No One But Us
Galatians 4.5 He came to redeem those who were under the law ...
Redemption is a central concept in traditional
Christian teaching. It compares in importance to Nirvana in
Buddhism or submission
But there is a problem. Redemption is a term rapidly losing its power
to reach and convince ordinary people.
Jesus and his contemporaries had little or no problem with the idea.
Nor did Paul and the first Christians. It captured what they and everyone
else witnessed in the market square whenever they went to town - the
buying and selling of flesh-and-blood people, ordinary people just like
Slavery was an unquestioned social institution. There is no record that
Jesus ever spoke against it. Nor did Paul (Colossians 3.22) and the author
of the Letter to the Ephesians (6.5). They advise slaves to obey their
masters "as though you were serving Christ".
So used to freedom are many nations today, that most people can barely
imagine what slavery was really like.
First, it was usually for life. Second, a slave was subject to a
master's absolute power - he or she was an instrumentum vocale, a
"speaking tool". By some accounts, most slaves could be anywhere on a
scale between miserable and dead. One possible escape was to buy oneself
out or be bought out by someone else - that is, to be redeemed. Another
was manumissio, a formal act of liberation often used by owners to
get rid of slaves they could no longer afford.
Most of us miss a dreadful irony at the heart of this age-old
We take it as read that redemption would have been welcomed by its
victims. This assumption turns out to be questionable. A free worker was
unlikely to find employment because he or she cost so much more than
a slave. So the apparently generous act of manumissio could result
in poverty and starvation.
More important to us today than understanding and using the ancient
image of redemption, is the realisation that all forms of subjection breed
dependence and immaturity.
Survivors of Nazi concentration camps, for example, describe a strange
but powerful reluctance to leave their hell-hole when liberation came.
Similarly, some criminals re-offend just to return to a familiar, safe
prison routine. Many a battered wife has gone back to a brutalised
existence for similar reasons. And many a tormented husband has preferred
the agonies of verbal and emotional abuse to the challenging isolation of
a bachelor pad.
In a similar way, many discover apparent redemption through Jesus -
only to plunge into other forms of captivity and resulting dependence.
Some accept slavery to the Bible as God's truth manual; some to bishops as
God's dictators; and some even to a dictatorial proletariat, as Christian
communities can turn out to be. Others become dependent on a controlling,
punishing father-figure-God they themselves have invented.
A few recognise that when Jesus "redeems" us, when we embrace
independence, we can go on to grow into maturity.
Redeemed, we are rather like teenagers who leave home for a gap year or
a job. Only we can live life once we have come of age. Only we can use
freedom to make and learn from mistakes - no one but us.