Freedom Through The Death of Jesus Christ in Galatians: A Nonviolence Reading

Introduction

A. “Freedom” in Galatians 

Paul’s letter to the Galatians is called the “gospel of freedom.”[1] This is supported by Paul’s frequent use of eleutheros and its verbal form (eleven times Gal. 2.4, 3.28, 4.22, 4.23, 4.26, 4.30, 4.31, 5.1, 5.1, 5.13, 5.13), exaireō (Gal. 1.4) and exagorazō (Gal. 3.13, 4.5) to express freedom achieved through the death of Jesus Christ. He also employs doulos and its verbal form (twelve times Gal. 1.10, 2.4, 3.28, 4.1, 4.3, 4.7, 4.8, 4.9, 4.24, 4.25, 5.1, 5.13), sugkleiō (Gal. 3.22, 23) and paidiskēs (Gal. 4.22, 23, 30, 31) to denote the contrasting state, slavery. Freedom is fundamental to the Greeks. As Rengstorf notes, “Greek finds his personal dignity in the fact that he is free.”[2] Freedom is defined in antithesis to slavery. One is free and not a slave. This does not mean that there is no place to service in the Greek society. Slavery refers to service after the manner of a slave, “who not only has no possibility of evading the tasks laid upon him but who also has no right of personal choice, who must rather do what another will have done and refrain from doing what another will not have done.”[3] It is this relation to and in contrast with slavery that defines freedom in the Greek society.

The importance of freedom through the Christ event, for Paul, is evident by the prescript of Galatians. The prescript is unique in the sense that it does not conclude with the liturgical formula of apostolic benediction. In Gal. 1.4 a statement is appended explaining how freedom from the present evil age has been achieved through Jesus’ death. The importance of freedom through the Christ event is obvious not only by the opening of the letter but also by the conclusion of Galatians. The distinctive ending of this letter makes clear that the death of Christ has achieved freedom from the world or the present evil age into the new creation (Gal. 6.14-15). Thus, Galatians opens with a statement on the significance of the death of Jesus Christ in effecting freedom from the present evil age and concludes with a statement on the significance of the death of Jesus Christ in effecting freedom into the new creation. In the main body of the letter Paul delineates the significance of the death of Jesus Christ in enabling freedom for the believers.

The premise of this study is that the reason for Paul’s emphasis on freedom achieved by the Christ event is that the teachers of the “other gospel” instructed Gentile believers in Galatian churches to become full Jews in order to enjoy freedom. Gentile believers were told to become full Jews through circumcision as it was not only correct theologically, but also beneficial politically because they could experience freedom (freedom given by the Roman empire), which Jews enjoyed in the Roman empire. The freedom granted to Jews by the Roman empire was the freedom to live according to the laws of the Torah. The Roman empire protected the freedom of Jews in the face of local opposition. This Jewish freedom instructed by the teachers of the “other gospel” has stirred Paul to deal with the issue of freedom. That is why freedom is the central issue of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Otherwise, why would Paul associate the law with slavery and bondage? Given that the issue of freedom is central in Galatians, the question then arises as to how or in what way Paul claims that freedom has been achieved by the death of Jesus Christ, and thus counters the message of freedom instructed by the teachers of the “other gospel”? Or what is the nature of the freedom achieved by the Christ event? In what way Paul insists that being “under the law” is enslavement and related to the “present evil age”?

As noted above, freedom enjoyed by Jews in the Roman empire was the freedom to live according to the laws of the Torah. This is explicated by the Maccabean movement and a number of documents preserved by Josephus. The documents of Josephus reveal that the Roman government intervened on behalf of Jews in Asia Minor whenever there was local opposition to the Jewish privileges granted by the Roman empire. These Jewish privileges included the right to organize as a community, to administer their own finances, and to order their life according to their ancestral laws. This had a direct implication on the conduct of the zealous Jews. The zealous Jews understood the Torah in the exclusionistic sense, which resulted in building a wall of separation between Jews and Gentiles, by insisting on Jewish particular customs such as circumcision, dietary laws, Sabbath and festivals. This was evident in the Maccabean movement. The exclusionistic interpretation of the Torah prompted the Maccabees to use violence against those regarded as a threat to the freedom of Jews and the existing social order. Thus, living according to the laws of the Torah provided a context to zealous Jews to distort the Torah and use it as a means of violence. This violence was expressed in the exclusion of Gentiles, and persecution and even extermination of those perceived to be violators of the Torah. In other words, the zealotic interpretation of the Torah provided a context to misuse the Torah for violence against those considered to be a threat to Jewish freedom, and to protect the existing social order.

