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June 30, 2019

For freedom, Christ has set us free.

St. Paul’s declaration rings loud like bells on Independence Day. Then, in Luke, we face the fact that freedom is no holiday. Christ turns toward Jerusalem, warning would-be followers of emotional pain and physical distress.

For freedom, I use Walker Percy’s definition in his fifth novel, The Second Coming. Will Barrett, the protagonist, remembers the moment a light came on inside his head.

What was my discovery? That I could act. I was free to act . . . to turn right or turn left or sit down on the culvert.[i]

Freedom is power to do either one thing or another. Go right, go left, sit down: your call. Laws are constraints on freedom. To the Galatians, Paul was emphasizing their religious freedom. Faithful Jews had been constrained by divine law to circumcise their newborn males and to abstain from foods including pork and shellfish. Paul declares that life in Christ is free from those particular constraints.

As Americans today we float on a historic rising tide of freedom. In 1689, John Locke’s First Treatise on Government undermined the belief that our natural condition is servitude to kings. Using expert logic step by step, Locke led readers to understand freedom as a birthright. According to Locke, we give it up only to a limited extent when people voluntarily join with others in society, to the benefit of all who join and their descendants. In America, that idea would spark a revolution.

Since then, freedom has by fits and starts expanded over time. At the start, only property-holding white men had the vote. Now, voting is a birthright. A civil war, and the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 19th Amendments to the Constitution, plus the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, accomplished that expansion. After his success in 1965, Martin Luther King kept pushing, now for expanded economic freedom. Dr. King remarked that a black man had finally won the legal right to buy a hamburger in a southern restaurant––now King wanted to make sure that man had some money in his pocket he could buy it with. Fifty years ago this past week, the Stonewall rebellion in New York opened another front in freedom’s expansion.  The world is better now because of it. By “better” I mean more happy and fair. We have pushed, tested, and debated freedom’s limits through our American experiment, with good results.

The great HBO series, John Adams, ends with Adam’s admonition to Americans:

Posterity! You will never know how much it cost the present generation to preserve your freedom! I hope you will make good use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven that I ever took half the pains to preserve it.

Taking the long view, I think Mr. Adams would find a lot to like in posterity’s performance. Rights have expanded, the Nazis were defeated, and fifty years ago next month we made it to the moon. Our most pressing and painful problem at the moment is that desperate people by the tens of thousands would risk everything to live here. Politically, that has had us so tied up in knots that, logistically, we haven’t risen to the challenge, causing tragedy and scandal.

You shall love your neighbor as yourself, Paul writes. Through love become slaves of one another, he says. How do those admonitions apply to immigration policy? That question doesn’t have a simple answer. Should we turn left, turn right, or sit down on the culvert and discuss a compromise? As a voter, I am open to persuasion. As a Christian, the one thing I have to believe is that love must figure strongly in the plan. If it does not, that will give Mr. Adams something to repent of.

St. Paul issues his own warning to posterity against the misuse of freedom. Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence. Along with other problems, Paul refers to enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions. We struggle with the fact that these are forces in democracy. It is as though Paul had been watching cable news.  If . . . you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

Paul frames the problem as a battle between flesh and spirit.

Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh.

You should know that for Paul “flesh” is not a synonym for “body.” We think of quarreling as mental and sorcery as spiritual. Paul thinks of them both as fleshy. For him, “flesh” boils down to selfish.

Misinterpreting Paul, some Christians have come to regard our bodies as unfortunate, if not evil. Thomas Aquinas helps us avoid that mistake. Aquinas saw that God affirms us body, mind, and spirit. We are animals like lions and bighorn sheep. According to C.S. Lewis, devils, who are spirits, find our animal nature disgusting. God, who made it, loves it. Our mental power makes us different than our fellow animals, which can’t follow our thinking. Dogs don’t understand why we are taking them in for shots.

