From Slavery to Freedom

WHEN WE THINK OF SLAVERY it is the experience of blacks in America which most often comes to mind. Africans targeted by commercial slave traders as ignorant savages were captured in raids, transported across the Atlantic and sold on the open market like livestock.

In the Roman Empire slavery was not tied to race as it was here. The first slaves seem to have been children sold by their own parents and enemy warriors and their families captured during battle. Debtors sold themselves into slavery to cover their debts. They could be freed if their family or friends paid off the debt or even as a reward for exceptional service. They might then enjoy the patronage of an employer, their former master or someone else recognized in a public ceremony.

This last example seems to have been the model of slavery St. Paul had in mind when he wrote of people set free from sin and become “slaves of righteousness” (Romans 6:16) through baptism. Incorporation into Christ was seen as delivering people from slavery and connecting them to a new Protector whom they would now serve.

Are We Slaves or Free?

A popular name for men in the Arabic-speaking world (both Christian and Muslim) is Abdullah, the “slave of God.” the same term St. Paul uses here. Whenever we receive baptism, the Eucharist or a blessing we are called “slaves of God” as well. Perhaps to respect our sensibilities, the phrase is usually translated as “servant” or “handmaid” of God but in the original Greek it is the same word translated here as “slave” (doulos).

This concept may strike us as misguided – did not the Lord Jesus teach us that we are His friends, not His servants (cf., John 15:15)? Yet He also said that “You are My friends if you do whatever I command you” (John 15:14). The fact is that we are never completely autonomous – we are always serving someone or something. It may be our country, another person, or our greed. The apostles knew that the Lord had called them to an intimate relationship with Himself; a relationship in which they dedicated their lives to serving Him and His Father.

The fifth-century Syriac Father John the Solitary (commemorated on June 19) clearly expressed this paradox in a letter on the monastic life which has survived the centuries. “Be both a servant, and free: a servant in that you are subject to God, but free in that you are not enslaved to anything – either to empty praise or to any of the passions.

“Release your soul from the bonds of sin; abide in liberty, for Christ has liberated you; acquire the freedom of the New World during this temporal life of yours. Do not be enslaved to love of money or to the praise resulting from pleasing people” (St. John the Solitary, Letter to Hesychias, 25, 26).

For the Christian, then, freedom is the God-given ability to be ‘slaves of God” rather than captives of sin. We are free, not from any obligation but from the fruitless effects of living apart from God. We can now bear fruit of holiness and, in the end everlasting life.

Freedom Takes Work

In our day many people see freedom to mean an absence of obligation, an absence of laws or responsibility. To be free means to do whatever one feels like without restraint of conventions, or other people’s idea of what is right. This may be the freedom of the adolescent with an unexpected day off from school, but is it the freedom of the children of God, of those made after His image and recreated in baptism? Is freedom nothing more than the freedom to be lazy? Or does freedom have a richer meaning for the believer?

In his First Homily on Ezekiel Origen teaches that spiritually indolent people are actually rejecting their freedom. The freedom of the children of God means that we not paralyzed by the negative forces to which we may be exposed. We are able to get off the couch, as it were, to “make an effort, to toil, to fight, to become the artificer of your own salvation.” To those who are reluctant to alter their comfortable routines Origen asks, “Are you then reluctant to work – you who were created in order to create?”

According to the creation story in the book of Genesis we human beings are given the charge to make something of the earth, to be co-creators with God of our surroundings; and the first thing deserving our attention is our own character. We need not be swept along by a mediocre way of life: we can assert our true freedom by living as servants of God through a repentant way of life. In the Liturgy we repeatedly ask that we may spend “the rest of our life in peace and repentance,” but rarely make the effort to let that happen in our lives.

Many of us have become comfortable with a kind of spiritual inertia, content that we are not committing grave sins. We seem to be not doing anything at all, but in fact we have made a choice. In spite of the gift of divine life we have received, we have opted to give God merely a token of respect but to live most of our lives with little thought to serving Him. By not being His servants we have compromised our freedom.

Our lives seem to echo this hymn from the Lenten Triodion: “In the waters of Baptism, O Father, you have made me Your child. In Your great goodness, You adorned me with all the virtues. But by my own free choice, I have become enslaved to fruitless thoughts which have brought me down to poverty. Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me.”

Is Saying “No” the Height of Freedom?

Commenting on the teaching of Saint Maximos the Confessor, Pope Benedict XVI offered this reflection:

“Saint Maximus tells us that – and we know that this is true – Adam (and we ourselves are Adam) thought that the ‘no’ was the peak of freedom. He thought that only a person who can say ‘no’ is truly free; that if he is truly to achieve his freedom, man must say ‘no’ to God; only in this way, he believed, could he at last be himself, could he reach the heights of freedom.

“The human nature of Christ also carried this tendency within it but overcame it, for Jesus saw that it was not the ‘no’ that was the height of freedom. The height of freedom is the ‘yes,’ in conformity with God’s will. It is only in the ‘yes’ that man truly becomes himself; only in the great openness of the ‘yes,’ in the unification of his will with the divine than man becomes immensely open, becomes ‘divine.’ What Adam wanted was to be like God, that is, to be completely free. But the person who withdraws into himself is not divine, is not completely free; he is freed by emerging from himself, it is in the ‘yes’ that he becomes free… It is by transferring the human will to the divine will that the real person is born; it is in this way that we are redeemed.”

Church Fathers and Teachers: From St Leo the Great to Peter Lombard, p. 62