Posts tagged ‘Slavery’

Freedom and Limits

Happy 246th birthday, America.

On this date in 1776, these United States were formed when the Second Continental Congress unanimously adopted the Declaration of Independence. At the heart of the Declaration was a yearning to be free:

That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as free and independent states, they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do.

Freedom is the bedrock of the American experiment. But freedom is also funny. Freedom is a precious gift – one that I believe ought to be granted to all people everywhere – and yet, freedom also works best when it is given limits. If you don’t believe me, ask Adam and Eve.

God gave history’s first couple tremendous freedom:

“You are free to eat from any tree in the garden.” (Genesis 2:16)

But on their freedom, He also placed a limit:

“But you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” (Genesis 2:17)

When Adam and Eve transgressed this limit, rather than gaining freedom, they lost freedom, for they became slaves to sin and cursed by death.

In order to be freed from this slavery and curse, a perfectly free God placed limits on Himself as He became incarnate in Christ. As the French Catholic philosopher Emmanuel Falque explains in The Metamorphosis of Finitude:

What makes Christianity is not solely the extraordinary in Christ’s revelation of His glory … It is also and indeed primarily the sharing by the Word incarnate of our most ordinary human condition independent of sin (that is, human finitude and the humanization of the divine).

The phrase “human finitude” is one of the most ponderous mysteries of our faith. In Christ, the infinite became finite. The perfectly free limited Himself for you and for me. And yet, in the apostle Paul’s telling, this finitude and limitedness becomes the basis for true freedom – our freedom:

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. (Galatians 5:1)

As we rightfully celebrate our freedoms today, let us remember that our national freedom was won by men and women who willingly gave up their freedoms as they served and sacrificed for this nation. There would be no land of the free if we were not also the home of the brave. And, as we live out of our freedom in Christ, let us also remember that our eternal freedom was won by a man who willingly gave up His freedom as He served us and sacrificed His life for us on a cross.

July 4, 2022 at 5:15 am 1 comment

On Confederate Flags and Moral Clarity

South Carolina CapitolOn the heels of a terrible tragedy has come a robust debate. When 21-year-old Dylann Roof walked into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston for a Wednesday evening Bible study, 50 minutes later, he had shot eight people dead with a ninth victim who died later at the hospital. His stated reason for the rampage was horrifyingly racist. “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country,” he said to the African-American churchgoers, “and you have to go.”

As our nation has been processing its grief, it’s also been engaging in a debate over an old symbol connected to racism and slavery: the Confederate flag – specifically, the one that flies at the South Carolina State Capitol. In one way, I am still trying to wrap my head around how this debate was sparked by this tragedy. Although I would heartily agree that racism and slavery, in all their forms, are egregious, it seems that a debate over how to keep a firearm out of the hands of a man like Roof would be much more directly related to the tragedy at hand. In one way, I can’t help but wonder if we needed to find something over which to be morally outraged as a catharsis for our deep shock and grief. My psychologizing notwithstanding, this is still an interesting debate.

Sadly, as with so many of our debates, this one has quickly degenerated into cheap attacks. Take, for instance, this tweet from Vox’s David Roberts: “The American South has always been the most barbaric, backward region in any developed democracy. Can we admit that now?” Somehow, Roberts managed to connect a racist lunatic with a gun and a Civil War era symbol to a whole region of our country and its prevailing cultural sensibilities. Thankfully, CNN ran a much more nuanced piece on the history of the Confederate flag, which, it turns out, is not the Confederate flag at all, but the battle flag of General Robert E. Lee’s army unit. David Brooks of The New York Times provided us with a thoughtful biographical analysis of General Lee – both the good and the ugly.

I, for one, though I certainly see and would uphold the value in preserving the history of the Confederate flag, am not quite sure why this particular flag needs to fly outside the South Carolina State Capitol, especially when it is a reminder of terrible pain and division to so many. Preserving history is more the job of museums than it is of flagpoles outside capitol buildings.

But there is more here than just a debate over a flag. For out of this debate, a broader trend has once again emerged that deeply troubles me. Our cultural conversations have become so anemic and, in many instances, so vile that they are often of little to no value. Politically, sociologically, and morally, we have divided ourselves into traditional and progressive camps, loathe to admit that there is any worth, insight, or righteousness on the side to which we are opposed.

