Americans are used to thinking of ourselves as free people. Like the Jewish descendants of Abraham in John’s gospel, we often share a selective memory about our past and a selective awareness about our present.
It is a strange thing these descendants of Abraham say to Jesus in the midst of these passages: “We have never been slaves to anyone.” The very opening of the Ten Commandments belies the claim. God’s deliverance from slavery is the foundation of Israel’s testimony and Torah. Extending the benefit of the doubt, perhaps this “we” is not meant as a general reference to a people. Perhaps it is a specific reference to the speakers themselves. Such a reading is possible. Yet even so, Jesus’ listeners live in an occupied country, controlled by puppet governors and a Roman military. This is freedom?
In his “I Have a Dream” speech, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. uses the metaphor of a promissory note come due to describe the United States’ founding principles. The metaphor underlines the discrepancy between our nation’s claims of who we are and the reality of our lives together. It reminds us that this “land of the free” accommodated and coddled the institution of slavery for nearly 250 years, and afterward turned a blind eye to the violence of Jim Crowe and segregation.
The tragedy of this history is not simply the tragedy of black Americans. It is the tragedy of all Americans. Those who enslave others are slaves of a different sort. In Jesus’ words, “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (v. 34). Sin’s enslavement not only limits our actions for good. It blinds our eyes. It creates an inability and unwillingness to acknowledge the truth that would save us.
For Jesus’ listeners, the first step in acknowledging the truth that would save them is recognizing that they are not as free as they think they are. They have become so accustomed to slavery – in their hearts and in their social contracts – that they no longer feel a hunger for the freedom Christ offers. In fact, his truth feels threatening.
One wonders what we don’t see in our “freedoms” today. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a key provision in the Voting Rights Act because it argued that such measures were no longer needed. Three years later, new voter ID laws in North Carolina were struck down when a federal judge discovered that lawmakers crafted the laws using data on racial differences in voting behaviors. The laws had been crafted “with surgical precision” to disenfranchise African-American voters.1
Racial prejudice and a corrupting hunger for political power infect national institutions in ways we are often unaware – which is all the more reason for faithful Christians to leave hubris behind. We are less free than we think we are. When our worship liturgies ask God to save us from sin’s slavery, it is not just a personal prayer. It is a social, national, global prayer. It is a prayer that refuses to place its trust in selective visions of heritage or holiness, but rather, places its trust in the One who ransoms sinners. Will we allow Christ’s truth to make us “free indeed” (v.36)?
Christopher Ingraham, “The ‘smoking gun’ proving that North Carolina Republicans tried to disenfranchise black voters,” The Washington Post, July 29, 2016, accessed April 24, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/07/29/the-smoking-gun-proving-north-carolina-republicans-tried-to-disenfranchise-black-voters/?utm_term=.9e161b8fab93. ↩