The purpose of July 4 is not to provide an excuse to watch fireworks and eat hot dogs, though many of us did so earlier this week.
It’s meant to commemorate the efforts of the 13 colonies to win their freedom from what was perceived to be arbitrary, despotic political power.
Ever since, freedom has been a mantra of sorts for us in this country – even though such freedom has all too often only been available to a few, as Frederick Douglass so eloquently reminded us in his 1852 speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”
Whether we say, “Don’t tread on me” or “You’re not the boss of me,” we talk as if freedom is the absence of any constraint from doing whatever we might want to do.
That is not real freedom, however. Such a concept is too abstract, too individualistic and too focused on self-fulfillment.
Our popular ideas of freedom amount to what philosopher and cultural critic Matthew Crawford calls “freedomism.”
Freedom is never absolute or abstract. Our freedom is always constrained by the realities of the situation.
Consider what happens to Jesus when he returns to Nazareth for the second time in Mark’s narrative.
The people who should know him best reject him, and the text quite bluntly says, “He could do no deed of power there.” Even Jesus was not free to do anything he wanted to do.
I teach at a university that requires a religious heritage course. Students come here who don’t have a choice about it.
While it is true that they have some freedom about which course to take when and with whom, the freedom not to take a religion course no longer exists for them.
Real freedom requires us to submit to the limits and possibilities defined by causes to which we have devoted our lives.
Real freedom comes when we commit ourselves to a good bigger than ourselves.
In his book, The World Outside Your Head, Crawford uses the example of master organ builders, Taylor and Boody, as an example of real freedom.
Located in Virginia, this company has, since 1977, been building new organs, and restoring old ones, for churches and theaters around the world.
Sometimes, they may replace plastic parts with old-fashioned materials like wood and leather. At other times, they may innovate with replacements made of high-tech carbon fiber.
The staff at Taylor and Boody don’t decide what materials to use on a whim, however.
Instead, they exercise their freedom in response to the specific properties of the materials and the needs of the instrument.
They exercise their freedom guided by a commitment to the music that the organ makes possible, music that is part of a living tradition that goes back centuries and will extend for centuries into the future.
Freedom for Taylor and Boody is, therefore, no abstract thing to be exercised in accord with fleeting whims. Their freedom is responsive – and responsible – to something bigger than they are.
Moreover, real freedom requires that our cause responds to the needs of others. That is part of Paul’s argument in Galatians.
Paul had previously come to the Galatians preaching freedom, and the Galatians had abused that freedom by making bad choices.
As the letter comes to a close, Paul reminds the Galatians what freedom is for: not self-indulgence, but service to others, service that pulls us out of ourselves into relationship with others.
Our rhetoric about freedom obscures the reality of freedom. Real freedom comes from joining a cause that enlarges our vision and heart in response to the needs of others.
We, as Christians, should not be surprised by the paradox that submission to a greater, common good sets us free, for we find such surprises all through the Bible.
Musician Ken Medema captures some of them in his chorus:
Finding leads to losing / losing lets you find,
Living leads to dying / life leaves death behind.
Losing leads to finding / there’s nothing more to say,
No one will find life another way.
To this, we might add another line, “Submitting leads to freedom, freedom comes when we submit. No one will be free another way.”
Professor of religion in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. He is the author of Wisdom Calls: The Moral Story of the Hebrew Bible (Nurturing Faith Books, 2017) and Faithful Innovation: The Rule of God and a Christian Practical Wisdom.