I contend that the freedom, which the teachers of the “other gospel” instructed Gentile believers in Galatian churches, is the same freedom as understood by the Maccabees. This freedom was living according to the social order founded on the zealotic interpretation of the Torah. Paul, before his experience of God’s revelation of God’s son, belonged to this form of Judaism. Its adherents boasted of their exclusionism: “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners” (Gal. 2.15). They belonged to God’s covenant community. They zealously guarded its ritual boundaries, represented by the Jewish distinctive practices such as circumcision, dietary laws, festivals, and Sabbath. This zeal led to violence against those perceived to be a threat to their freedom and social order. The violence against “the lawless” or “sinners” was shown by exclusion, persecution and extermination. Here Jews were using the Torah to provide “both a reading of social relationships and, by virtue of that, their legitimation.”[4] So for them the social order of the Jewish community based on the exclusionistic understanding of the Torah was legitimized by God. As Francois Houtart says, “Any naturalization of unequal social relationships is a source of violence.”[5] Violence is the enslavement of a pervasive lie. It imposes upon people a falsified vision not only of God, but also of everything else.[6] I argue that the death of Jesus Christ has exposed this pervasive lie.

I maintain that the law was used as a means of violence and this violence was expressed in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, exclusion of the Gentiles and persecution of violators of the existing social order. By exposing the social order founded on zealotic interpretation of the law, the Christ event has enabled believers in Christ to withdraw credibility and allegiance to this social order, and transfer to the community of the new creation based on agape love. This is the sense of Paul’s freedom that has been achieved through the death of Jesus Christ.

B. Freedom and Human Condition

Promotion of freedom and democracy is a leading theme of dominant powers in the present day world. The rhetoric of freedom and democracy is used to perpetuate and protect a particular system of freedom and democracy fostered by these powers. Promotion and protection of the system of freedom and democracy are used to justify wars on other sovereign countries and to perpetuate social segregation. For all the propaganda surrounding the promise of freedom and democracy by dominant powers, the fact remains that individuals, communities and nations continue to experience nonfreedom to a greater or lesser extent. “Freedom” and “democracy” have become mere buzzwords as evident in phrases like “free speech”, “free market” and “free world”, which have little to do with freedom. Thus, freedom and democracy have become empty words that dominant powers use to serve their interests. This system of freedom and democracy is jealously guarded and zealously defended by these powers both locally and globally, in order to continue the status quo of powerlessness and subservience of other communities and nations. Dominant powers depend on the continuation of this system on centralized power, and silenced, apathetic and poverty-stricken masses who pose no danger to the status quo.

Commenting on the emergence of the modern world system, Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed says that the modern world system has emerged “through a process of systematic genocidal violence conducted across disparate continents, killing in total thousands of millions of indigenous peoples in Africa, Asia and America.”[7] He further notes that the modern world system “systematically generates genocidal violence against hundreds of millions of people…and systematically finds ways to legitimize this violence as normal, functional, necessary…for us to live, breathe and prosper.”[8] In other words, the dominant culture “mystifies and obscures the systematization and globalization of genocidal violence in the emergence, expansion and consolidation of the modern world system — not only since 1492, but even continuing past 1945 until now.”[9]

However, there is also continuous opposition against the dominant world system and striving for freedom from it. Individuals, communities and nations have undertaken the struggle for freedom from the dominant, exploitative and oppressive system promoted by the dominant powers, be they state powers or religious powers. Some have chosen a way of living that challenged social and political situations of oppression and exploitation. Mahatma Gandhi called on people to take a stance with him of nonviolent active resistance against the oppressive, exploitative and violent domination of the British empire. Martin Luther King Jr. confronted the oppressive and exploitive social order of exclusionism fostered by the dominant system. King demanded freedom for African Americans from the shackles of the evil system. In all these cases freedom has been sought against the prevailing structures or social order that have kept certain nations or groups of people enslaved to dominant powers.

