States) understood the notion of freedom. One expression of Christian freedom which grew rapidly after the establishment of the Christian Roman Empire is monasticism. Monastics, among other things, wanted to be able to practice their faith fully, without state interference and without being influenced by the masses of Christians who the monks felt practiced a watered-down version of Christianity. For these monastic Christians, the monasteries and the deserts into which they fled, leaving behind the Christian state, offered them freedom. Certainly we can recognize the value of some of the freedoms they sought.
“The telos of the monks’ life in the desert was freedom: freedom from anxiety about the future; freedom from the tyranny of haunting memories of the past; freedom from an attachment to the ego which precluded intimacy with others and with God. They hoped also that this freedom would express itself in a positive sense: freedom to love others; freedom to enjoy the presence of God; freedom to live in the innocence of a new paradise. The desert fathers’ aspiration toward freedom expressed itself in many different guises and touched upon various levels of their lives. They drew heavily upon biblical images to articulate their hopes, focusing on such New Testament ideas as “not being anxious about anything (Mt 9:25),” “not worrying about tomorrow (Mt 6:34),” “seeking first God’s kingdom (Mt. 6:33),” believing in the limitless goodness of God (Mk 9:23), and on what the Psalms call “casting one’s cares upon the Lord (Ps 54:23).” Taken altogether, these images comprise a montage expressing the ultimate goal of renunciation and detachment for the desert fathers: freedom from worry, anxiety, and care, born of a sense of total dependence upon and confidence in God.” (Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert, p. 222)
They felt themselves freed of worldly values and norms and able to live completely in and for the Kingdom of God.
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. (Philippians 2:5-7)
One of the great mysteries of Christian theology is the humility of God. God is willing to serve our needs, and to even humble himself to become a servant, a slave who works for our salvation. God’s humility and God’s willingness to serve us are true because God is love. God is willing to empty Himself (kenosis) for us humans and for our salvation. This is the incarnation of love – God becoming human in Jesus Christ.
“Behold, our freedom forced our Lord to be a servant to us.” (HYMNS, p 181)
When God created us with free will, God knew full well that we might choose against him. God knew our freedom might lead to His needing to save us. Thus, as St. Ephrem notes, the freedom which we so enjoy carries the implication, the corollary, that God would have to become our servant to save us. This doesn’t alter God’s love for us. Despite the humility required from God in creating us (needed to save us through the incarnation), God created us anyway. He gifts us with freedom knowing He will have to save us – thus our freedom forces God to be our servant.
This is the great mystery of God’s kenotic love.
Next time you hear the expression, “Freedom isn’t free”, think about what our freedom cost God.
“Freedom obliges, freedom calls for sacrificial self-giving, freedom determines one’s honesty and strictness with oneself and one’s path. And if we want to be strict and honest, worthy of the freedom given us, we must first of all test our own attitude toward our spiritual world. We have no right to wax tender hearted over all our past indiscriminately – much of that past is far loftier and purer than we are, but much of it is sinful and criminal. We should aspire to the lofty and combat the sinful. […] And it would be a great lie to tell searching souls: ‘Go to church, because there you will find peace.’ The opposite is true. She tells those who are at peace and asleep: ‘Go to church, because there you will feel real alarm about your sins, about your perdition, about the world’s sins and perdition. There you will feel an unappeasable hunger for Christ’s truth. There instead of lukewarm you will become ardent, instead of pacified you will become alarmed, instead of learning the wisdom of this world you will become foolish in Christ.’
It is to this foolishness, this folly in Christ, that our freedom calls us. Freedom calls us, contrary to the whole world, contrary not only to the pagans but to many who style themselves Christians, to undertake the Church’s work in what is precisely the most difficult way. And we will become fools in Christ, because we know not only the difficulty of this path but also the immense happiness of feeling God’s hand upon what we do.”
Commenting on St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (Chapter 5), scripture scholar Elliott Maloney notes that “freedom” has a very particular meaning to it in the epistles of St. Paul because he clearly connects all notions of personal liberty with Christ’s teachings on love.
“Paul cleverly combines his explanation on the proper use of freedom with an instruction on the new principle for right action, the Spirit. He starts off with a positive note, ‘You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters,‘ and then wisely cautions, ‘only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence’ (5:13). The only way to be sure of your behavior is to make sure that it is oriented in love for the good of others. Two points are made here: righteous living always serves, and acting justly is always done not for the sake of being ‘right,’ but out of authentic love. Those who continue to gratify the flesh, that is, those who look to their own advancement (as if there were nothing else to guarantee their own survival), will in fact perish. They ‘will not inherit the kingdom of God’ (5:21), since they do not live as its heirs. Paul contrasts life in the flesh to the fruit of the Spirit (5:22-23), the various facets of behaving with the good of the community in mind.” (Saint Paul, Kindle Loc. 3006-3012)
God gifts us with free will, and we are indeed free to act as we wish. St. Paul’s teaching is that to use the gift of free will merely to satisfy our personal physical desires is in fact to enslave ourselves to desire. What we are gifted by God for is to love one another. Freedom is a gift given to us to enable to love and serve others. Self indulgence is something we can do with our freedom, but in the end we will become slaves to selfishness and sin. Whereas, God has gifted us to aspire for the divine life of love.
“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
Many people walk away from relationships still imprisoned by their bitterness and hatred. Mandela showed it is possible to remove such evils from our hearts. We may even feel we wasted 27 years of our life in a relationship, but if we don’t leave that bitterness and hatred behind, we will certainly wasted the next 27 years still enslaved by our own emotional attachments. Christ offers us a different way, a way of love in which we liberate our selves from any slavery to revenge, retribution, or even justice. Sometimes in life we have to choose between liberty and justice. Mandela choose liberty.
“Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.” (The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956) Liberty sometimes involved containing the evil another person represents rather than constantly trying to be victorious over it. Our desire to “win” sometimes is a form of slavery.
Since the 50th Anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy has filled the airwaves, the printed media and the Internet with nostalgia for the slain president, I decided to ride the wave publish one more blog on JFK (see also my JFK Assassination Plot: 50 Years in the Making), this time quoting a speech he gave at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on April 27, 1961. It has a great deal of America’s self-mythology in it, which the Camelot President was great at voicing to inspire Americans about their role in the world and their hopeful future. Somewhere in the last day or so I heard a quote which I tried to find on the world wide web but didn’t succeed and I don’t remember where I heard it or who said it. The quote was something like: “America is the first nation on earth which believes it was born perfect but whose task is to constantly improve itself.” That is why our nation has the split personality of permanently enshrining the ideals of the constitution (a conservative principle) and yet ever pushing into the future with the hope of an even better tomorrow. We uphold the ideal of the past (Declaration of Independence and the Constitution) and find new ways of applying it to the present to shape the future. The conservatism demands constant creativity to apply it to every new situation which arise in the present. It creates the strange situation where both liberals and conservatives deny they are establishment but both lay claim to be the true heirs of the political tradition. The federal government is given the sacred trust to protect the rights of citizens and yet the citizens don’t trust the federal government or anyone else to do it.
Though history shows Kennedy didn’t live up to his own idealism (think Bay of Pigs and also his personal sexual escapades), he did in speech express our ideals well. In this speech we see some of these ideals which we need to reawaken in our country today. The press is the only business protected by the Constitution. The world is dangerous, but a secret and oppressive society is not the answer; rather, a free and open society is the correct response. Disagreement, dissent and debate are not the signs of a society fragmenting into irreconcilable factions, but a firm footing for democracy. Critics of government policy are not disloyal; instead, they are an important resource for improving the general welfare of the people. Government has its proper role as defined by the Constitution to serve the citizenry and to uphold America’s ideals, but government is not infallible and can embrace a means toward an end in which the means and/or the ends are simply wrong. America may have been born perfect (at least in our self mythology), but neither the nation nor its government nor its citizenry always behave perfectly. We have to be honest enough to point that out and recognize that truth. You can listen to Kennedy delivering the speech at JFK: Presidency and the Press or read the text of his 1961 speech below:
“The very word “secrecy” is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and secret proceedings.
We decided long ago that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweighed the dangers which are cited to justify it. Even today, there is little value in opposing the threat of a closed society by imitating its arbitrary restrictions.
Even today, there is little value in insuring the survival of our nation if our traditions do not survive with it. And there is very grave danger that an announced need for increased security will be seized upon by those anxious to expand its meaning to the very limits of official censorship and concealment.
That I do not intend to permit to the extent that it is in my control.
And no official of my Administration, whether his rank is high or low, civilian or military, should interpret my words here tonight as an excuse to censor the news, to stifle dissent, to cover up our mistakes or to withhold from the press and the public the facts they deserve to know.”
For we are opposed around the world by a monolithic and ruthless conspiracy that relies on covert means for expanding its sphere of influence–on infiltration instead of invasion, on subversion instead of elections, on intimidation instead of free choice, on guerrillas by night instead of armies by day.
It is a system which has conscripted vast human and material resources into the building of a tightly knit, highly efficient machine that combines military, diplomatic, intelligence, economic, scientific and political operations.
Its preparations are concealed, not published. Its mistakes are buried not headlined. Its dissenters are silenced, not praised. No expenditure is questioned, no rumor is printed, no secret is revealed.”
No President should fear public scrutiny of his program. For from that scrutiny comes understanding; and from that understanding comes support or opposition. And both are necessary.
I am not asking your newspapers to support the Administration, but I am asking your help in the tremendous task of informing and alerting the American people. For I have complete confidence in the response and dedication of our citizens whenever they are fully informed.
I not only could not stifle controversy among your readers– I welcome it.
This Administration intends to be candid about its errors; for as a wise man once said: “An error does not become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.” We intend to accept full responsibility for our errors; and we expect you to point them out when we miss them.
Without debate, without criticism, no Administration and no country can succeed– and no republic can survive.
That is why the Athenian lawmaker Solon decreed it a crime for any citizen to shrink from controversy.
And that is why our press was protected by the First (emphasized) Amendment– the only business in America specifically protected by the Constitution– not primarily to amuse and entertain, not to emphasize the trivial and sentimental, not to simply “give the public what it wants”–but to inform, to arouse, to reflect, to state our dangers and our opportunities, to indicate our crises and our choices, to lead, mold educate and sometimes even anger public opinion.
This means greater coverage and analysis of international news– for it is no longer far away and foreign but close at hand and local. It means greater attention to improved understanding of the news as well as improved transmission. And it means, finally, that government at all levels must meet its obligation to provide you with the fullest possible information outside the narrowest limits of national security…
And so it is to the printing press–to the recorder of man’s deeds, the keeper of his conscience, the courier of his news– that we look for strength and assistance, confident that with your help man will be what he was born to be: free and independent.”
President Lincoln is credited with freeing the slaves in America. Yet we too can become slaves to prosperity – deciding that wealth is the ultimate and highest good and that we must sacrifice some or all freedoms to preserve the nation’s prosperity and wealth. Or maybe we come to realize that we need to put some limits on government or business in order to preserve the freedom and independence of every citizen and the general welfare of the nation. Jesus said that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath. So too the Constitution was made for man and not man for the Constitution. The Constitution exists for the good of the people. It is the people the Constitution and the government are meant to serve: “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. As Lincoln said in his Gettysburg Address (whose 150th Anniversary was also celebrated this month):
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.