|Table Mountain at Sunset, Cape Town, South Africa|
Shot by Paul Cook
The holiday of Easter, and it's close relative, Passover, are really about freedom, right? Jesus said he came to "bring good news to the poor . . . to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind . . . [and] to set free the oppressed". (Luke 4:18-19, GNT). And isn't Passover about the Jewish flight from Egyptian slavery?
In my opinion, it's hard to understand the concept of freedom today; the term has been so distorted. I'll never forget, after the September 11th attacks on the Twin Towers, when George Bush said that the White House was going to eat "Freedom Fries" as opposed to "French Fries" that day. It's hard to imagine more ways to mock the word freedom.
When presidents and western leaders say they're going to take over a country to introduce democracy and freedom, are they really bringing freedom to a people? Or are they bringing a new type of enslavement, and using it as an excuse to take the resources of those countries? I mention this, because once again, the meaning of freedom is clearly muddled today.
Perhaps - we in the West (and in many places around the world), think we're free, because slavery has been abolished. Technically, at least in the United States, humans cannot be the property of another.
Being in South Africa, however, has given me perspective. Enslavement, the abuse of humans, and the painful legacy of subjugation is so clear here.
I've spent close to a month in Cape Town, the political capital of South Africa, and there's no way you could be in Cape Town, without the people reminding you of the abusive system that Apartheid created. Apartheid was the South African version of America's Jim Crow laws. Laws were enacted to promote white dominance over colored and black people. Whites and blacks were separate; but not really. Blacks could still be servants for the whites, and hence share that space - but only if they were servants. But people were not equal, and the laws stifled advancements of colored and black people.
These laws maintained and perpetuated a white power in South Africa - which allowed the prevailing party to loot the resources of the land. Blacks were kicked down, literally and physically, spat on, and called racial epithets to chain them down. For instance, blacks were not allowed to work in certain jobs or even vote. As of April of 1994, Apartheid is technically abolished, but is it really?
Really, Apartheid was the modern and physical manifestation of what it meant to be enslaved and not have freedom. In short, it was cruel and degraded humanity for the benefit and wealth of the few.
And learning about Apartheid made me wonder, even though we're technically free in a place like the United States, are we really free as well? Its perhaps on this trip, I'm beginning to understand better the foundations of enslavement and freedom.
It's even plausible that the Scriptures argues that spiritual enslavement, as opposed to physical enslavement, is the worse of two evils. That's a radical idea, and understandably an abhorrent argument. How could a rich and young prince have it worse than someone in poverty, who is being beat and broken and abused? It's absurd, and one might argue, even trivializing revulsive systems like Apartheid.
But it's clear in Apostle Paul's response that one can experience joy even in the worst of circumstances. When he was in prison in Philippi, he writes: "I thank my God for you every time I think of you; and every time I pray for you all, I pray with joy because of the way in which you have helped me in the work of the gospel from the very first day until now. And so I am sure that God, who began this good work in you, will carry it on until it is finished on the Day of Christ Jesus." (Phil 1:3-6).
To summarize, Paul in prison, gives thanks, experiences joy, and encourages his congregation (from prison) to strive to be better people. Although physically shackled, can there be a better illustration of freedom? I don't know about you - but I'm generally not an encouraging person when I'm suffering. In fact, for those of you who have been reading my blog long enough, know that the Mayor of Baldwin Park threw me into jail for protesting him. Although I thought it a humbling and crucial experience in my life - I can't say that I was nearly as joyful in my response that Paul demonstrated. Paul shows that one has freedom in how one responds to others - no matter how much is going wrong with life. (Notice; he doesn't even blame God, when these things happen. He doesn't even question why God doesn't free him.)
The passage of Scripture reminds me of how Prime Minister de Klerk, the head and power of the South African State had to negotiate with the prisoner Nelson Mandela. I mean, in this moment - who is the one that is really in power? Who is the one that is really in charge? In this moment, who is really slave? Who is really free?
Hence, in the West - like in America - there's an illusion that we're free, when we're really not. I met a privileged guy, recently, who ruined his reputation, his finances, and his relationships, because he was spending all his money on ecstasy and cocaine and marijuana - just because life was just too painful for him to live through sober. He'd rather be, what academics call, "in the zone."
(The phenomenon can often be seen in gambling addicts, who can't leave the slot machine. You'll see that they go into a trance. But what do they sacrifice to get into "this zone" - this artificial taste of freedom and joy? Generally, everything.)
And that begins to beg the real question. Are you in charge of the pleasure (whether it be in the for of gambling, drugs, alcohol, sex, quest for money, or power), or is that desire actually in charge of you? Who controls who? The answer to the question is whether a person can abstain or say no to that pleasure? And if he or she cannot, they are spiritually enslaved, and that harm has a way to seed and grow and root and manifest and control in other people, especially those we care about, like our friends, relatives, and children.
But to think about these problems, only bring despair. Is there even a solution?
Passover and Easter, however, are a reminder that a solution exists to this type of spiritual enslavement. The celebration of these holidays remind us that God is also the God of love and freedom and that through him - freedom is achievable. The Gospels, unlike what prosperity preachers say, never promises us wealth or power or a life of luxury or security or comfort. It does promise us a new life and the freedom that comes with it, if one is willing to admit that he or she needs to die to him or herself and trust that God will raise that person back from the dead.
That is the Christian paradox. In living, there is death. In dying, there is life.
I'm on a sabbatical now, and although many have looked at my journey across the world with envy - but really, it has been a mentally challenging journey. I paid off my student loans to the bank to reclaim my physical freedom. And that, in turn, cleared the way for a trip throughout the world, to learn more about the peoples of this planet and myself and my God, and how it all connects together.
Some times, I still worry about the future and my security, but when I do, I have to remind myself (some times quite often) that I serve the God that created the universe. What's most important is that I trust he knows what I need, and he'll provide for me.
Anyways, those are my thoughts for This Easter.
Happy Easter from the Western Cape of South Africa,