Maundy Thursday – “Low down freedom”


Maundy Thursday – “Low down freedom”

Published: 15th April, 2023

I’ve been thinking a good deal about freedom recently.  Maybe it’s because I’ve been listening to too much country music.  Waylon Jennings once sang: “Low down freedom, you done cost me, everything I’ll ever lose”.  And Kris Kristofferson sang: “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.”

Although the language of these songs is simple and direct, they express something of the philosophical puzzle that the idea of freedom presents.

It seems to me that in the political and moral culture of the English-speaking world, we have a rather one-sided concept of freedom, and I think this is what both Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson are getting at in those songs.  To put it crudely, we think freedom means not being told what to do.  It’s an attitude that is very familiar to parents of teenagers.  And possibly also to wives of middle-aged husbands.

And not only freedom from being told what to do, but also freedom from social norms and constraints and expectations of various sorts.  It’s easy enough to identify with this idea of freedom.  No-one likes being told what to do, and most of us will at some stage in our lives have chafed against norms and expectations that we feel limit our freedom to be ourselves.

And yet if we get down to thinking about it, we realise that this “You can’t tell me what to do” model of freedom has its limitations, and is in some ways quite seriously inadequate.

Human psychology is complex, and our will is often divided.  St Paul writes about this very well in the Epistle to the Romans: “I find it to be a law that, when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.  For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members”.  I am sure most of us will have experience of that to some degree: there is a part of us that wants to do good, and there is another part of us that hankers after things that our better self knows to be wrong and destructive.  And sometimes that dark side of our nature wins out.  The rules and norms that we sometimes think of as irritating if not oppressive can suddenly become very useful in such situations, working with the better side of our will to help us make better decisions.

The other problem with the “You can’t tell me what to do” model of freedom is that if we were to push it to its logical conclusion, we would conclude that the most free we could be would be to live alone on an island.

No-one to tell you what to do.

No compromises.

No social norms or expectations.

Pure freedom.

For about thirty seconds you think this is very attractive.  But then you have to ask yourself, what would this freedom actually mean?  What would this freedom be for?  Most likely it would be the freedom to starve.  You would have to spend all your time and energy in a struggle simply to stay alive, seeking food, finding clean water, building and maintaining shelter, keeping warm and dry.  Sure, you would be free from all those pesky rules and norms that we find so annoying; you could pick your nose and eat with your mouth open whenever you wanted, and you’d never have to complete a risk assessment for anything.  But that freedom would feel pretty empty as you engaged in an hour-by-hour struggle to stay alive.

Now suppose someone else were to be washed up on your island.  This would open up the possibility of working together.  One could hunt whilst the other cooked.  Shelter would be easier to maintain; a fire could more easily be kept burning.  If one got sick, the other could shoulder the burden until their companion was better.  But of course the other person would have their own ideas about how things should be on the island, and so compromises would be required.  In some ways you would have much more freedom, you would have many more possibilities, many more options than you had alone, such as having a conversation or even starting a family.  But you would have to sacrifice a little of that freedom of not being told what to do, and not having to take anyone else into account.

And if you were to succeed in having children, and your little island society were to grow, the possibilities and the opportunities would greatly increase, but so would the need for rules and norms to govern life together.  With more pairs of hands to work, there might even be a possibility of a little leisure and recreation, but to gain this freedom for, everyone would have to give up a little of the other kind of freedom, the freedom from, with some basic ground rules and norms and compromises to allow this island society to function smoothly.

So there are really two different ways of thinking about freedom.  Negative freedom, as in freedom from rules or norms; and positive freedom, as in freedom for possibilities and opportunities.  Giving up a little of the former will often bring us a lot of the latter.  Those country songs I quoted from are the songs of people who have finally worked out that negative freedom isn’t quite all it’s cracked up to be.

What has any of this to do with Maundy Thursday?

Our Old Testament reading this evening told the story of the first Passover, that great story of freedom.  The Passover lambs were sacrificed to bring about the Exodus, God’s liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.  The blood of the lambs protected the Israelites from the last and most fearsome of the plagues sent against the Egyptians, the death of the first born.  And the shared meal of the Passover lamb incorporated those who ate it into the people of Israel.

Now it’s pretty obvious that the freedom celebrated at the Passover is both kinds of freedom.  Slaves have very little freedom of any sort, either negative or positive.  They are told what to do all the time, and compelled to do it by brute force.  And they have very little in the way of possibility or opportunity in their lives.  Their whole being is subordinated to the needs and desires of their owners and masters.  The freedom won through the Passover and the Exodus is both a freedom from and a freedom for.

In our New Testament reading this evening St Paul describes the Last Supper in order to instruct the church in Corinth in the celebration of the Eucharist.  The Last Supper was itself a Passover meal.  There is some ambiguity on this point in John’s account, but we need not go into that now – in all four gospels the Lord’s Passion is closely bound up with the story and the celebration of the Passover.  Most explicitly in John’s gospel, Jesus is revealed as the Passover Lamb, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  The shared meal of the Passover, through which the Israelites were released from slavery and incorporated into the chosen people, becomes the shared meal of the Eucharist, and through sharing in the Communion of our Lord’s Body and Blood, we too are liberated and incorporated into His body.

But in what sense liberated?   In what sense free?

In every sense.

With honourable exceptions, the Church has been reluctant for most of its history to explore the political dimensions of the freedom Jesus won on the Cross, and which we share in the great Sacrament of liberation.  This is unsurprising: since the end of persecution under the Romans, the Church has often sought to accommodate itself to worldly power, and sometimes this has meant shameful compromise with gross injustice.  We must not forget that the first Passover was essentially a slave rebellion, and that the second Passover, the Passover of our Lord Jesus, was amongst other things an act of passive resistance against corrupt political and religious authority.

Through His self-offering on the Cross, with which we are united in Holy Communion, we gain freedom and liberty in the negative sense, a freedom from rules and laws.  St Paul writes in many of his letters of how we are saved not by law but by faith and by grace; we cannot be made good by rules imposed from outside, but only by the inner transformation that is the work of the Holy Spirit.  Through our sharing in this great Sacrament of liberation, God’s law of love becomes a part of our being.  Through this inner transformation we gain the deepest liberties: the freedom from sin, the freedom from self, the freedom from death.

And through the same self-offering, and through the same Sacrament, we gain freedom and liberty in the positive sense.  This is what Jesus is showing us in the washing of His disciples’ feet.  We are not only freed from, but we are freed for.  Through this great Sacrament of liberation we are freed for love, for love of God and love of neighbour, and the world becomes a place of possibility and opportunity, for loving, for cherishing and for serving others around us.

In the Name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.