This is the second reflection I have written for the recent Central & Eastern European Bible Commentary, a project of Langham Literature.
When God in his sovereignty created human beings in his image, he gave them the precious gift of freedom as a means of attaining their God-given potential. As such, freedom is primarily an ontological concept which also has important ethical implications. With freedom came responsibility, so humans were free to choose either good or evil, but they could not avoid the consequences of their decisions – their choices were real and weighty. This also meant that genuine freedom could not be absolute; it involved limits. One person’s freedom could not infringe on another person’s freedom. Moreover, God’s creation was motivated by love and aimed at creating a universe of love in which freedom was not supposed to be exercised selfishly but for the good of others.
Adam’s fall radically affected the balance of love intended by God for his creation, as seen in the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. The reality of sin began operating in the fallen world and started to affect the way people used their freedom in ways contrary to God’s loving intentions. In this context, God launched his plan of redemption by choosing a man, Abraham, to be the father of a people, Israel, who were to be the “light to the nations” (Isa 49:6). Yet, Israel failed in its mission. Then, God sent his own Son to live among people and die for them on the cross, in order to give them, through the Spirit, the freedom of love which they had lost.
The apostle Paul tells Christians, “For freedom, Christ has set us free” (Gal 5:1). Yet, some of the people he was addressing were slaves and thus lacked actual liberty. Paul’s message did not directly address slavery at the time, though centuries later Christians led the way in advocating its abolition. Instead, he spoke about the inner freedom of the believer from the bondage of sin, from the fear of the forces of evil at work in the world and from the constraints of the Old Testament law which was meant to lead people to Christ, rather than being a way of salvation in itself.
Christian believers are called to live in what the Scriptures call “the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom 8:21) This, however, will not be fully possible before the second coming of Christ, because of the reality of sin, the forces of evil (the devil and his demons) and the evil structures (the world) at work around us. Paul himself confesses in Romans 7:14-25 his own struggle between the “flesh” (his fallen nature) and the Spirit at work in his life.
For Christians, the inner freedom brought by the Spirit is paramount. Enjoying this freedom allows believers to survive and keep their integrity in the most oppressive conditions and lack of external freedom, such as in the communist prisons of the twentieth century in Central and Eastern Europe. It also strengthens them to resist the temptation to cooperate with authoritarian political regimes. Yet, external freedom should not be dismissed as unimportant, as some Christians suggest. God’s original intention for us was not just to enjoy inner freedom, but also to exercise our freedom in society fully. That is why God calls some Christians to become the “voice of the voiceless” and to act courageously, in spite of great risks, to bring freedom to the
persecuted and oppressed. The conviction that motivates this kind of righteous action is sometimes called “liberation theology.” Although it may lead to extremes of action and potential ideological contamination, a solid biblical case can be constructed for engagement on behalf of the poor and oppressed for whom Christ himself showed compassion.
However, internal bondage is even more insidious to the soul than external oppression. In post-communist societies in Europe, we live in contexts dominated by consumerism (a sort of practical materialism which is even more dangerous than dialectic materialism), by superficiality, and by religious fanaticism and fundamentalism, to which people in our region resort out of despair. Powerful ideological forces try to tie us to the past (neo-conservatism) or make us worship the idol of the supposedly self-regulating free market (neo-liberalism). This, in different ways, leads to huge disparities between rich and poor and to inordinate amounts of money being used for military purposes. This preoccupation should not be dismissed by Christians as unspiritual and therefore not their concern. Not so, while we pray “your will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.” God’s will for us connects internal and external freedom with justice.