Galatians 5:1, 12-15
“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore and do not submit
again to the yoke of slavery.”
“If you continue in my word…you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
Paul’s letter to the Galatians is often called his “epistle of Christian freedom.” There were undoubtedly some freed slaves in the Galatian churches, but Paul had chiefly in mind those Jewish converts to Christ who had been liberated from slavery to religious legalism and intolerance. Paul himself knew all about this slavery because as a strict Pharisee he had persecuted Jewish Christians and even put some to death because they no longer kept all the ritual and dietary requirements of the law. But now, as a follower of Jesus, he had learnt to embrace those who were different from himself and regard them as brothers and sisters, For had not Jesus embraced publicans and sinners, prostitutes and Samaritans, and even had meals with them? So, too, as followers of Jesus, the Galatian Christians had been liberated from slavery to those laws that kept them separate from Gentile believers, laws of social exclusion and ritual purity which also made women inferior. But now, having been set free in Christ, some were squandering their freedom in an attempt to keep themselves pure and righteous in the sight of God. Women, Gentiles and slaves were all being shunned as inferior, unclean and at best, second class citizens in God’s kingdom. So Paul writes to remind them that as followers of Jesus they been set free from slavery to such legalism in order to love others and should not “submit again to the yoke of slavery.”
As a former Pharisee of the strictest kind, Paul knew how precious this freedom was. But he also knew that such freedom did not mean doing what he liked irrespective of others, as though the law did not matter. Legalism as well as the irresponsible use of freedom had the same outcome. The freedom Jesus gave him was the freedom to embrace others as brothers and sisters, rather than exclude them as unclean sinners and enemies. Like Jesus and the prophets before him, Paul knew that whole law was summed up in love for others as well as God.. In Christ, he told the Galatians, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, male or female, slave nor free person, for we are all one.” It was therefore the responsibility of every Christian to protect and nourish their freedom responsibly in love and not abuse it for selfish interests and gain. Freedom from legalism was not licence to do as you please but freedom to love and allow by fear or hatred of the other to determine our relationships.
The attack on the gay night club in Orlando, Florida, and the murder of Jo Cox, the British Labour MP were two awful consequences of hate speech and homophobia in countries where civil liberties are traditionally cherished, but in which uncivil vices are becoming far too prevalent. When the self-proclaimed “land of the free,” becomes the land of the greedy, religious intolerance and hate speech, it is no longer free, no longer the “leader of the free world,” but a land in the grip of fear. When people like Jo Cox’s who live to serve others, speak up for those who are despised and oppressed, oppose unjust policies, are murdered for doing so, something seriously wrong in the state of England. But, of course, such deeds of fear and hatred are happening across the globe with frightening regularity, and we in South Africa are by no means immune to the hate speech and greed that fosters violence as current events painfully demonstrate.
In the midst of this bad news we have been celebrating snippets of good news which gives us hope. When our national cricket team, the Proteas, beat the West Indies decisively last week, the stars of the game were two South African Muslims, Hashim Amla and Imram Tahir. This was something unthinkable not so long ago in apartheid and so-called Christian South Africa. In a world where the fear of Islam has become a political tool in the hands of trumpeting politicians, and where religious intolerance and jingoistic nationalism are on the upturn, this is significant even if only on a small scale. On a larger scale has been the outpouring of support for the LGBT community across the world for those affected by the Orlando massacre and Jo Cox’s murder. People have come to see that homophobia breeds hatred, hatred breeds fear, and fear breeds violence, though too many politicians, preachers and their followers have yet to get the message,
And here on Volmoed last Thursday, June 16, we celebrated the fortieth anniversary of the Soweto Uprising of 1976, an event which, back then, stoked white fears even as it awoke black hopes. Respect and embrace not hatred and exclusion were the order of the day as we celebrated in the chapel and formally launched the VYLTP programme. It was a wonderful time of song, conversation and challenge, of making friends and having fun, of rejecting fear and expressing hope. It was also an expression of confidence in the next generation, the “born frees,” who are learning the true meaning of following Jesus and the importance of the ongoing struggle to ensure that the freedom we have to embrace the other is never surrendered. We still have a very long way to go as a nation as the Tswane riots demonstrated, but we have also come a long way.
As Christians and citizens we have been set free from the bondage that kept us separate on the basis of race and religion, and we should not allow ourselves to be dragged back into the slavery of that fear that feeds hatred. That is why we have to resist and reject racism and xenophobia at every turn whether in the church or the state. So let us take to heart what Jesus said. “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Fear is nurtured by lies; freedom thrives on truth, and for us that truth is embodied in Jesus. That is why we have to continually listen to Jesus’ words. And that is precisely what Paul was telling the Galatians. For only when we truly follow Jesus will we know what is true, and only then will we be free — free from fear, free to seek justice, free to be compassionate, free to love one another.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 23 June 2016