We’ve all seen it; the images and videos on our screen of people gathering to protest at parliament with a rather bewildering array of placards and political messages, supported or lampooned by various Facebook friends and Twitter users.
Inspired by the trucker convoy (I think) that occurred recently in Canada, and protesting the current vaccine requirements (I think) that make up Aotearoa’s current COVID-19 response plan, the group that have gathered in Wellington, and those that support it online, seem united (I think) by one purpose: to make New Zealand more free (I think).
I say ‘I think’ because in all this talk of freedom, I’m beginning to lose track of what it is that some members of our population think of as ‘freedom’ in the first place. It appears to me to have become a somewhat amorphous term, lacking any actual meaning or definition.
More interestingly, and perhaps more pertinent to my current situation, I’ve also seen a fair few Christian friends and acquaintances take to social media in outcry and support of the protestors as police have begun to arrest trespassers.
I can’t help but think of the series of lectures published by German theologian and political dissident Dietrich Bonhoeffer as Creation and Fall. Bonhoeffer delivered these lectures in the winter of 1932, weeks before Adolf Hitler was named Reich Chancellor over Germany at the end of January, 1933. The social and political atmosphere was tense, as students not much younger than the twenty-three year old theologian gathered around to hear Bonhoeffer theologically exposit the first three chapters of Genesis.
In the lectures, Bonhoeffer discusses what it means for humanity to be made in the image of God. He writes, regarding Genesis 1:26-27:
“To say that in humankind God creates God’s own image on earth means that humankind is like the Creator in that it is free. To be sure, it is free only through God’s creation, through the word of God; it is free for the worship of the Creator. For in the language of the Bible freedom is not something that people have for themselves but something they have for others.”1
“No one is free ‘in herself’ or ‘in himself’—free as it were in a vacuum or free in the same way that a person may be musical, intelligent, or blind in herself or in himself … Why? Because freedom is not a quality that can be uncovered; it is not a possession, something to hand, an object; nor is it a form of something to hand; instead it is a relation and nothing else. To be more precise, freedom is a relation between two persons. Being free means ‘being-free-for-the-other’, because I am bound to the other. Only by being in relation with the other am I free.”2
More technically, Bonhoeffer states,
“The creature is free in that one creature exists in relation to another creature, in that one human being is free for another human being. And God created them man and woman. The human being is not alone. Human beings exist in duality, and it is in this dependence on the other that their creatureliness consists.”3
All in all, it seems that the word our parliament ‘freedom’ protestors are looking for is closer to something like ‘autonomy,’ a word which literally means ‘self’ (autos) ‘law’ (nomos)—to have one’s own law. Autonomy, on a strictly definitional plane, refers to the ability for one to decide how they want to live independent of another, to do as one wants.
Now that we’ve cleared up what we mean by ‘freedom’ and ‘autonomy,’ we must ask ourselves: does the latter phrase represent the type of society we want to live in? Indeed, is such an idea even possible?
Almost every asset of public life entangles us in social contracts, enmeshes one into dependence on another. Whether you work for an organisation, pay taxes, attend an educational system, purchase a product, or engage with someone socially—you are enmeshed into a relationship with another. And if one were to govern such a relationship with the rule of autonomy—the idea that I as an individual rule over the other with my own law—what type of life together would this be at all? Autonomy has its place—instances of social oppression or relational abuse spring to mind—but what does it have to say about what it means to live together as a nation?
At a citizenship-level in twenty-first century Aotearoa, I’m more interested in talking about responsibility—what types of responsibilities do we have to our neighbour? How do we live together as citizens who share responsibility for our health, wellbeing, and protection of the vulnerable? And, as the church, what does it mean to follow a God who in divine freedom became a human and went to the cross?
All-in-all, the freedom protest probably won’t stick around. But, perhaps surprisingly, the questions they raise will require ongoing consideration as we continue to make sense of what it means to live as faithful disciples, citizens, neighbours in these times. And for what it’s worth, I’m not sure the answer lies in loudly asserting our ‘freedom’—whether that’s about gathering restrictions, vaccine requirements, and so on. Instead, let us look to Christ crucified for the sake of the world.
Contributor: Andrew Clark-Howard, member of Māngere Baptist Church, adjunct lecturer at Carey Baptist College, and co-president of Baptist Research. He is currently working on a PhD in the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1-3, ed. John W. de Gruchy, trans. Douglas Stephen Bax, DBWE 3 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), 62, emphasis added.
- Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, 62-63.
- Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, 64, emphasis original.