What Price Freedom?
August 22, 2004
Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea, and they went into the Desert of Shur. For three days they traveled in the desert without finding water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink its water, because it was bitter. . . . So the people grumbled against Moses, saying, "What are we to drink?" . . .
The whole Israelite community set out from Elim and came to the Desert of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had come out of Egypt. In the desert the whole congregation grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, "If only we had died by the Lord's hand in Egypt, when we sat around pots of meat and ate our fill of food; but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death."
(Exodus 15:22-24; 16:1-3)
Reading from Swedenborg
Before anything is brought back into order, it is quite normal for it to be brought first into a kind of confusion, a virtual chaos. In this way, things that fit together badly are severed from each other; and when they have been severed, then the Lord arranges them in order. We may compare this with things that happen in nature, where, too, everything may be brought into a kind of confusion before order emerges. Unless there were storms in the atmosphere that scatter inappropriate elements, the air would never become tranquil. Rather, the noxious elements would become concentrated and lethal. In similar fashion, in the human body, unless all elements of the blood, the suitable as well as the unsuitable ones, first constantly flowed together into a single heart time after time and were mixed together there, liquid elements would so coagulate as to threaten life itself, and the particular components would never be distributed for their uses. The same thing happens for us when we are being regenerated. (Arcana Coelestia 842)
The story of the Exodus from Egypt is a particularly powerful one. "Let my people go" has been the watchword of the enslaved, the voice of deep longings for freedom. Strong moral and financial support for the civil rights movement came from Judaism because those words mean so much to Jews. "We were slaves in Egypt, and the Lord brought us out." It was the defining event in their history, the beginning of their nationhood. Passover is New Year's Day and Independence Day rolled into one.
If we follow the biblical story into the succeeding chapters, though, we are faced with an unwelcome reality. Liberation is not followed by immediate entrance into the Promised Land. Liberation leads straight into the wilderness. In the 1940s, when the modem nation of Israel was in the process of formation, one particularly wise Jew offered a thought that I recall only in substance: that Israel would know she was free when she had her own crime statistics. It is much easier to be righteous when we are oppressed than when we have power that we can abuse. In fact, if we follow the biblical story long enough, we find the prophets berating their own people for oppressing the poor, the widows, and the orphans. The enslaved have become the enslavers.
Every generation, it seems, starts off with a vision of how things ought to be. Every generation can see clearly the folly of their elders. Every generation eventually succeeds to power--and becomes those "elders" whose folly is clear to their successors. We start out with the solution and become part of the problem.
This is not to say that there has been no progress. We have come a long way from the times when war was an annual event; when plowshares were beaten into swords and pruning hooks into spears as soon as the crops were planted. We have come a long way from the times when thieves and rebels were nailed on crosses so that people could watch the agony of their death. We have come a long way from the times when a visionary like Paul could write with a perfectly clear conscience, "Slaves, be obedient to your masters" (Ephesians 6:5). We have come so far, in fact, that the condensed concordance in the back of my King James Teacher's Bible does not list that statement under the word "slave." Under "slavery" we find the following explanation:
The N.T. nowhere forbids slavery. But it inculcates principles which must prove fatal to an institution based on a supposed inferiority in individual and social rights. And the modern disappearance of slavery in Christianized countries testifies to the sure working of the N.T. principles.
The point is not that we have made no progress over the centuries, then, but that the progress has been painfully slow. The goal is not nearly as close as it may seem when we stand on the heights of idealism. We are moving inexorably in the direction of greater freedom, but we continue to drag our feet. When we feel controlled, we are acutely sensitive to the injustice. When we are in control, we are afraid of what will happen if we let go.
There is reason for this fear. Our reading from Arcana Coelestia has it exactly right: chaos is required before order can arise. But chaos is scary. People can and do get hurt. The familiar rules don't seem to work, and we react thoughtlessly, out of fear.
This, I would suggest, is the wilderness that lies just beyond liberation. There is a poem by Constantine P. Cafavy called "Waiting for the Barbarians." It tells of the leaders of the city anticipating defeat, dressed in their finest, waiting to surrender to the victorious barbarians, and bewildered when the barbarians do not show up. The poem ends, "Those people were some kind of solution." At least, the poet says, someone will be in charge.
To use a more homely illustration, there is a security to being given a clearly defined job with clear standards of evaluation. Imagine if you went to work day after day and your supervisor kept saying, "I have no idea what needs to be done," and then went home. Being your own boss can be a real burden.
If we turn more directly to the spiritual meaning of our text, we are called to see it as a particular passage in our individual life stories. It comes early in the Bible, so we must expect that it comes early in our lives; and I would propose that the obvious locus for it is the beginning of adolescence, or puberty.
