The ethic of freedom has become the engine of oppression. At first blush, this seems nonsense. How could the ideal of being free from compulsion, constraint, and restraint become the instrumental cause of force, compulsion, and oppression? Unless we work this out, freedom is a dangerous concept.
Let's start with Jean Jacques Rousseau--one of the more pathetic figures in Western annals. He famously proclaimed that man was born free, but is everywhere in chains. The image is powerful. We know what being in chains means. We have seen dogs on a leash or chained. We have seen them leap forward only to crash to the ground as the chain restrains. Rousseau's idea intuitively conveys the idea of human enslavement; freedom is being released from constraints. But for Rousseau, freedom meant being released from constraints of any sort.
If you were to come into your neighbour's house and he asked you to remove your shoes, Rousseau would have us believe that chains were rattling.
If you complied, you would be enslaved to your neighbour. Being free, according to Rousseau, meant that you could (and should, if you wished) walk through your neighbour's house tramping mud on the carpet with complete disdain of his request. If you complied against your wishes, you would be be in chains. You would not be free.
There is a straight line to be drawn between twentieth century existentialism and Rousseau's idea of freedom. Jean Paul Sartre was once discussing the concept of being free. Very much like Rousseau, the essence of freedom is to have an authentic existence, which means to act in a manner true to oneself. If someone were to be suddenly crossing the road in my path, should I run him down in my car? Is it right to hit him, or avoid him? Which is the genuinely free act? Sartre argued that it mattered not what you did. You could either run him down, or avoid him as long as you were doing what you genuinely wanted--as long as you were being authentic to yourself at that instant.
He is reported as saying: “Man can will nothing unless he has first understood that he must count on no one but himself; that he is alone, abandoned on earth in the midst of his infinite responsibilities, without help, with no other aim than the one he sets himself, with no other destiny than the one he forges for himself on this earth.” Running the guy down or avoiding him is something you alone must decide. That is freedom. Straight from Rousseau.
But this creates an immediate dilemma. Since men are everywhere in chains (living and acting according to customs, conventions, commands, expectations, traditions, directions, and rules of others) who will set them free from this body doomed to slavery? A Redeemer. Someone or something sufficiently powerful and effective to roll back all the chains that shackle us, liberating us from their constraints. Modern Western minds know of only one Redeemer potentially powerful enough to liberate. The state. And like all liberators and redeemers, the Redeemer has the right to command and compel total allegiance: to deny subservience to one's Redeemer is to return again to slavery.
. . . Rousseau did not define freedom as the assertion of rights against the state; freedom meant liberation from the forms and institutions of society--family, church, class, and local community. The state, in fact would be the liberator. By destroying all social ties, the state would release the individual from loyalty to anything except itself. "Each citizen would then be completely independent of all his fellow men," proclaimed Rousseau, "and absolutely dependant upon the state." [Chuck Colson and Nancy Pearcey, How Now Shall We Live (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 1999), p. 171. (Emphasis, authors').]To be both redeemed and free, one has to be completely dependant on someone or something. That is the essence of what it means to be a creature. Dependence is the name of the game. To be free is to be under a yoke. This is what Rousseau understood--and understood profoundly, albeit it wrongly. To be free is to be enslaved. An overlord must first liberate, then command.
This was the first time that the state was actually portrayed as a liberator. For Rousseau, the state "is the agency of emancipation that permits the individual to develop the latent germs of goodness heretofore frustrated by a hostile society." And so was born what one historian calls "the politics of redemption," the idea that politics can be the means not only of creating a better world but of actually transforming human nature, creating "the New Man." (Ibid.)But in this Rousseau was correct: the Redeemer will liberate from slavery, but by right of redemption has the authority to command and control the liberated hereafter. This is precisely what the Scriptures reveal to be the case. Israel was in slavery: God redeemed them from Israel by a mighty hand and with an outstretched arm. Thereafter they were to be in bondage to Him. But--and here is the big qualification--His burden is easy and His yoke is light.
Returning to our example of the fastidious neighbour, the redeemed of the Lord honours the request of the neighbour to remove shoes. He is freed from being enslaved to self. His Redeemer commands him to love his neighbour as if he were himself. The Redeemer has liberated him from the chains of sin to be what he was created (and therefore commanded) to be. He was created and liberated to be a grateful and thankful bondslave of the Creator.
We grant that such notions are highly offensive to modern Western minds. But the alternative is diabolical. We will either be enslaved to the Christ who did all things according to the will of His heavenly Father, or we will be enslaved to the state. One or the other. Choose you this day, said Joshua, whom you will serve. If we do not choose God, we will be forever racked with the dialectic that has riven the West for over three hundred years: wanting to be freed from all constraints, we are left enslaved to the state as our only hope to make it so.
The thus the ethic of freedom has become the engine of oppression.