In a recent post responding to William Cavanaugh, I said a few things about some current misapplications of the Pauline definition of freedom. True freedom is the freedom to obey God, and no one is truly, ultimately free without that freedom. Amen. A slave who has it is Christ’s freedman, and ought not to worry about his condition of external servitude. But, as the apostle urges, if he has the opportunity to obtain his freedom, he should do so (1 Cor. 7:21-22).
Paul is giving us hierarchy of freedoms, and all of them in their place are important. Notice that Paul is using at least two different definitions of freedom, just as I have been seeking to do. There is absence of constraint, a common sense definition, and there is that good old Augustinian liberation to follow Christ. Paul uses both.
Now say there is a pagan who is exercising his economic freedom down at the local Death Mart. He has a limited amount of money, and he is deciding whether to buy cigarettes, gin, vodka, or pornography with it. Whichever choice he makes, he is going to go home and sin with it. Is he free? Well, in the important sense he is not free because he is not obeying God. But his economic transactions are free (so far as it goes). How is that? They are free, so far as it goes, because no one is pointing a gun at his head, saying, “It has to be the pornography today, champ.”
This is why it is a serious mistake to take Augustine’s definition of freedom all the way down, and this is why we need to define free economic transactions as uncoerced economic transactions.
Flip it around. If those choices between proffered vices are not free, because uncoerced externally, then we have opened the door to coerced virtue. If we cannot have free vice, then we can have coerced virtue — which should be an appalling thought. The only places where we have the authority to require virtuous public behavior would be those places where Scripture clearly requires it — no murder, for example. But in these days when we are seeing the rise of a suffocating nanny state, the extension of Augustine into choices that the Bible does not criminalize is the last thing we need to do.
If a coerced action can be “free” because some theologian situated it in the larger framework of Augustinian liberty (a framework I wholeheartedly embrace in its place), then the door is kicked open to all kinds of hellish practices in the here and now.
This is a point I almost made in my previous post on this subject, but I hesitated because I don’t really deserve to be in the same conversation with a man like Augustine, and I don’t want to say anything that would even look like a disparagement of him. But some of the downstream effects of this kind of application of Augustine’s definition have already been tried in history. The results were not pretty. We think we wouldn’t repeat those gross mistakes because we now (magically) “know better,” but as this whole point is coming up again it is clear that we don’t know better. If it was possible in the medieval period to remove the entrails of a heretic in the hope of giving him a more spiritual and edifying outlook, the question has to be asked — where did that come from? It came from the inability of a certain kind of Christian to distinguish sins from crimes, and no, I am not talking about an Enlightenment distinction. I am talking about sins under the Mosaic code and crimes under the Mosaic code. I am talking about the distinction between sins and crimes in biblical law.
If I come across a man indulging a vice, but it is a vice that the Bible does not criminalize, then I have no business interfering with his liberty to do that, because he is free to choose vodka or gin even if neither is good for his soul, even though I know that he is a slave to his vice. Because if I interfere with his vice (with the argument that doing so doesn’t really disrupt any real freedom, just ask Augustine), then I have not so much dealt with his lust as I have indulged mine. And what is that lust that busypants Christians can’t seem to conquer? It is our besetting sin of wowserism, a sin which is a hothouse in which we nurture the little green shoots of tyranny.