Everything fits. We have prospered by the granaries of Egypt, totally absorbed in learning about the world around us. Late pre-adolescence tends to be a time of stability, a time when our abilities are fruitful and multiply, when at the close of our primary education we are the big kids, the ones who know the score. Joseph has risen to power, and our whole world is supportive.
The first sign of change in the biblical narrative is the statement that a new Pharaoh has arisen, one who does not know Joseph. Almost overnight, it seems, the adolescent begins to perceive authority as controlling rather than as nurturing. As we start to take on our adult forms, we no longer feel like the big people in a small, safe world; we feel like little people in a much bigger world. At the same time, the need grows for us to take charge of our own destiny. For our parents to buy our clothes, to choose what we will wear, is no longer acceptable. Yesterday it was nurturing. Today it is tyrannical. We have to define ourselves.
It is a chaotic time in many ways, and given the very real risks, it is not easy for parents to discern how best to let go. To take a contemporary example, grade school children can see the insanity of cigarette smoking so clearly that they are incapable of believing that they will ever inflict that damage on themselves. But on the other side of the great divide, that very attitude becomes part of the childhood that they are impelled to reject. No adults are going to tell them what they can and cannot do. So, as recent news items are telling us, while the adult smoking statistics improve, the overall statistics remain constant.
It seems as though there has to be a better way, but whatever that better way may be, it cannot avoid the fact that we have to grow up. We have to learn to make decisions for ourselves, and to accept responsibility for the consequences. We cannot go through life letting our parents make our decisions for us--which means that the voice that summons us out of Egypt is, ultimately, the voice of the Lord. If we turn back a few pages in Exodus, we find that the initiative for liberation did not come from the people. It was the voice of the Lord from the burning bush that sent Moses to Pharaoh with the command to "Let my people go."
Negotiating this passage demands all the wisdom we can muster. There has to be a road between too much freedom and too little, but sometimes it seems very narrow, and not at all straight. The one thing we can be sure of is its general direction.
If we look at the world around us, we can see the same thing happening on a far larger scale. The social restraints of past generations are vanishing. It is possible to be regarded as a responsible citizen even if one does not attend church. Unmarried couples are no longer branded as social outcasts. We are being asked to grow up; in doctrinal terms, we are being asked to do good for the love of good, and not for fear of the consequences of transgression.
On an intermediate scale, the same thing is happening in the church. The line between "liberals" and "conservatives" is not all that clear. If we look at the history of our own churches, it soon becomes clear that we are all moving in the same direction. We are just moving at different speeds. The "liberal" position of yesterday is the "conservative" position of today; and all of us are trying to find a pace that we are comfortable with. Only true fundamentalists might be regarded as exceptions; and as they become more and more out of touch with a changing world, their apparent security becomes increasingly beleaguered and difficult to sustain. It seems, incidentally, that the Amish are big into cell phones.
The question of pace is a very real and important one. In the growth of the church as in the growth of individuals, both the need for greater freedom and the risks of harm are real. This means, I would suggest, that the risks need to be evaluated realistically. We cannot afford to be panicked by a sense of urgency or to pander to our longing for comfort. "Charity," we are told, "is acting with prudence, to the end that good may result" (The New Jerusalem #100). Is everything coming up roses, or are all the dire predictions coming true?
When you put it that way, the answer is "Neither." The nice, tidy oversimplifications are simply false, and do us a major disservice. The truth is somewhere to be found in the chaos, in the things that we are being permitted to take apart so that the Lord can put them back together more as they should be. This truth is to be found not by the facile assembly of proof texts from Scripture, but by the deepest and most thoughtful honesty of which we are capable; by a willingness to let circumstances speak their word.
It does seem to be a narrow and sometimes devious path that we are to find. If that thought delivers us from a false sense of certainty, so much the better. Perhaps the one certainty we can trust is embodied in the Lord's words, "If you ask anything in my name, I will do it" (John 14:13), knowing that "name" stands for the quality. If we do our best to act from love of the Lord and the neighbor rather than from love of self and the world, from faith rather than from fear, we may indeed make mistakes, but we will learn from them. It is, after all, mistakes that make us stop and think. When things go smoothly, we rarely find ourselves asking why, so we don't learn very much at all. The old hymn has it right:
We thank thee, too, that all our joy is touched with pain;
That shadows fall on brightest hours, that thorns remain;
So that earth's bliss may be our guide, and not our chain.
O Lord, when everything is falling apart and our life has become a chaos, remind us that these are the birth pains of the new life that you are leading us into. Give us strength to endure, and wisdom to hold onto the good, while leaving behind the bad. Amen.
Rev. Dr. George F. Dole