The Gift of Freedom

On the way into work the other day I was listening to the radio playing O Holy Night. This is a great carol, and it’s one I don’t think we really have that much in Britain. At least, I don’t remember singing it more than about once or twice in my youth.

Anyway, the version of the carol on the radio did the first verse, then skipped over the first half of the second verse and picked up again with “Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother/And in His name all oppression shall cease”.

Wonderfully modern, egalitarian and Civil Rights-y, and quite apropos at the present time perhaps, but I kept thinking “that’s not how that verse begins!”

I memorise the words of songs. I just do; it’s not even something I have to expend effort on. The idea that someone might, after 40+ years of singing it, still not know all the words to O Come All Ye Faithful is baffling to me.

O Holy Night isn’t quite as familiar, so I had to think for a moment to recall the rest of Verse 2:

“Truly He taught us to love one another/His love is life, and His Gospel is peace”.

And I started to think “what is so objectionable about that that you felt a need to skip over it and go straight to the breaking of chains?” Bear in mind, this is the Christian station. Of all people they shouldn’t have a problem with the idea of Jesus being part of the Christmas season.

I mean, when I first heard the carol, it was the bit about breaking chains and the slave being our brother that made me uncomfortable and not sure it belonged in a Christmas carol. It called to mind things I’d rather not think about, especially at Christmas time: the bad old days of the early 1800s, the pre-Wilberforce times of the slave trade, Dickensian child labour and debtors’ prisons, the ruthless pre-Shaftesbury industrial capitalism that saw poor people and children as a means of profit. More, the (at the time) barely-grasped American system of colour-based slavery and its associated racism and discrimination, from the same period.

Why on earth would you skip over the apparently innocuous stuff about love and peace to focus on that disturbing morass of past sin?

I don’t know, but I can think of at least a couple of possibilities.

The first is that it’s a political statement. Perhaps, we might guess, sung by someone in the 1960s during the era of the Civil Rights movement when that was the really appropriate part for the times. The breaking of chains, and the fact that “the slave”, ie black people who had been in actual slavery until the Civil War, was indeed “our brother”, which is to say, our equal in every way as white people.

This is an important truth. In these days of debate over racism, justice and oppression in the wake of recent events in New York, it’s one we may need to hear again. No matter the outward packaging of skin pigmentation or its lack, gender, facial features or human circumstances, be you in chains or be you free, be you powerless or a power holder, we are sisters and brothers.

It’s easy as a white male, thus a representative of the fully enfranchised, to say this. It’s another thing entirely to really do it in a way that means it to those on the outside or the margins. We all tend to view life through the lens of our own experience, and since we don’t personally experience any discrimination, it’s all too easy to suppose that it doesn’t exist. Or the other way around. If we’ve experienced discrimination in some way, it’s easy to magnify that up to the scale of a major national crisis involving the entire population of our identity group.

The truth is probably somewhere in between, but let’s not be smug about this. The problem may well be closer to home than we’d like to believe, and it’s our responsibility as representatives of the group that has power to examine ourselves first. Being cruel and unloving is, after all, the natural bent of fallen humanity.

But that’s only one of the reasons I can think of to skip the first half of the verse, and in some ways it’s one that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Loving one another as Jesus taught ought to go hand in hand with the breaking of chains and the ceasing of oppression.

Is it that it mentions the Gospel?

I personally like to maintain that a lot of the US church’s sense of being persecuted is a load of old cobblers. It isn’t persecution to have someone wish you “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas”. It isn’t persecution to have atheists free to buy advertising space to put up billboards alongside the Christian ones telling us how they believe you don’t have to have God in the equation to be a good person. It isn’t persecution when someone makes a joke at your expense as a believer. It’s persecution when people throw stones at your kids or try to drown them in the river because your family trusts in Jesus. It’s persecution when you get fired without just cause from your place of work just because you have a Bible in your own personal vehicle. It’s persecution when you run the risk of being jailed or killed simply because you believe differently to the people around you. This is what people in other parts of the world face on a daily basis. Let’s stop minimising their sufferings by appropriating the word “persecution” for our own light and momentary troubles, ok?

Right, soapbox moment over. Back to topic. What I was trying to say before I interrupted myself was that though we aren’t experiencing anything reasonably definable as persecution, that’s not to say that we might not face opposition. There are people who would like nothing better than to see Christianity removed from the public sphere, and there’s a tendency among ourselves as Christians in some quarters to unilaterally skip over anything that we think might offend someone. “I’m offended” is the siren-song of our time, and often seems to mean “I’ve seen something I didn’t really like” rather than “this is insulting on a personal level”.

I’ve complained about being offended a couple of times, like to the store selling those crooked and broken fake teeth for kids as “British teeth”. This feeds into that popular but bizarre American myth that the land of my birth has really bad dentistry, but it is insulting to my entire nation and there’s no call for it. But I don’t really like to pull the “I’m offended” card; most of the time it feels like it’s my responsibility to suck it up.

Anyway, despite my own qualms it seems easy for some people to claim offence, and there are people, including followers of Jesus, who use the cover of offendedness in order to try and avoid seeing anything that makes them uncomfortable. And unfortunately the attitude is prevalent enough that some of us want to remove the possibility of conflict by glossing over those things we think are likely to offend. Very few of us actually relish the thought of conflict. Better to avoid the likelihood by censoring ourselves, right?

Whether it was censorship or self-censorship (or something else entirely) that axed the reference to the Gospel I don’t know. But the link is a powerful and informative one.

You can’t have the breaking of chains and the slave being our brother without the teaching of Christ to love one another and the Gospel of peace. The one arises from the other.

The New Testament didn’t directly advocate the immediate abolition of the institution of Roman slavery. A persecuted minority faith already believed by the authorities to be seditious has no call to be doing that. But it did sow the seeds of its eventual destruction. If masters and slaves both had the same Master in Christ, then they truly were brothers. The positional inequality under the law would eventually crumble, made nonsensical by a people who ignored its implications to follow the command of Christ to love one another.

Trying to have the breaking of chains and the ceasing of oppression without the Gospel of peace is all very social justicey, but it ends up, if it doesn’t start, depending entirely on human effort in political change through top-down reformation or bottom-up revolution. Not that achieving social justice through political action is or should be anathema to followers of Christ, but that it isn’t separate from the Gospel of peace. Because as terrible as it is and was, there are other chains than the ones of literal slavery. There are all manner of bondages and oppressions in the world, sown liberally like tares by the evil one and all tracing back to that great master bondage of Adam and his race to sin.

Those chains were broken almost 2000 years ago on a Roman instrument of judicial execution. But what of the follow-on corollary, that “the slave is our brother”?

It’s very easy as those who have been set free to think of those still in slavery not as brothers to whom we must go but as enemies that we need to fight. I’m not going to say much more than that right now; I’m just going to leave that out there where we can reflect on it.

The message of Christmas is all about the coming of the Deliverer. My initial misgivings about those lines about slavery and the breaking of chains not really belonging in a Christmas carol were, in fact, wrong. After all, didn’t He come to set us free? All the way free, as in the day of Midian’s defeat (Isaiah 14), doing away with the heavy yoke of oppression and making peace with God and men?

What better context than the songs of His Advent for that sort of idea?

Jesus: God’s gift of freedom.