I happen to come from the generally progressive Pacific Northwest while finding myself much more at ease now living in the generally traditional state of Texas. This does not mean, however, that progressivism has nothing to teach me. I think of Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s speech at the University of Kansas in 1968:

Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year.  But that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage.  It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them.  It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl.  It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities.  It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.  Yet the Gross National Product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play.  It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.  It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.

Senator Kennedy may have been progressive, but it is hard to find sharper moral clarity than his. Traditionalists need to listen. Likewise, in what may come as a surprise to David Roberts, traditional culture – even when it’s from the South – has a lot that is good and outright charming. Chivalry, Southern manners, and a biblically informed, even if imperfectly so, moral compass are important to the thriving and future of any civilized society. Progressivism needs to take note.

As Christians, no matter what our general cultural sensibilities may be, we will always find ourselves as strangers in the midst of raging culture wars. After all, our first loyalty is not to the sensibilities or hobbyhorses of any particular culture, but to the truth of the Word of God. And God’s Word has a funny way of challenging every culture and every sinner.

Let’s remember that when we fight over flags – or over anything else, for that matter.

June 29, 2015 at 5:15 am 4 comments

ABC Extra – Let Slavery Ring!

“Men desire above all things to be free and say that freedom is the greatest of blessings, while slavery is the most shameful and wretched of states.”[1]  So said the first century Roman philosopher, Dio Chrysostom.  Although philosophers are known for writing convoluted and delicate treatises, there is no convolution or delicacy here.  Freedom is great.  Slavery is wretched.  The end.  Dio could not be clearer.

The reason Dio does not need to speak of slavery delicately is because, in ancient Rome, slavery truly was a wretched state.  Consider this description of slaves from Apuleius, a Roman author from the second century:

What scrawny little slaves there were!  Their skin was everywhere embroidered with purple welts from their many beatings.  Their backs, scarred from floggings, were shaded, as it were, rather than actually covered by their torn patchwork garments.  Some wore only flimsy loincloths.  All of them, decked out in these rags, carried brands on their foreheads, had their heads half-shaved, and wore chains around their ankles.  Their complexions were an ugly yellow; their eyes were so inflamed by thick dark smoke and the steamy vapor they could barely see.[2]

According to Apuleius, slavery was so intolerable that he could not bear even to look at slaves without gasping.  Seutonius, in his history of the Roman emperors, describes Augustine’s policy of, with few exceptions, allowing only free men to serve in his army:

Except as a fire-brigade at Rome, and when there was fear of riots in times of scarcity, [Augustus] employed freedmen as soldiers only twice: once as a guard for the colonies in the vicinity of Illyricum, and again to the defend the bank of the river Rhine; even these he levied, when they were slaves, from men and women of means, and at once gave them freedom; and he kept them under their original standard, not mingling them with the soldiers of free birth or arming them in the same fashion.[3]

No one wanted to be a slave.  Everyone wanted to be free.  And this is what makes Paul’s words in Philippians 2 so striking.

“Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant” (Philippians 2:5-7).  The Greek word for “servant” here is doulos, meaning not only a servant, but a slave.  Jesus, being in very nature God, became a slave!  And He did so willingly.  No one coerced, cajoled, or compelled Jesus into slavery.

Jesus’ willingness to become a slave is especially gripping when one considers that Philippi was a town filled with veterans and soldiers.  Thus, those who lived there prided themselves on being free men, for, as Seutonius explains, only free men could serve in the Roman army.  So Paul writes to a town full of people who prided themselves on being free about a man who willingly let go of His freedom to become, of all things, a slave.

Jesus’ willingness to let go of His freedom for the state of slavery can serve us a model for us.  After all, Paul regularly identifies himself as a doulos of Christ (e.g., Romans 1:1, Philippians 1:1).  Like his Lord, Paul is happy to be a doulos to his Lord.

How about you?  Do you pride yourself so much in your freedom that you forget that you are called to be a slave to Christ?  Slavery, when it is to the things of this world, is indeed wretched.  But slavery to Christ is glorious.  For serving Christ is hopeful and heartening.  In a world that is obsessed with freedom, we rejoice that we are slaves to our Savior!

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[1] Dio Chrysostom, Orations 14.1.

[2] Apuleius, Metamorphoses 9.12.

[3] Seutonius, Augustus 25.

November 14, 2011 at 5:15 am 1 comment


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