Sunday, July 4, 2021

How Jesus invented individual liberty

A free nation may be understood as one that is not under occupation or domination of another nation. In that sense the old Soviet Union was a free nation. But it was not was a nation of liberty.
Freedom is a political condition. Liberty or its lack is a way of life condition, the ability of a people to live their lives as they wish, with minimum assistance or interference from the state. America's Founders sought to bring forth both a country free of British occupation and a people living in liberty. As Lincoln later put it, America is "a nation conceived in Liberty." Liberty is enjoyed by persons, not by governments. A government may be free, but only persons can be in liberty.

The Declaration of Independence says that one of the unalienable rights of human beings is the right to the pursuit of happiness. No right to achieve it, only the right to pursue it. However the Founders conceived of happiness, they definitely understood that happiness is personal and that the nature of its pursuit was something for each man or woman to decide how best to achieve. That is what liberty means. Our Founders knew that public liberty required private virtue and that liberty did not mean there should be no restraints, but that’s a topic for another day.

My thesis is that the entire idea of individual liberty was invented by Jesus of Nazareth. Literally no one in the world, Jew or Gentile, had conceived of individual, personal liberty before Jesus.

In Jesus’ day the Jews were neither free nor at liberty. Judea, the rump remainder of the ancient, independent Jewish kingdoms, was under direct Roman occupation. The Romans, however, had little interest in how the Judeans lived day to day. As long as the Jews paid Rome’s taxes and accepted Roman dominion peaceably, the Romans were satisfied. The Romans did not even govern Judea directly but through native authorities.

Because of Rome, the Jews were not free. But their lack of liberty was their own doing. Everyone in the ancient Near East, Jews and Gentiles, was tribal. Like today’s Arab Muslims, the Jews identified themselves first by their religion, then their family, clan and tribe, almost always in that order. These groupings defined the norms of behavior and determined almost everything about how its members lived. 

Westerners find it hard to understand the role honor and shame play in Middle Eastern cultures. In 2004, US Marine Maj. Gen. James Mattis, then commanding a Marine division, commissioned a paper for his troops to study called, “Marines are from Mars, Iraqis are from Venus.” Here is how the paper described an Iraqi explaining their sense of honor:
Our sense of honor pervades everything we do. This isn’t the Western definition of honor, it’s more like Hispanic honor of machismo. Perception of manhood is vital and in fact it can be a matter of life and death. A man without honor gets no wife, often no work, and in Iraq he may be shunned or even killed by the own family depending on how grave the offense is. Defending honor is part of our cultural heritage. It is the focal point of everything we do and is jealously guarded. Honor means influence and power, our foremost concern. Less power means fewer contracts, less money, less food, angrier families. We must regain lost honor any way we can, even if it means violently attacking the ones who dishonored us.
Here is a real-world example. In 1982, I was a U.S. Army captain attending the Field Artillery Officer Advanced Course at Ft. Sill, Okla. There were a large number of foreign officers attending. The Arab contingent was pretty large, and most of them were Saudis. But in my section there were two Egyptian lieutenant colonels and one major.

The two light colonels and I became good friends. Their names were Solomon and Osman. They were great guys and real party animals, as Muslim men often are when they reach the decadent, non-Islamic West.

Anyway, one day the entire class of 350 or so was taking a tactics exam in an auditorium-type room. We all sat at long, folding tables and opened the exams when told to start. Needless to say, all the U.S. officers had long ago internalized the credo, "An officer does not lie, cheat, steal nor tolerate those who do." Cheating on this or any other assigned work would end a career!

The first section of the test was multiple choice. To my right rear sat all the Saudi officers in a row. Very soon, we all heard a slue of Arabic, followed by a clear enunciation of the letter, "B." A moment later, more Arabic, then "D." Repeat, ending with "A." And so on.

Throughout the test, the Saudis made no attempt to disguise their verbal collaboration. I was irritated and I was not the only one. But we knew nothing would be done about their cheating for political reasons, and besides, foreign officers' scores did not affect our class standing.

A couple of days later I asked Lt. Col. Solomon why the Saudis were so blatant in their cheating. He broke into laughter and replied, "They were not cheating. The Saudi lieutenant colonel fills the role of the sheikh while they are here. The major next to him was reading his answers to all the rest so they could make sure they did not score higher than him on the test. If they did, it would bring great shame to him and would be dishonorable for the junior officer. Very bad problem, that." 

So to be a first-century Jew or Gentile was to live like that. To be a member of, say, the tribe of Benjamin was to be told what your occupation would be, when you could work and when you could not, whom you would marry, where you would live, what you may do and when, how to treat your parents and relatives, how to raise your children, what you must teach them, how you must worship and when and where, how you must dress, what you may eat and when you may eat it, and countless other things.

The very concept of individual liberty was non-existent. If you could go back in time and tell an ordinary Judean that the God-given rights of men and women were the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, no one would have understood you any more than if you had tried to explain  suborbital mechanics or antibiotics.

This was social system into which Jesus was born. And he set about it with a wrecking ball. Consider this passage, Luke 14:1, 7-24:
14 On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath ... . 7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8"When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9 and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, 'Give this person your place,' and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, 'Friend, move up higher'; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."
Jesus's discourse on jockeying for position illuminates the kind of cultural values that Jesus grew up in 2,000 years ago, and which is still found across most of the Middle East today (and, in his renunciation of those values, helps explain why he made such powerful enemies). Cultures of honor and shame are literally foreign to Western minds. Matters of honor and shame have certainly been powerful in Western history, but such concerns have always been tempered and tamped by Jesus's teachings that "all who exalt themselves will be humbled." 