How do dominant powers maintain a social order that is oppressive and exploitative of other communities and nations? To maintain the dominant social order, dominant powers know that people and nations have to be muzzled and rendered powerless. No legal issue arises when dominant powers respond to a challenge to their power, position and prestige, and to their efforts to promote and protect their form of freedom and democracy around the world. Thus, these powers create a culture of fear in the world, and silence any opposition to imposition of their will, authority and system of freedom and democracy. The intellectual rationalization for promotion of this system of freedom and democracy is provided by political pundits and state-controlled media. Propaganda, biased and filtered news, and violent punishment of disobedient individuals or groups or nations are the tools for maintaining the dominant system.

Dominant powers, both locally and globally, not only keep general populace in ignorance of reality with their propaganda and biased information through state-controlled media, but also create a culture of fear through violent punishment of the disobedient. Opponents of the dominant system are portrayed as enemies of freedom and democracy and cause of disorder. Thus, dominant powers not only portray victims as the cause of violence, but also justify their violence against victims. Carina Perelli comments that the culture of fear is “conducive to an extreme individualization and privatization of human beings.”[10] Perelli adds that people try “to isolate themselves from their social environment and emotional attachments in order to attain that state of detachment necessary to ignore the shouts for help and the cries of despair of their neighbors….”[11] Thus, the culture of fear results in the silence of victims, making any opposition powerless and voiceless. The powerlessness and voicelessness of victims of dominant powers may be noticed under the apartheid regime of South Africa. According to the Truth and Reconciliation Report of South Africa, “much of the country’s populace was silent through fear, apathy, (and) indifference….”[12]

The silence of victims of the dominant system is conducive for the narrative of dominant oppressive powers. Teresa Godwin Phelps says, “In that silence, a new…narrative is created by the oppressors. The oppressors symbolically “have the microphone” and construct the dominant story, the master narrative” about the society or nation and its citizens.[13] The narrative of the oppressive powers arises out of the silence of the oppressed. The apartheid regime in South Africa constructed a narrative about the necessity of separation of people based on race, with Europeans as ruling class and the native people as inferior class. Thus, the native people were driven to the margins of society.

Augusto Pinochet, dictator of Chile, constructed a narrative of a critical fight against the forces of communism that threatened to take over the country. He portrayed himself a savior of the western civilization, and so freedom and democracy in Chile. Fight against communism, according to the dictator’s narrative, required draconian measures to ensure safety and security, and freedom and democracy in the nation. Thus, Pinochet justified his dictatorship and cruelty towards opponents of his rule, by depicting the latter as the cause of social disorder, and a threat to freedom and democracy.

Thus, the language of the oppressive dominant power(s) constructs a myth about itself, the victim, and its violence against the victim. This myth “constructs social categories, it gives orders, it persuades us, it justifies, explains, gives reasons, (and) excuses….”[14] The persuasive power of the myth constructed by the oppressive and exploitative powers is expressed by the myth of Jules Harmand, a French advocate of colonialism:

It is necessary, then, to accept as a principle and point of departure the fact that there is a hierarchy of races and civilizations, and that we belong to the superior race and civilization, still recognizing that, while superiority confers rights, it imposes strict obligations in return. The basic legitimation of conquest over native peoples is the conviction of our superiority, not merely our mechanical, economic, and military superiority, but our moral superiority. Our dignity rests on that quality, and it underlies our right to direct the rest of humanity. Material power is nothing but a means to that end.[15]

Therefore, what is at stake is the very meaning of freedom and democracy in the rhetoric of dominant powers. These terms are in crisis. Every kind of violence is being committed in the name of freedom and democracy. They have become hollow words, “a pretty shell, emptied of all content or meaning.”[16] Thus, these terms have become euphemism of dominant powers. Because what has been regarded as freedom by dominant powers is certainly experienced as nonfreedom by other communities, and nations and their citizens.

