Thinking Anew – The freedom to do what is just
St Paul maintains that knowledge informed by love promotes community where weak and strong are equally valued
Albert Luthuli, a leading figure in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. was president of the African National Congress (ANC) from 1952 until his death in 1967. A committed Christian, he was a lay preacher in the United Congregational Church and, it is said, was the first person outside Europe and the Americas to be awarded a Nobel prize, appropriately in his case for peace. His politics were informed by his faith: “To remain neutral, in a situation where the laws of the land virtually criticised God for having created men of colour, was the sort of thing I could not, as a Christian, tolerate.” He wrote a book entitled Let My People Go – the words taken from that part of the Book of Exodus dealing with the Hebrews’ enslavement in Egypt: “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Go to Pharaoh and speak to him, ‘Thus says the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, ‘Let My people go, that they may serve Me.’”
Tomorrow’s readings visit the relationship between knowledge and freedom. In the epistle, St Paul is unimpressed with the assertion that superior knowledge, the know-all syndrome, means unfettered freedom. For him lived faith means freedom for, not freedom from; that what we say and do affects other people and our duty is not just to ourselves but to the body of Christ. He maintains that knowledge informed by love promotes community where weak and strong are equally valued.
The gospel reading takes up this theme. The scribes had huge influence because of their perceived superior knowledge and the authority it gave them. Jesus often challenged their abuse of power and the way it was used to oppress and exploit people.
The idea that knowing better means being better is not supported by history. The material for this year’s Octave of prayer for Christian Unity was prepared by Christians of the Caribbean churches with an eye to history: “The contemporary Caribbean is deeply marked by the dehumanising project of colonial exploitation. Very regrettably, during five hundred years of colonialism and enslavement, Christian missionary activity in the region . . . was closely tied to this dehumanising system and in many ways rationalised it and reinforced it. Whereas those who brought the Bible to this region used the scriptures to justify their subjugation of a people in bondage, in the hands of the enslaved, it became an inspiration, an assurance that God was on their side, and that God would lead them into freedom.”
There are similar bad memories in Australia where, during President Higgins’s visit last year, we as a nation were challenged about our own past. Linda Burney MP, the first Aboriginal woman to be elected to Australia’s House of Representatives, said that it must be acknowledged that the Irish were among the colonists who committed atrocities against Aboriginal people. “There’s the British, the Scottish, the Irish, all were part of and participated in massacres and many other atrocities against Aboriginal people.”
That makes for uncomfortable reading because we have always seen ourselves as victims of colonialism. We ignore the role our ancestors played in the oppression and exploitation of others in the centuries of European colonial expansion.
Of course, there are economic factors in the migration of people – witness Africa today – but in the colonial era there was a real sense throughout Europe – a Christian continent – that we Christians knew better and therefore were better with the result that other ancient cultures and traditions were devalued and even destroyed.
In Journey for a Soul, Bishop George Appleton reminds us that freedom in Christian thinking can never be self-centred. “Freedom in Christ is not freedom to do what I like, but freedom to be what I am meant to be. It is freedom from all the chains which hold me back from being my true self. It is freedom from all imposed limitations and external pressures. It is to share in Christ’s freedom to do God’s will, and then to help others find a similar freedom.”