And the children of Israel said to them, “Would God we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger. - Exodus 16:3
“Liberation” has been one of the major themes of the past few decades, and understandably so. According to our theology, the principal hallmark of the dawning age is a new freedom of thought in spiritual matters; and when we put this in the context of seeing the spiritual world as the world of causes, it seems inevitable that this spiritual freedom will, step by step, bring about increasing freedom in the physical realm as well. A free mind demands a free body.
Not everyone welcomes this freedom. There are persistent and sometimes strident voices bewailing the loss of moral standards, calling for the restoration of the old controls as though that would restore the old values. If we look at human history without rose-colored glasses, though, the higher morality of bygone years turns out to be an illusion. The prosperity of the Victorian era, supposedly the high water mark of solid family values, was built to a large extent on the brutal exploitation of children and immigrants. Before that were the centuries of outright slavery. The greed of today’s marketplace is surely rivalled by that of the conquistadors. The further back we look, if we look honestly, the less inclined we are to want to turn the clock back. For every knight in shining armor, there were thousands of serfs struggling to stay alive. The longing for freedom has deep roots indeed.
It is no secret that in many instances, the people in control have been Bible-reading Christians. The flight from the Old World to the New was seen as a reenactment of the deliverance from Egypt, and to our shame, the natives of this promised land were all too often seen as the idolatrous Canaanites, fit only for destruction. So the oppressed of the Old World gained their freedom, and became the oppressors, learning now to read the Bible a little differently; and now new generations of the oppressed are discovering the power of that image of liberation. One individual after another arises as a kind of new Moses, calling to “Let my people go.”
The Bible itself, though, is brutally realistic. The Israelites do not escape from Egypt into the Promised Land. Freedom leads straight into the wilderness. The triumphal moment of deliverance, the swallowing up of Pharaoh’s armies, is only a moment. Then Israel turns her back on the Reed Sea and faces not a land flowing with milk and honey but a barren and trackless waste.
There is only one way to survive in this hostile environment, and that is through a strict self-discipline. It is no accident that the first major stop in the wilderness is at Sinai, and that the theme of the Sinai stories is the giving of the law. Israel is no longer ruled by Egypt—after all, that is what liberation is all about. But liberation, it turns out, is also about self-government, and that is easy only for people who have never tried it.
Ministers are not the only ones who are envied for “being their own bosses.” They are not the only ones, then, who sometimes find themselves longing for one of those jobs where they were told what they had to do and could know when it was done and then go home. “The boss” is such a handy scapegoat for our discontent; and if I am my own boss, whom can I blame?
This can play itself out in spectacular form on a larger scale. It is wonderfully easy to be righteous when you are oppressed, when you are persecuted. It is not nearly so easy when you are in power. The idealism of the Marxist revolution gave way to the tyranny of the Bolshevik regime. The religious freedom of the thirteen colonies gave way to the suppression of the Alien and Sedition Act. Castro the liberator fills prisons with another generation of “libertors.” The nation of Israel celebrates its fiftieth anniversary so deeply divided that it may well be only the Arab threat that holds it together. I cannot help wondering what would happen if Israel were given the Dome of the Rock. She would have no excuse not to rebuild the temple and reinstitute animal sacrifice, as the Torah prescribes. How would she handle that “freedom”?
The empowerment of freedom is in fact a burden, a burden we escape only by evading our responsibilities. One of the most vivid images of this, for me, is that of the mother of a newborn baby. In that little world of mother and child, the mother is as near to omnipotence as a human being can be. She holds the power of life and death over the baby, who is powerless by comparison. Yet there are few times in life when a woman is less free than when she is the loving mother of a newborn.
Children look at their parents and long for the day when they themselves will be grown up and independent. All the while, their parents find their own lives ruled by all kinds of necessities, all kinds of responsibilities. When children do reach puberty, that decisive step toward maturity, with its clarion call for liberation from their parents, they cross their own Reed Sea into the wilderness of junior high. Suddenly there are hundreds of rules for survival, some set by the authorities and some set by their own peers. Suddenly the world is no longer supportive and forgiving. The early teen years do not flow with milk and honey.
Politically, the achievement of equal civil rights is by no means the equivalent of arriving in the Promised Land. It would perhaps be more apt to think of it as a ticket of entry into the arena with all the other gladiators, or, more biblically, as the gateway to the wilderness. When women constitute a majority of the voters, it becomes a bit strained to blame all our country’s woes on men. As astute a woman as Helen Keller honestly believed that once women had the vote, war would be a thing of the past.
Freedom isn’t free. There is a cost, the cost of responsibility, that is not at all obvious to people who are not free. One reason it is not obvious is, of course, that so many free people evade their responsibilities. In our own economic system particularly, there is an immense emphasis on the rights of ownership, coupled with what seems an instinctive suspicion of any pressures toward corresponding responsibilities. There are the few individuals who stand out above the crowd, who really seem to believe that noblesse oblige, that every increase in status brings a corresponding increase in obligation, but we do not hear of many people hoping they do not win the lottery because they do not want the responsibility that would entail. I find it sad that saying this feels almost like telling a joke.
That, so to speak, is the bad news; but there is good news as well. It is perhaps most simply stated at the close of the eleventh chapter of Matthew:
Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly of heart, and you shall find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
This is indeed good news, in Greek the “evangel,” in early English the Godspel. Once we realize that we cannot carry the burden of freedom by ourselves, once we realize that we need help, the help is thenebulous “middle class.” We can compare ourselves with the less advantaged and feel privileged, or we can compare ourselves with the more advantaged and feel deprived. Then if we look at the global picture, if we look at the Somalias and Ethiopias—or at the Bosnias and the Chechnyas—we realize that the bottom of our scale would be envied by some, and we ourselves are near the top of the heap. Some kind of light should dawn when we realize that the sweat shop can be a major step up.
It would help, I believe, if we would recognize that the whole business of comparing our lot with the lot of others may not be particularly productive. It can indeed highlight social inequities. It can set us wondering why we pay a few athletes such staggering sums and pay so little to the teachers to whom we entrust the minds of our children. But as for ourselves, the fruitful question is not how much freedom we have in comparison with someone else. It is what we do with the freedom we have. The Gospel principle is tough but true: whoever is faithful in least things is faithful in great ones; whoever is unjust in least things is unjust in great ones as well (Luke 16:10).
If we look honestly at what is committed to our care, if we regard ourselves as called to full Christian commitment to each other, it should not take long for us to find ourselves laboring and heavy laden—laboring and heavy laden not because of the burdens laid on us by people in power, but because of the call of our own conscience. Then, once we are fully convinced by our own experience that we cannot go it alone, we will be able to hear the good news that we are not alone. Our Lord has walked this path himself, and has been waiting all this time for us to let him walk with us.