Spiritual powers make an additional difference. (Faith, hope, and love do.) Even many thinking people couldn’t understand why Jesus did the things he did, because his inspiration and aim were more than animal and reasonable. If we will follow him, our inspiration and aim are too.  The Holy Spirit leads us body and mind to higher ground.

In a poem, Dietrich Bonhoeffer named four stages on the road to freedom. The first is discipline. Mind disciplines the body after spirit disciplines the mind. But other words, like feeding and healing, apply. The mind feeds and heals the body after spirit feeds and heals the mind. (Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of you Holy Spirit. We pray that every Sunday.) Jesus taught the crowds and fed the hungry, healed the sick. Through him, the Holy Spirit met the mind and body’s needs.

In faith, Aquinas knew human life as a journey to God. All creatures great and small (lions, dogs and big-horn sheep) are on that journey with us, winding this way and that–right left, left right–, homing on a single destination, God, who is our source and goal. I go to prepare a place for you, Christ promised. That place, the Bible calls the “New Jerusalem.”

And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.[ii]

Arrival in the New Jerusalem is the pursuit of happiness at its final destination. On our journey towards God, from time to time we may have happy moments—bodily, mental or spiritual. Hardly a day goes by without at least a touch of happiness, if only as a memory of better days or dreams of brighter ones to come. But always, on the journey, these unperfected samples come and go, hemmed in by sorrows, vexations, trials.

Foxes have holes, birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.

Bonhoeffer’s poem was titled “Stations on the Road to Freedom.” It was only a draft that he didn’t have time to polish before his execution. He wrote it in a German concentration camp after spending twenty months in Nazi prisons. The four stations were discipline, action, suffering, and death––spiritual discipline: to keep body and mind on the road to higher ground; bodily action: because doing, not just thinking, is required; suffering, which for him meant prison. There, no longer free, he turned the outcome over to the Lord in whom his confidence was strong. He wrote this about death, the final station on the road, calling death in Christ a feast:

Come now, thou greatest of feasts on the journey to freedom eternal; death, cast aside all the burdensome chains, and demolish the walls of our temporal body, the walls of our souls that are blinded, so that at last we may see that which here remains hidden. Freedom, how long we have sought thee in discipline, action, and suffering; dying, we now may behold thee revealed in the Lord.[iii]

When Walker Percy discovered his freedom he acted on four decisions. He gave up the practice of medicine to try his hand at writing novels. He asked the girl he loved to marry him, who said yes. He moved from his home in Mississippi to another southern town where his family’s past wasn’t omnipresent. He took instruction in the Christian faith and was baptized in the Catholic church. He published six novels, including his third one in 1971 that envisions a United States gone haywire because the center didn’t hold. In 1971, there were grounds for that concern. The title is Love in the Ruins: The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World.

The novel shows how well Percy knows this country and its fault lines, and how much he loves it too. Before he wrote it he described it. I have read you his description more than once, cleaned up a little bit for church. As I am sure is obvious, I keep bringing it up because I think he was astute about the fault lines, and because I share his love.

This is Percy:

I have in mind a futuristic novel dealing with the decline and fall of the U.S.; the country rent almost hopelessly between the rural Knothead right and the godless alienated left, worse than the Civil War. Of that and the goodness of God, and of the merriness of living quite anonymously in the suburbs, drinking well, cooking out, attending Mass at the usual silo-and barn, the goodness of Brunswick bowling alleys (the good white maple and plastic balls), coming home of an evening, with the twin rubies of the TV transmitter in the evening sky . . .

Now, cleaning it up for church, he pours a glass or more of sour mash on ice. There is the wife he loves sitting in an armchair reading a magazine, so pretty in the lamplight. The rest I will leave to your imagination. This is, Percy says finishing his description . . .

what we Catholics call the sacramental life. [iv]

From heaven, John Adams would wholeheartedly approve.


[iii] Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer, 486. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 485-6.

[iv] Jay Tolson, ed., The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 129.