What is freedom?


By Pastor Tom Hoffmann Almost 501 years ago, Martin Luther, famous figure of what we now know as the Protestant Reformation, wrote a treatise titled, On the Freedom of the Christian, which would go on to be one of his most influential writings. It is a great piece of prose and covers a lot of ground, demonstrating how Christianity is liberating rather than oppressive. But as Luther covered that ground, he was, in fact, breaking it. At a time when people were led to believe that they needed to buy their way into heaven, being told by a Doctor of Theology that salvation was free was utterly mind-blowing and completely life-changing. Interestingly, though, the freedom that according to the scriptures the Christian has, which Martin Luther brought to public attention, is a freedom that is found, paradoxically, in a captivity of sorts. Luther expressed, in a pithy little couplet, a Christian freedom-ethic that is still be used as a touchstone to this day. He wrote: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.” “And a Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” I thought of this recently, not just because on the 31st of this month it will be Reformation Day – a day on which protestant Christians bring to mind how having the favour of God is a free gift – but because this paradox might have something to say to the situation we find ourselves in here in Melbourne. Being free, Luther argued, is to be the disposition of the Christian person, and yet the freedom one enjoys binds them to use their freedom in the best interests of others. It is a paradox because one might ask, ‘How can I be free if I’m a servant?’ But freedom and servanthood are, in their best incarnations, inextricably linked. On Wednesday, September 22, the Shrine of Remembrance was besieged by protestors, some of whom were calling themselves “freedom” protestors. From my perspective – that being one informed by that paradoxical Christian freedom-ethic – choosing that location was an unfortunate misstep, to put it mildly. The Shrine is a monument to the acts of self-sacrifice that have made it possible for us to live free here in Australia. In fact, inside the Shrine’s sanctuary, sunken into the floor, the Stone of Remembrance bears the inscription “Greater love hath no man”. This refers to the words of Jesus recorded in the Gospel according to John, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” On Remembrance Day, at precisely 11 o’clock in the morning – the moment the Armistice was signed in 1918 – a ray of sunlight passes through an aperture in the ceiling of the Shrine’s sanctuary and falls on the Stone of Remembrance highlighting one word: Love. Personal freedom, from a Christian perspective, is only freedom when it is exercised with just as much love and concern for the other as it is for self-fulfilment. Ignoring public health orders and putting lives at risk for the sake of “freedom” was anything but serving the cause of true freedom. It disrespected, if not desecrated, the Shrine’s commemoration of true self-giving love that makes people free. The Protestant Reformation was a powerful protest movement. Hopefully, during this month of Reformation commemorations, today’s protestors might come to see liberty as a communitarian good, so that we can reach our vaccine targets, keep our hospitals from being overwhelmed, and return to our streets together, as a truly free people •

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