For most of my life, I’ve been more than a bit ambivalent about the Fourth of July, when we Americans celebrate Independence Day. Of course, when I was a child I didn’t put too much thought into the celebration. I was captivated by a sort of innocent patriotism and I loved some of those classic patriotic hymns, not to mention the fireworks.
But when I got to be a bit older and started taking my faith in Christ more seriously, I began to feel some tension between my patriotism and my Christian faith. I even got to the point where, when I was a youth pastor at a church in California, I intentionally scheduled my middle school summer camp during the week of the Fourth of July, so I didn’t have to be at church singing songs about American “independence” in a sanctuary of Christian worship. There are a lot of factors at play in my ambivalence about the Fourth of July, but perhaps the most important one is the way we talk about “freedom.”
In the United States, and in Western society more generally, we’re accustomed to thinking about freedom as independence. This is no more obvious than on our so-called Independence Day, when freedom and independence are considered synonyms. We celebrate as though, in winning independence from British colonial rule, Americans indeed won freedom. That is the sentiment on the Fourth of July—“We did it! We achieved freedom.” But from a theological perspective, there is significant tension between independence and freedom. While a dominant American imagination claims freedom is about the absence of a form of subjugation (freedom from something), through Jesus, we see that freedom is about the presence of something (freedom for). In Christ, freedom is gifted, not achieved; we don’t win our freedom, Christ wins it for us (John 8:36). And in Christ, we see that freedom is more about interdependence.
Freedom as Interdependence
In Galatians 5, Paul writes, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Paul doesn’t seem to be nearly as interested in freedom from as he is in freedom for. To be free in Christ is not to be independent from others, it’s about being free to truly love. Freedom is not the absence of subjugation, it’s the presence of love.
In America, we are taught to celebrate freedom from tyranny and subjugation. Don’t get me wrong—we should celebrate that wherever it exists, and we should continue to work toward it wherever it does not. But as Christians, we should think much harder about what our freedom is for. How often is America’s rhetoric about freedom coupled with rhetoric of violence? Enthusiastically we say “freedom isn’t free!” And on Independence Day, we celebrate “freedom” by celebrating victory in war. Think about the symbolism of thousands of families gathering in parks to smile up at “bombs bursting in air.” Is that about the presence of love? If our freedom does not lead us to interdependence—to become “slaves to one another”—then it isn’t truly Christian freedom.
As the great reformer Martin Luther wrote, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” We are free from all the anxiety of having to serve in obligation in order that we may be free to joyfully and voluntarily serve in love. Christian freedom does not force us to love (forced love isn’t love at all), but we are compelled to love through the joy of freedom in Christ.
In youth ministry, we need to be diligent in parsing out what freedom in Christ really looks like, otherwise the American version of freedom will continue to dominate the imagination. Our young people need to hear in our words and see in our actions that Christian freedom is about belonging to one another, welcoming one another, and making sacrifices on behalf of one another. Perhaps we instead leverage these cultural celebrations by finding ways to model Christian freedom by serving others or welcoming a stranger in our midst. Or be more creative than I am. What are some ways that we can teach Christian freedom instead of independence? How can we celebrate the presence of love rather than the absence of subjugation? How can we learn to freely become “subject to all”?
Wesley Ellis is the Associate Pastor at First United Methodist Church of Toms River. He has served in youth ministry for over ten years and holds an M.Div. and an M.A. in Christian Education from Princeton Theological Seminary. Currently, he is a Ph.D. student at University of Aberdeen. He lives in Toms River, New Jersey, with his wife Amanda, son Henry, and daughter Bonnie.