Things that make for freedom

For Jesus, gospel freedom begins with vulnerability.

By Bill Leonard

“Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last.” We recall the words of that spiritual a half-century after Martin Luther King Jr. sounded them across the Lincoln Memorial, a hallmark of the Civil Rights Movement in segregated America.

Decades later, we still debate the things that make for freedom, politically and spiritually. Two texts, one from Scripture, one from literature, inform the discussion.

In Luke Chapter 10 Jesus sent out some of his most trusted followers even as he “set his face toward Jerusalem,” doubtless knowing his days were numbered in that city, where Romans ruled.

Time was running out, so he entrusted his message to folks who would declare it to a desperate albeit essentially indifferent population. He kept instruction to a minimum: “If you forget everything else, or don’t have time to tell everything, say: The Kingdom of God has come near you.’”

That’s the best, freest word they could offer. It still is.

The literary text comes from The Fire Next Time, where James Baldwin recalled black urban communities in 1963, a century after Emancipation. In kingdom of God language, Baldwin imaged the wonder and terror of the things that make for freedom.

Amid oppression, he said, “there was ... a zest and a joy and a capacity for facing and surviving disaster that are very moving and very rare. Perhaps we were all of us ... bound together by the nature of our oppression, the specific and peculiar complex of risks we had to run; if so, within these limits we sometimes achieved with each other a freedom that was close to love.... This is the freedom that one hears in some gospel songs, for example, and in jazz. In all jazz, and especially in the blues, there is something tart and ironic, authoritative and double-edged.”

The kingdom of God has come near you, and that’s how it feels.

For Jesus, gospel freedom began with vulnerability, “a peculiar complex of risks.”

“Go out,” he said, “like lambs into the midst of wolves.” That’s no fun, but to take the gospel seriously and live free — to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, love your neighbor as yourself — is to be vulnerable to those who don’t see life that way.

St. Paul echoed that, writing to the Corinthians: “We recommend ourselves in all circumstances by our steadfast endurance ... flogged, imprisoned, mobbed, overworked, sleepless, starving.”

Gospel freedom requires relinquishing old support systems, risking that we’ll somehow avoid the killing fields of body and soul; ever “wise as serpents, innocent as doves.”

Amid the danger there is the freedom of a new community. “Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you.” Community is fragile, difficult, frequently dysfunctional, but when it works it is a centerpiece of gospel freedom.

Writing of those urban black communities, Baldwin offered another gospel image: “We had the liquor (?), the chicken, the music, and each other, and had no need to pretend to be what we were not.”

Surely that is church at its best — the freedom of a community in which we have no need to pretend. Eating “what is set before you,” may push gospel freedom to the limit. I’ve eaten duck tongue and chicken feet in China; chawanmushi (fish custard) and octopus ink in Japan; even nibbled dog in Vietnam, scared the next meal would include “hello kitty!”

Even Jesus’ commands have limits. In each place I experienced community with people who helped me know that the kingdom of God was oh-so-near.

Yet freedom may create distance; some folks are not so welcoming. What then? Jesus said we are to shake “even the dust” off our feet in protest — a hard saying. Here’s my Baptist way of softening it a bit.

Freedom — gospel and otherwise — means we won’t always agree. Some encounters challenge conscience so dramatically that community won’t hold; some ideas so debilitating we must shake off every vestige. Yet, when conscience divides us, the kingdom of God has still come near. Even when I did not know it, God’s grace was there.

Sometimes grace even wins out. In Luke 10 the disciples returned saying: “Jesus, in your name the demonic was done in.” Grace takes root in and beyond us. Amid the hurt and the evil, sometimes things are actually set right.

Even then Jesus wouldn’t let us power-trip our way into the kingdom. “Don’t get all high and mighty about defeating evil here and there,” he cautioned. Instead, celebrate that you’ve discovered, or been discovered by, God’s new community.

Claim the things that make for freedom, things that, in James Baldwin’s words, are “tart and ironic, authoritative and double-edged;” gospel-freedom that often sounds like jazz, feels like the blues, and acts like grace.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.