Thinking Anew: The populist understanding of freedom is not freedom at all

A tsunami of anger and bitterness is so evident all over the world today

Wilhelmina Tokcumboh “Mina” Smallman hit the headlines in 2013 when she became the Church of England’s first female archdeacon from a black and minority group, an important event for those who value diversity and inclusiveness in the church. A few years later however she was in the news again but this time for all the wrong reasons. On June 7th, 2020, the bodies of two of her adult daughters, Nicole and Bibaa, were discovered, stabbed to death, in parkland in northwest London. The family distress was compounded by the later discovery that two police officers had “dehumanised” the murder victims “for their own amusement” by taking and circulating photos of the dead women where their bodies lay. Danyal Hussein was convicted of their murder and jailed for life.

This shocking story belongs here because of Archdeacon Smallman’s faith and her response to the pain and loss which clearly broke her heart. When asked was her relationship with God tested, she said that she had never had a moment of doubt because faith was the foundation of her life; it helped her cope. The recently released British-Iranian aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe who was held captive in Iran for six years, some of the time in solitary confinement, said the same about her Muslim faith. Archdeacon Smallman said her faith also enabled her to forgive her daughters’ murderer who she referred to as “this young man.” She explained: “It’s not that you feel compassion for him – it is that you don’t carry that anger and frustration within you; you can walk on without having to look back at that person. Anger holds us back – I’m glad that he doesn’t have that power over us.”

Anger was not on her agenda but according to tomorrow’s Gospel reading it was on the minds of two of Jesus’s other disciples. Jesus is bound for Jerusalem when he and his disciples come across a Samaritan village where they are not welcomed, which is not surprising given the hatred Jews and Samaritans had for each other. “They did not receive him,” we are told “because his face was set toward Jerusalem.” James and John are furious and demand action: “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” However, they are rebuked by Jesus who tells them to calm down and move on. And he wasn’t saying that just to be virtuous; he was saying it because it made sense.

Freedom is a buzz word for those in society who object to being told by civil authorities to behave in a certain way in the interests of themselves and others. We saw it in the resistance by some to the Covid restrictions of recent times. We see it too among those in America who in the name of personal freedom prevent effective gun control despite yet another tragic school shooting in which 19 young children and some teachers were murdered in a school in Uvalde, Texas.

In the Epistle reading (Galatians 5) St Paul argues that humankind is trapped in “the flesh” – a condition characterised by “idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions…” The language may sound dated, but the condition seems very familiar when we consider the tsunami of anger and bitterness that is so evident all over the world today.

Paul insists that the populist understanding of freedom is not freedom at all. It is rather a form of constraint, by which we are trapped within a cycle of violence, estrangement and addiction and the only way out of it is, with God’s help, to embrace the fruits of the Spirit – “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control”, the Christian guide to personal and universal peace.

St Francis de Sales explains what is required: “To live according to the Spirit is to think, speak, and act according to the virtues that are in the Spirit and not according to the senses and sentiments which are in the flesh.” GORDON LINNEY