“What will people think?”
We may not have that conscious thought when we communicate, post on social media, or decide what to wear, but let’s be honest, it is always in the back of our minds.
A book, The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, a John Kass article in the Chicago Tribune, and a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, “The Bias Response Team is Watching” by Jillian Kay Melchior, got me thinking about cultural pressure and freedom.
The Invention of Wings, set in South Carolina in the early 1800s, is the story of the relationship between Sarah, the daughter of a wealthy family, and her slave, Handful. They both longed for freedom. Handful desired physical freedom from slavery and Sarah had a passion to learn, to have a career, to make a difference in the world.
It was difficult to read of Handful’s absolute lack of freedom and of the brutal experiences she endured, and it was almost as hard to read of Sarah’s entrapment as a woman who wanted to develop her mind. At one point, Handful says to Sarah, “My body might be a slave, but not my mind. For you, it’s the other way around.”
They both needed courage to find freedom. Handful’s options were to escape or “die trying.” Sarah was subject to the powerful cultural norms of her day, and she had to learn to examine them and develop courage to resist them.
There are people in the world today who will die trying to escape from oppression. In this free country there are still powerful cultural impositions that influence our thoughts, words and actions.
Melchior’s article describes a lawsuit brought by Speech First alleging violations of free speech against the University of Michigan’s Bias Response Team. Melchior writes:
The Bias Response Team is there, ready to investigate and mete out justice. More than 200 American campuses have established similar administrative offices to handle alleged acts of ‘bias’ that violate no law.
Students found responsible for a ‘bias incident’ face discipline, which ranges from training sessions to suspension or expulsion. As for what constitutes bias, that’s vague…The existence of an offended party can be sufficient to prove ‘bias.’
I’m no lawyer, but common sense tells me that the challenge to the Bias Response Team is a solid case.
John Kass’s article describes challenges to freedom of another kind. He writes about the hateful social media reaction to the choice of a prom dress:
Ask Keziah Daum, the Utah teenager who recently had hate poured down upon her for her selection of a prom dress she found in a Salt Lake City vintage store.
Her exquisite dress was a red cheongsam, also called a qipao — a traditional Chinese dress. Daum is not Chinese. And that was her sin.
I wonder how many prom-going girls will ask themselves what will people think? as they choose a prom dress.
Why is freedom under constant attack?
According to the Oxford Dictionary freedom is defined as “The power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants.” Perhaps there are forces that want us to act, speak and think as they want instead of as we want. I think it’s deeper than a “vast right wing conspiracy” or left wing brainwashing.
It is spiritual.
The New Dictionary of Biblical Theology defines freedom as:
Freedom is the state of being free from (or unfettered by) undesirable controls, or restrictions and especially from the state of bondage or slavery. God sets his people free to live in covenant relationship with him. In Scripture freedom is always a qualified concept: God’s people are set free in order that they might serve him…
Israel was enslaved for over 400 years before God, through Moses, brought them to their Promised Land. The exodus can be a freedom finding metaphor for all of us. I was enslaved to approval, fear, comfort, self-gratification, among other things until Jesus Christ brought me to the promised land of freedom.
I still struggle with those temptations, but now I have a chance to overcome them. Before I was a slave to them and didn’t even realize it, but in Jesus Christ I have access to his power to triumph over lies, false freedoms and temptations. It’s a process. It takes time. It is transformation.
Paul, who wrote the verse, “It is for freedom that Christ has set you free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery,” (Galatians 5:1) was frequently arrested, imprisoned, beaten, and harassed out of towns, and yet he was completely free.
Does that sound inconsistent?
His conscience was clear. He followed Jesus and was not bothered by cultural expectations or even physical constraints. He saw every situation as an opportunity to show the grace, love and freedom found in Jesus Christ.
Biblical freedom means that we are free to follow Jesus. He is the only one to which we owe an answer for our thoughts, speech, and actions. That means that no matter what physical limitations are put on us or what cultural pressures we are tempted to fall in line with, we are only accountable to Jesus.
That is far easier said than done, and in my experience it takes a lifetime to work out how to be truly free.
Do you think the biblical definition of freedom is different from what we typically imagine freedom to be? What cultural norms do you follow without thinking?