What is that needed is that the voices of victims–individuals, families, communities and nations–must be heard and acknowledged. These victims must be given space in which they may speak for themselves. The story of victims told by victims must be heard. The poem of Antjie Krog, who reported the painful experiences of victims during the South African Truth Commission, expresses the need to declare the story of victims. Krog writes, “Beloved, do not die. Do not dare die! I, the survivor, wrap you in words so that the future inherits you. I snatch you from the death of forgetfulness. I tell your story, complete your ending – you who once whispered beside me in the dark.”[17]  

C. Goal of the Book

The study, through application of the Theory of Mimetic Violence and Scapegoating, will demonstrate that in Galatians Paul’s message of freedom through the death of Jesus Christ is radically different from the concept of freedom espoused by the teachers of the “other gospel”. It will be argued that the freedom taught by the teachers is nothing but maintaining a social order based on the zealotic interpretation of the Torah, which resulted in the exclusion of Gentiles, and persecution, even extermination, of those perceived to be a threat to their freedom. In other words, the social order based on the zealotic interpretation of the Torah has provided a context to use the law as a means of violence, which was expressed in exclusion, persecution and elimination of those perceived to be a threat to the freedom and social order.

In Galatians, Paul argues that rejection of all forms of violence such as exclusion, persecution and extermination, is intrinsic to the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is the same violence that maintained a social order of exclusionism that crucified Jesus Christ. That is why Jesus was a victim of the “curse of the law.” God’s revelation of Christ, the victim of the “curse of the law”, vindicated the victim. This revelation also disclosed God’s rejection of victimage in any form. It exposed that living according to the social order that promoted exclusionism is not living for God. Thus, rejection of violence that is intrinsic to the gospel of Jesus Christ is a criterion that exposed the intrinsic violence of Judaism. Reception of the gospel of Jesus Christ has enabled believers in Christ to withdraw credibility and allegiance to the social order based on the exclusionistic interpretation of the Torah, and transfer to the community of the new creation. This is the sense of Paul’s freedom that has been achieved through the death of Jesus Christ. It becomes evident, then, that Paul’s gospel of freedom in Christ is a subversive message.

 

 


[1] Warren McWilliams, Free in Christ: The New Testament Understanding of Freedom (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1984), p. 89.

[2] K.H. Rengstorf, “doulos, sundoulos, doulē, douleuō, douleia, douloō, katadouloō, doulagōgeō, ophthalmodoulia,” in TDNT, ed. by G. Kittel and G. Friedrich (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1964-), II. 261.

[3] Rengstorf, “doulos,” II. 261.

 

[4] Francois Houtart, “The Cult of Violence in the Name of Religion: A Panorama,” in Religion as a Source of Violence, ed. by Wim Beuken and Karl-Josef Kuschel (Maryknoll: SCM Press, 1997), p. 4.

[5] Houtart, “The Cult of Violence in the Name of Religion,” p. 4.

[6] Andrew Marr, “Violence and the Kingdom of God: Introducing the Anthropology of Rene Girard,” in AThR 80/4 (Fall 1998), p. 596.

[7] Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, “The Hidden Holocaust: Our Civilizational Crisis, Part 2: Exporting Democracy,” in www.dissidentvoice.org, (December 10, 2007), p. 1.

[8] Ahmed, “The Hidden Holocaust,” p. 10.

[9] Ahmed, “The Hidden Holocaust,” p. 4.

[10] Carina Perelli, “Memoria de Sangre: Fear, Hope and Disenchantment in Argentina,” in Remapping Memory: The Politics of Timespace, ed. by Jonathan Boyarin (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), pp. 43-44.

 

[11] Perelli, “Memoria de Sangre,” p. 44.

[12] Truth and Reconciliation Report of South Africa (1998), Extract 4, Section 138, quoted by Teresa Godwin Phelps, Shattered Voices: Language, Violence, and the Work of Truth Commissions (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), p. 50.

[13] Phelps, Shattered Voices, p. 49.

[14] Truth and Reconciliation Report of South Africa (1998), Extract 4, Paragraph 124, quoted by Phelps, Shattered Voices, p. 49.

[15] Quoted by Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), p. 17.

[16] Arundhati Roy, “Instant-Mix Imperial Democracy: Buy One, Get One Free,” www.countercurrents.org (May18, 2003).

[17] Phelps, Shattered Voices, p. 128.

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