This week we’ll celebrate the 4th of July, one of the most famous days in American freedom. But most of us don’t know that September 19th, 1796 is a date that might be just as important. On that day George Washington published his farewell address, saying that he would not seek the presidency again. This was a crucial moment for the fragile young nation. The first transition of power in a new government is dangerous. There are a lot of first presidents in history who became only presidents, because they refused to give up power. The first transition is where revolutions go wrong and democracies turn into dictatorships. But rather than seeking power for himself, Washington set the tone for the future of the country. He freely chose to relinquish the powers of the presidency, and instead became a common citizen of the country he ruled. He set down the mantle of power. And because he gave up power, he preserved the democracy that ensures our own freedoms.
We think of freedom as the power to choose what we want. You can go to the beach or you can go to the city. You can become a teacher or you can become a nurse. We think having freedom as the power to have unconstrained choices. We talk about bachelor and bachelorette parties as the last days of freedom, even though marriage is an expression of freedom. And so the things that we think limit our freedom are the things that limit our choices—not having enough money or security, not having social power to do what we want, having obligations to each other, living in a society where the law binds us. When money is not a constraint, when your career is not a constraint, when can’t is removed from your vocabulary, you think you’re free. This kind of freedom increases when you have wealth and power. We think of freedom as power. Rarely do we think of freedom as the ability to give up power.
God shows us a different kind of freedom. God is all-powerful, so by our metric God is more free than anyone, but in that freedom God has made choices that set limits on God. When we talk about what God can do, there is nothing God cannot do. But we cannot ignore what God has done. God made a covenant and upholds it. God chooses not to force into obedience, but to lead us into righteousness. And in Jesus, God chose to give up power and take on human weakness. And Jesus continued to choose weakness over power throughout his life. He rejected Satan’s temptations in the wilderness to use power for his own gain or control. He spent his time with poor, unrighteous, and unclean people—tax-collectors, sinners, sexual transgressors, and day laborers—in doing so he gave up the power that comes with righteousness and reputation. He chose to wash his disciples’ feet, giving up the power that comes from being the leader and instead became a servant. God chose weakness over wielding power. This is the pattern with Jesus. Paul sums it up in Philippians – he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave and humbled himself to the point of death on a cross. On the cross, God-in-Jesus suffered the humiliating death of public execution, making himself weak and powerless, united with those who suffer. God is free to do anything, but what God did do is relinquish power and take on weakness and humiliation.
We aggressively guard our freedom to hold and use power. But do we guard our freedom to do as God does? Do we give ourselves the freedom to bend downwards? Do we give ourselves the freedom to give up power? To make ourselves poor and weak to lift someone else up? Are we capable of limiting ourselves to reach someone else, the way God has limited Godself to reach us? What if the things that we think give us more choices – having a lot of money, having a good job, and a great reputation—actually limit our freedom to do what Christ does?
When Washington gave up the presidency, he returned to managing his plantation. Plantation is a euphemism really, we say that so that we could pretend that it’s a quaint little farm instead of what it was. A plantation was a slave labor camp. Washington controlled more than 300 slaves at the time of his return, and every child born there was born into a life of whippings, beatings, and hard labor. It was significantly worse than migrant detention camps that we deplore today. Much has been made of the fact that over the course of his life, Washington’s views on slavery evolved. He became disillusioned by slavery. Still, Washington could not bring himself to free his slaves in his lifetime or to fight for the freedom of others.
Washington’s wealth and power stopped him. Without slaves, the labor camp could not run, and he would bankrupt himself and lose Mt. Vernon, and with it, his status as a wealthy and well-respected Virginian. Structural obligations made it difficult for him to free them legally. Some of the slaves he owned were dower slaves. Freeing the slaves destined for his step-children would make him an outlaw. Politically, Washington was concerned that taking a stance against slavery would split the nation he had fought to build. He didn’t want to give up his life’s work to do a better one. We can pretend that Washington was just a product of his time, but slavery was illegal in Pennsylvania during the time that he was President in Philadelphia. The Washington household rotated their slaves out of state every six months so they would not be emancipated by law.
Ultimately, wealth, status, and legal structure kept Washington from freeing his slaves until after the death of his wife. Even then he freed fewer than half of the slaves they owned. All of the things that seemed to make him free – being a wealthy Virginian at the head of his household, having a remarkable amount of status and influence, living in a society whose laws preserved his own power—constrained him. Because of all that he held on to in the world he was not free to do what was right, even when he wanted to.
What are we holding on to that keeps us from being free to do what God calls us to do? What keeps us from being free like Jesus? A good reputation? A peaceful family? Do our neighborhoods keep us from making friends with people who are different from us? Are we free to do what Jesus asked the rich young man? Are you free to place yourself in solidarity with the oppressed? Are we free to give up our lives for the poor?
Paul tells us that it is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Not to place ourselves in bondage to wealth, power, and status, but to make the choices that Jesus made. Having all power for himself, he chose to give it up, living among us so that we could know him. Having all righteousness, honor, and glory, he chose to take on dishonor, and died accused of blasphemy and treason. He didn’t try to protect it, but gave it all, choosing to make himself low so that he might be one with those who suffer, and lift us up.
Ultimately, the people who have followed him best have kept that freedom. They have not let money, or power, or social norms, or even laws keep them from taking up their cross and following him. They have preserved their freedom to serve, their freedom to bind themselves to God and follow where God leads.
Come to me all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest, he said. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
Ultimately, Christ has set you free. The question is, what are you going to do about it? And how might Christ, and following the way of Christ, choosing to make yourself low, set you free to do those things you dream of?