But Jesus refuted those concepts and by so doing he invented individual liberty along three lines of teaching:
1.                Jesus denounced the social system of honor and shame that dominated how people lived and related with each other.
2.                Jesus directly refuted the idea that blood relationships could determine how an individual lived his life.
3.                Jesus insisted that the heart of true religion was not obligations imposed upon a person externally, but was an ethic of love from within.

In an honor-shame system, one’s social standing is determined by how well one conforms to the norms of the group. (Anyone remember their teen-age years?) These are not systems found among today's Jews, whether in Israel or elsewhere. Jesus wasn't denouncing Judaism (duh) but a wider-ranged social order that inhibited righteousness. 

Honor-shame systems work differently for men than for women. For men, the focus is on where you stand in the pecking order. To be in debt to someone else, either financially or in obligation, is shameful. To have others obligated to you is honorable. To accomplish is honorable, but if you take too many steps up the ladder at one time, that is shameful.

How the family and clan are shamed or honored by its members is especially important. Hence the sixth Commandment, “Honor your father and your mother.” To bring shame upon one’s elders was literally to risk death. In Matthew 17, Jesus recounts this accusation against him: “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’” Jesus knew what Deuteronomy 21 says,
If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, ... 20 They shall say to the elders, “This son of ours … is a glutton and a drunkard.” 21 Then all the men of his town are to stone him to death.
People accusing Jesus of drunkenness and gluttony were not being merely contemptuous. They were issuing a death threat. Jesus knew it, but he was undeterred. In Luke 9, Jesus told a man, “Follow me.”
But he said, “Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.” But he said to him, “Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.”
Here Jesus openly committed mutiny against the entire way that Jewish society was organized and understood in that day. This man says he will follow Jesus after his father dies. If his father had already died, he would have been buried within 24 hours and the man would have already been able to follow Jesus. He is not at liberty to do so now because of externally-imposed constraints.

Jesus responds that the man was trapped in the way of death. Leave the way of death behind now, Jesus says, and proclaim the kingdom of God.
Another [man] also said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home.” But Jesus said to him, “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Jesus tells this fellow not even say goodbye to his family. In other words, do not linger in the way things are now, not even to bid it farewell. You can’t plow a furrow backward so don’t even look that way.

That both these conversations took place in the context of family relationships highlights the serious sedition Jesus was mounting against the entire social order of his time. In that day and place, family relationships were absolutely everything. That Jesus was willing to take a chainsaw to the very fundamental way his entire society was organized illuminates how serious he was about a new way of living. At the end of Matthew 12,
While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”   He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
Jesus entirely redefined a fundamental fact about not only the basis of the honor-shame system but the whole society itself: the preeminence of blood relationships. True family would no longer be defined by accident of birth. Who one’s father was of no importance any more – this in network of societies, both Jewish and Gentile, where the words, “Name, son of father’s name” or "name of the house of name" was a common way of referring to oneself.

Henceforth, people were to be members of a family of equals in which there was only one Father, God himself.

Men could gain honor or lose it. Women, however, had nowhere to go but down. A woman’s honor was determined by her sexual status, namely:
  • Was she married? To be a spinster was dishonorable. To be a widow was more unfortunate than dishonorable, though dishonor was attached to it some. 
  • If married or widowed, did she have children? Being childless was dishonorable.
  • Was she chaste before marriage and virtuous after marriage? Sexual purity and fidelity practically defined honor for women, though, as Proverbs 31 explains, to be married with children and to be industrious with a good business sense was the most honorable status of all for a woman.
Jesus kicked this norm down, too. He denounced sexual sin but he denounced also the idea that a woman’s worth was irrevocably damaged by it. So Jesus openly talked with a Samaritan woman of loose morals at a well one day, explaining that he knew all about her highly-checkered past, but that it didn't matter because her future under God’s grace was more important than her past under sin’s grip.

Luke 7 relates when Jesus went to dinner at the home of Simon the Pharisee. A sinful woman of the city, name and occupation unknown, came to Jesus with a jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Simon objected that if Jesus really was a prophet, he would have know what kind of sinful woman she was. Jesus rebuked him and told the woman, “Your sins are forgiven ... go in peace.” This unnamed woman’s status of sinful dishonor was only important to Jesus insofar as it impelled her to come to him for forgiveness and a reset.

Jesus simply rejected the rigid behavioral norms of his day in favor of what the apostle Paul later called “a more excellent way.” Jesus redefined the most basic relationships of his day so that circumstances of birth and relationship could not set one’s worth. Each individual was liberated to control his or her own destiny by relating primarily to God, and through God to everyone else.

Which is to say: there is no greater honor than to be adopted by God and be the brother or sister of Christ. It was not being born that mattered in living, it was being born anew.  Spiritual rebirth supersedes all other arrangements. Hence, in Christ,
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3.28).
These were not merely new teachings, they were positively revolutionary. No one was bound any longer by conferred status; all were liberated by divine endorsement of their inherent worth as beloved of God. Life in Christ brings personal liberation from every kind of spiritual bondage, including but not limited to politics, self-indulgence, selfishness, self-righteousness, entertainment and even religion itself.

Christ has set us free for freedom’s own sake. It is not through religion that we are freed; it is through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We obey the moral commandments of Jewish tradition and the teachings of Jesus, both in order to gain freedom and because we have already been freed.

"It is for freedom that Christ has set us free" (Gal. 5.1): free to love, free to live in joy and peace. Free to be generous in all we have, free to know our worth is God given, not human determined, free to live in ways that please God. We are free to love God and neighbor in the fullest way possible. 

Free at last!
Free at last!
Thank God Almighty,
We’re free at last!

Jesus is served

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