BY CARLA EWERT
The first verse of Galatians 5 is this gem,
How ‘bout that for clarity? We’ve been set free just for the sake of freedom. No more direction than that. No great mission to achieve. Not to prove anything. Just live freely. Freedom is worthwhile for it’s own sake. But what is freedom exactly?
We talk a lot about freedom in this country. We imagine it as the right to pursue happiness, each of us in our way. And yet, we struggle with how our freedoms run into each other—when marriage equality seems to run up against religious freedom, say. How do we reconcile this seeming disparity? Or when what I know to be true inside of me doesn’t align with external voices of morality.
Freedom is a complex idea, so I won’t pretend a blog post can cover it. For the sake of this conversation, though, let’s acknowledge that freedom is an internal state as much as it is an external state. Freedom, to be freedom at all, must arise out of an internal impulse or understanding—a freedom of being that certainly impacts actions but isn’t necessarily about one’s physical circumstance.
Let’s define it something like this:
Freedom is knowing that one is not compelled by any external thing (destiny, God, morality, threat) but is rather able to act with agency.
It transfers agency from any external power to oneself and depends upon an awareness of one’s internal voice and power. Because I’m a literary nerd, I’ll let Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre say it,
Galatians 5 is all about freedom—about how to live out freedom in Christ. The first part of Galatians 5 champions the importance of the kind of freedom that comes from believing oneself to be able to act independently and confronts religion as an external voice to which we can sacrifice freedom.
In chapter 5, the Galatians are being compelled to be circumcised—to align themselves with the moral code of the day. Paul begs them not to submit, not because circumcision is inherently evil—in fact, in verse 6, he writes that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value—but because they are being pressured to be circumcised to prove something about their relationship to God. They are being asked to change something about themselves in the interest of making themselves more acceptable to God.
Instead of bringing them closer to God, he writes that by submitting to circumcision, they cut themselves off from Christ (v 4). This doesn’t mean circumcision would literally end relationship with God. It means they would be choosing not to identify with Christ in his rejection of religious laws as proof of righteousness. They would be abandoning the freedom for which Christ set them free.
Then this in verse 11: by taking on circumcision, they would “abolish the offense of the cross.” I love that—the offense of the cross. I love the idea of the cross as offensive to those keeping score by imposing the law and external shows of morality. The cross exposes the true end of keeping score. Identifying with the cross, then, is refusing to act in obligation to any moral codes or to allow those laws any power over one’s understanding of one’s position with God. It is acting in freedom.
And the way we undo that outrageous offense of the cross? By laying down freedom and letting the powers that undermine grace dictate our worth by their standards of measure.
Paul tells them there is nothing they can do to make themselves more acceptable to God and asks them, in light of that, to recognize their position. If they choose circumcision, they are only choosing to make themselves acceptable to an external law not to God. And circumcision wouldn’t be enough; the law would demand more and more and never be satisfied and could, moreover, not ease whatever internal sense of anxiety they were looking to circumcision to fix.
The alternative Paul points to in Galatians—love. In verse 6, after pointing out the futility of the law in terms of diminishing distance from God, Paul writes, “the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself in love.” The truest expression of faith is not a moral life, but a loving life—a life that doesn’t assess someone’s acceptability before it loves.
In verse fourteen, Paul writes this familiar bit,
And, as Shakespeare said, there’s the rub (really, he did—Hamlet). For me, the hardest place not to assess acceptability before loving is within myself. I am ever altering myself to fit the standards around me to try to deserve acceptance. I don’t act in loving freedom of who I am.
And my experience with religion, until very recently, has been that rather than declaring my freedom in my belovedness—that I need not change anything about myself or my story to be accepted by God—religion tends to affirm my voice of self-loathing by telling me to look to an external measure for self-worth.
The tricky bit about the whole thing is that to fulfill the single commandment that matters, to love you like I love myself, I have to act in freedom, to find a way to release constant self-assessment of my worth based on an external standard, because if I believe that I must alter myself to be loved then I believe you must as well.
And this is, to me, what religion as keeper of morality does. It a codifies self-loathing into systematic morality and dictates who is worthy of love based on the morality of the day.
So what does that have to do with us and this movement we seek toward a generous faith?
We get to affirm love. And that begins by embracing our own freedom in self-love. We get to move toward an understanding of the depth of God’s love as first experienced in believing ourselves to be loved—and in being loved, being truly free—and then extending that love to all. We get to stand in solidarity with those who have been told they don’t meet the moral expectation of the day and affirm the beautiful offense of the cross that says all are loved, no changes necessary.
Carla’s work life is spent coordinating happenings for the OPEN Network, an initiative of Convergence.
Carla is also a freelance writer and editor and recently co-founded Jot Writing Co. to give her an excuse to play with words, an obsession that began in childhood, continued through her Master’s degree in English, and persists to this day.
She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with her family. On a summer day in the Twin Cities, she’ll be cycling the city trails or playing at Lake Harriet with her two daughters. The long northern winters give her plenty of time for her other diversions—coffee and books.