By Carla Ewert
Have you ever seen the movie Chocolat? Alright, drop your judgement of my taste in movies and bear with me. Chocolat is set in a small French village in the late 1950s. The town observes religious traditions and strives for tranquility. Until one day, a woman and her daughter, both wearing red cloaks, blow in with the north wind to open a chocolaterie during lent.
Vianne begins to ask the villagers to look beyond their traditions and find their desires. She invites them to the freedom we talked about in part 1—to find and exercise their agency by connecting with what’s really inside them. She helps them name their favorites—invites them to have a favorite, to know it, and to own it.
But before long it becomes clear to the viewer that Vianne, while inviting others to be free, to shake off the fear stirred up by the village authorities and live with authenticity, is herself not free. She is driven by the tricky north wind and a familial pattern of wandering, and though she’s tired of it and knows it hurts her dear daughter, Anouk, she continues that pattern.
She builds relationships in the town, but finally driven by her pain and the north wind, Vianne packs up to wander again. She bullies Anouk to get out the door. In the process, the container holding her mother’s ashes breaks, a symbolic breaking of the pattern to which she was bound. She goes downstairs to find herself face to face with the love of her neighbors—love that they had found by learning to love themselves—and chooses to stay. She finds herself freed from what has become a hurtful pattern.
Last week's look at the first half of Galatians 5 discussed freedom as one’s claiming agency from external voices of control by cultivating an awareness of an inner voice and power—much like Vianne’s invitation to the villagers to forget the threats of external voices and to love what they love and live in authentic connection with that. But what about when our inner voice has become so detached from love that it is itself abusive?
The second half of Galatians 5, stretches my understanding of freedom by implying that freedom also means I can be free from my own patterns and addictions, just as Vianne is freed in the second half of Chocolat.
This nuanced view insists on freedom from external expectations and internal patterns. It invites us to see both levels of this freedom as deeply connected to love. Love and freedom run together throughout the chapter and, at verse 14, love acts as a hinge of sorts. The chapter takes a turn, but it turns on love. You’ll recognize the second half of the chapter as the fruit of the spirit passage—more on that in a bit.
Now that Paul has pointed out the law as an unnecessary threat to freedom and love as the alternative, he addresses a question that you’re likely asking too: won’t it create rampant sin and chaos if we all do what we want and are free from the law? Don’t we need someone setting moral codes and making sure we all live by them? Isn’t tranquility threatened by desire?
He answers these questions again with love. Interestingly, in this section, love that has made us free now makes us slaves to each other. He says if you’re worried about the law and what happens without it, love. Extend that love, that knowledge that you are loved by God, to your neighbor and honor them as beings loved by God.
He moves into this odd little bit where he talks about the works of the flesh. A list follows of things that could be called immoral and perceived as the threats of living without law. You could look at this list of the works of the flesh—fornication, impurity, licentiousness, strife, jealousy, quarrels, drunkenness, etc.—as a challenge to deny bodily pleasure.
Maybe, like me, you were taught that the flesh was in some way linked directly sin, and that to avoid sin you should discipline/deny the appetites of “the flesh” in a 21st century iteration of flesh/spirit dichotomy. To keep from getting too wrapped up in this idea that demeans the body, you could instead say like Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan argue in the The First Paul that these acts of the flesh are of the earth, non-eternal and short-sighted in their way, rather than eternal.
While I don’t disagree with that, I think it makes more sense to follow the strand of love that has run through the chapter through this passage too. What happens when you look at these acts in terms of love? Love of self and love of neighbor? First, it seems to me that the items on this list, which are behaviors taken to extremes, are often acts of self-abuse. They are the result of having too little regard for one’s own worth or of being driven by a sense of scarcity.
Take fornication or drunkenness: it’s not that sex or drinking are in and of themselves wrong, but when they are engaged in without self-care, they become self-abuse and often also become abusive to others, moving out of the realm of love. There’s a recklessness to this list that makes me think it is about acting without care—first for oneself, and by extension then, for others.
And here Paul starts talking about the Spirit, about living in the Spirit. Rather than seeing the Spirit as a being outside of us, maybe we could think about it as the deepest life in us. Perhaps to live in the Spirit, we have to nurture spirit—our own spirit. We have to exercise self-care and understanding. In exercising this kind of deep self-nurture, we can find freedom from our own patterns. I’m not implying that this is easy. Self-love and nurture may be some of the hardest work we do as humans, but they are acts of freedom.
Before we move too far from it, I want to revisit the idea of being slaves to one another through love. I think it would be a misreading to say that that means we ought to be constantly trying to lay down our needs for the needs of others. I wonder if instead it could mean we offer the deepest part of ourselves to each other, being motivated by generosity rather than self-sacrifice. In this chapter, with the terms Paul uses, it would sound something like this: we offer our spirits to each other rather than living with one another only on the level of the flesh.
Erg, the terms spirit and flesh are a distraction. There is no part of me that believes the flesh, in terms of the body, is lesser than the spirit. They are connected. I think instead this whole section is about vulnerability and truth with each other. About offering ourselves to each other honestly. Owning who we are and sharing that with others. Being compassionately ourselves so that we invite others to be themselves as well.
In that case it looks like this: when we have a deep, spirit level self-understanding, it creates freedom - for ourselves and for others, that they might in turn better understand themselves. We have cultivated a level of self-awareness that keeps us from acting carelessly with ourselves and hurts those around us. I recognize that full self-awareness is perhaps impossible. We are compelled by many things beyond our awareness, but I believe that is our work—to become more free.
After the works of the flesh comes the fruit of the Spirit (sort of interesting that the list related to flesh or patterns is work and the list related to spirit or freedom is fruit—one struggles, one grows). Essentially here Paul says, if you want to live without law, engage your spirit and nurture love for yourself and love for your neighbors and the fruit of the Spirit will follow.
My friend Josh has this great domino illustration about love and its relationship to the rest of the fruit of the Spirit listed. He says: “For Paul, the fruit of the Spirit is love…and love, when we begin to live in and through it, cultivates these other qualities. Love is like the first domino that falls, and when it does, it brings change to everything else. God is love, and when we embrace this love, it creates the domino effect that produces all the other goodness that we long for in our lives: joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” So love is all we have to worry about and the rest will follow.
Then Paul goes back to his argument in the first part of the chapter, his debate with the law. He writes that these things that flow out of love have never been against any law. By living in love you are free—truly free—from the law and from the suffering of self-abusive patterns.
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.