Karl Barth, possibly the best systematic theologian of the modern era, once remarked that he was embarrassed that anyone would try to be “Barthian.” He commented that any theology that is not ultimately a theology of freedom, is a poor one.
Then, if you hold that comment next to the comments of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and that there is a difference between “freedom from” and “freedom for,” then you realize that we need to have a quick discussion.
It seems as though, in the modern era (or post-modern era), freedom is understood primarily as freedom from. Frequently, this means freedom from systems or rules or expectations or what have you. But the concept of freedom from does not go far enough. Yes, it is important to maintain freedom from oppressive systems or dysfunctional rule, but that is still to leave the emphasis on the self.
On the other hand, freedom for maintains that desire for freedom but gives it a purpose. Freedom for becomes a definition of freedom that is more like a bow and arrow, the starting point for a trajectory beyond itself.
Freedom, if it is to be truly useful, must be understood as freedom for the sake of something else. To live without boundaries or restrictions or rules is not freedom, it is anarchy and/or chaos. But to live a free life for the sake of helping one’s surroundings is a completely different approach. Freedom that allows you to make decisions without repercussions or without any consideration for how those actions will impact those around you is not freedom at all, rather, it is a license to live without a conscience and a failure to recognize how we are all interrelated.
When we hear people say that they want to be free, it is important to hear what they want to be freed from. Not only that, but that can only be a discussion from the bottom to those at the top. It is not for those in seats of authority or power to tell people below how they are burdened. Listening is a crucial aspect of helping others become free. The second task after that is a matter of empowering, to set people free is one thing, but to enable people to thrive and to use their freedom for the betterment of the world is just icing on the cake.
And so, as you take time to think about what it means to be free, ask yourself what prepositions are being inferred? From? For? What about through or in? Freedom is more than a state of being. As I mentioned before, it can be the starting point for a trajectory into a whole new space, a whole new way of being and relating.
Don’t just be free from something…
Be free for something.