Cultural Pressure and Finding Freedom


“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?

Photo by David Charles Schuett on Unsplash



9 thoughts on “Cultural Pressure and Finding Freedom

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  1. “Do you think the biblical definition of freedom is different from what we typically imagine freedom to be?”

    We usually think of biblical freedom from our American mindset, but what if we changed places with a Christian held captive in a North Korean or a Chinese prison? Would we still worry about a prom dress or other slights?

    In the book, “The Heavenly Man,” a Chinese pastor tells the story how he prayed to have time alone with the Lord, away from other prisoners. A few days later, he was appointed the job of cleaning out the prison’s sewers. He had to walk naked through sewage up to his armpits. Yet, he counted this time in the sewage as freedom because he could pray and cry out to the Lord without interference from others.

    I hope not to experience the pastor’s type of freedom, but I don’t want to forget it either.

    1. Good point, Larry. We in the USA have a skewed view of freedom when we’re worried about what people think of us and people in North Korea are wondering what they will eat today. I also read The Heavenly Man. It’s been a number of years, but it was an amazing story of God’s power and, you’re right, freedom in the midst of brutality. “I hope not to experience the pastor’s type of freedom, but I don’t want to forget it either.” I agree! Thanks Larry!

  2. I read the Kidd book several years ago. Now I will have to go back and look at it again. I think the prom dress thing is ridiculous. Some people (who seem to congregate on social media) are looking for a target for their righteous indignation. This poor girl happened to be their target this time, but the anger and self-righteousness comes from all political and religious perspectives. It reminds me of Christ’s call for abnegation of self.

    1. This was my second time through Kidd’s book – read it again for a book club – and I don’t know if the culture has significantly changed in the five years since I first read it or if I’m just in a freedom-finding mood, but it really struck me that they were both searching for an honest expression of themselves. They had to find courage, endure pain, and stubbornly insist on their rights to be who they were. To some degree we all must do the same thing. Thanks for your comment, Laurie!

      1. It is so perceptive of you to pick up on all the subtle commonalities between the two women. I like the thought of both of them insisting on being true to themselves.

  3. This one really got me thinking, Judy. I had heard about the prom dress story and was saddened by how complicated what was once simple has now become. It’s frustrating when external forces are pressing down upon us, but as you said, it’s nothing new. It’s spiritual. We live in a fallen world. I am a saved-by-grace sinner who clings to Christ for my freedom. Living that out as He would want? I’m working on that every day. Thank you for thoughtful words.

    1. I’m glad I got you thinking! And I am working on living my salvation out every day as well. Thanks for your comment, Beth.

  4. Judy, excellent post! Cultural bias is slowly eroding the freedom in our daily lives. However, the freedom in Jesus can never erode. How blessed we are to have oue freedom in Jesus!

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