In the 4th chapter of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus announces in his home town that, “today,” the words of the prophet Isaiah have been fulfilled. “To let the oppressed go free” is part of that proclamation.
The first act of setting the oppressed free comes in the next scene, in Capernaum. After Jesus’ unceremonious exit from Nazareth, he goes there and teaches in the synagogue. Following an observation about Jesus’ astonishing authority through his teaching, the narrative turns to the demon-oppressed man in the synagogue, whom, with a word, the Lord sets free.
“To set at liberty those who are oppressed.” In Luke’s gospel, the first person to experience freedom from oppression is a demon-possessed man.*
Thinking of another situation in which Jesus freed someone from demonic affliction – the Gerasene’s Legion – we find in Mark’s account that the man, delivered from demons, is found “in his right mind.” Assuming the same result for this demon-possessed man in Luke whom the Lord set free, he went from the chaos of mental, emotional, spiritual fragmentation to a clear, ordered mind.
There is, in this man’s healing, both a returning and a glimpse of the future when all things will be made new. Either way, in creation or new creation, liberty resides within the bounds of God’s created and creative order. Freedom, then, is a properly bounded freedom, according to which God oversees and orders the creation.
Our late modern notions of freedom are based on individual autonomy within the framework of the laws established by society. In other words, we still have a bounded freedom, but we generally understand that societies through governments, not God, establish those boundaries. Whereas, in the stream of intellectual history associated with the West, we once assumed the involvement of “nature’s God” in the establishment of laws, we no longer do. “Theology” is a word generally relegated to constructions of our very human religious experiences that we then attribute to God and since, as this logic goes, we cannot ultimately know God’s mind, we have to look to human foundations for a just ordering of society.
We therefore have replaced theological foundation with a socio-economic one and tied it to a mainly utilitarian ethic . Our theories about human nature, at least in the present time, rest on purportedly evidence-based knowledge, believing it gets us much closer to reality than theological, “metaphysical” speculation. Late modern, secularized western society has concluded, furthermore, that this approach is more just, because it seems not to privilege any particular religion over any other.
We have thus sought to take from God the authority to order and to chase God from the garden.
Fortunately, because all humans are created in God’s image, whether or not as a society we acknowledge this truth, we can still do much good. We can sense and imagine a just world and work toward it. But, it does seem to me, looking at large trends, we are, in spite of our best efforts to the contrary, lurching toward chaos. This trend shows most clearly among our young people.
A couple of critical examples for my claim:
- It is not an exaggeration to say that a mental health crisis is happening on college campuses. Counseling centers cannot keep up with the demand. Anxiety and depression have been well known problems for a while, but the trend remains upward and other problems have appeared. An American Psychological Association article reveals that 44% of college counseling centers report “severe psychological problems” among their clients. The same survey shows notable increases in eating disorders and self-harm (for example, cutting and, worse, suicidal ideation).
- Similarly, almost half of the counseling centers report a significant increase in the number of students struggling with alcohol abuse. I worry a lot about the amount of alcohol college students consume. Yes, I know(!) that they have “always” gotten drunk, but the amount and the degree are nonetheless deeply disturbing. We have essentially sanctified party life for the college years, rather fatalistically assuming that 18-24 year olds need time to explore and try things out in order to discover (or create) who they are and partying seems to be understood as an inevitable part of the quest. This fatalism is all the more disturbing when looking at the statistics. Generally, of the students who drink (between 60% and 80% of all students), half to two-thirds binge drink.
And binge drinking is dangerous drinking. On average, over 1800 college students die in alcohol-fueled accidents every year. Alcohol is almost always involved in sexual assaults. Think about the enduring heartache, anguish, anger, fear and turmoil left over after these incidents. Less dramatically, cognitive malfunction and academic underperformance is like a low-grade fever infecting students who consume too much alcohol.
Dare we think about eating disorders and various acts of self-harm in light of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ freeing the demon-possessed? Once again the Gerasene. What was one of his behaviors? He cut himself with stones. (Mark 5:5) Dare we think about the chaotic behavior associated with binge drinking? We need to think about this.
A reductively socio-economic understanding of freedom is not freedom. Autonomy is not freedom. We are lying to our children when we tell them it is. Freedom will always be bounded. Jesus Christ came to let the oppressed go free, not by cutting them loose, but by returning them to the creative order established, guided and governed by the One he called Father. We who claim to be Jesus’ followers dare not lose sight of this truth.
- I acknowledge that this man’s condition as described in Luke is most likely tied to the other kinds of politico-socio-economic oppression taking place.