Christians call Jesus the Redeemer, and he is, but we sometimes forget that biblically, to be redeemed means to be ruled. To be redeemed means more than being brought back from bad circumstances; it means being bought back, transferred from one allegiance to another. There’s no redemption through Jesus without a renunciation of our deepest craving since humankind’s collapse in the Garden of Eden: autonomy. Watch for this pattern in society – and in your own heart! So much of what popular culture demands in the name of freedom is better understood as autonomy, literally, self-law. We want autonomy so bad that we even fantasize about extraordinary beings who can provide and protect it.
So far this century, superhero films have been wildly popular. If we’re into these characters at all, we have our favorites. When my oldest son was eight, after thinking it over, he concluded that superman was a pansy. This is just one of the many reasons I am so proud of my boy. Superman has it all – ridiculous strength; x-ray vision; the ability to fly; a full head of hair. It all comes so easy to him that he’s hard to respect. But no matter what their story or respectability, all superheroes have something in common.
Superheroes are like us, but superior in some way. They excite our imaginations about life just beyond the normal. Their stories make us wonder what it might be like to fly, to run with super speed, or to have a full head of hair well into one’s thirties. But for all their spectacular powers, they all agree to let us rule ourselves, and we love them for it. Superheroes transcend us, but they don’t try to transform us.
We don’t even want our superheroes to be that morally good. The purer they are, the less interested we tend to be. We want some darkness and moral failure in their stories, or we’ll yawn and turn on Dead Pool instead. So far, Captain America has maintained his virtue, but just wait. If audiences start to suspect that Cap’s old-school sense of honor and self-sacrifice is more than just a healthy balance to our “anything goes” era, if they feel threatened that cap is getting too morally pure for his and our own good, writers will make him the biggest meth dealer in the Marvel universe. Admit it: “Cap Breaks Bad” would break all Avenger box office records.
Even Thor, a god who can fly between galaxies, agrees to respect our autonomy. Though earth is full of fools who keep killing each other, he won’t intervene to really restrain them. That’s what his adopted brother Loki wants to do. Loki’s the bad guy, not least because he wants to rule the fools. “Is this not your natural state? To be ruled?” he asks a crowd of terrified Germans as he displays his power. A survivor of the Nazi concentration camp responds by standing defiantly as people around him bow in fear to this new incarnation of Hitler. Then, right when Loki is about to make an example of him, Captain America shows up to save the day.
Notice that in all of these films – though I’ve not seen Deadpool nor do I plan to – any absolute rule over people is immediately equated with evil. And fair enough; Loki would be a lousy god to live under. So was the Reich. So is the United Nations, as Captain America maintains in Civil War. And so are we, as we prove every day. But is being ruled in and of itself bad, or does the badness depend upon the ruler?
In the West, especially in America, we think that not being our own gods is the ultimate evil that needs to be defeated, by slightly supernatural forces if necessary. Thor, Superman, Batman, Captain America – we love the good guys for letting us live like we want to and swooping in for the rescue only when our autonomy gets out of hand. Jesus is not like this.
The Apostle Paul tells a group of Christians in a place called Corinth: “Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God? You are not your own. You have been bought with a price. So honor God with your body.”
The Corinthian Christians didn’t realize fully enough that following Jesus meant walking away from their former way of life, which was filled with all kinds of sexual indulgence. Our sexuality involves some of our deepest and most intense internal drives, so it makes sense that it’s the field of life on which we’ll fight the hardest to have total control. Scores of millions of unborn children have been casualties on one front of this fight, as have moms who are pregnant and scared, having been abandoned by the guy happy to help make a baby, but wanting nothing to do with childcare. Such selfish actions demonstrate how fundamentally entitled we feel to rule ourselves, to be autonomous. We don’t want to renounce our status as gods of our own lives. Paul tells the Corinthians that the risen Savior they worship is a true Savior. He’s a Redeemer. But we don’t naturally want to be redeemed; we just want to be rescued.
We’d rather blunt the edge of biblically-defined redemption and go for something softer, something that allows us to avoid the consequences of autonomy without having to abandon it altogether. We’re striving after a state of godhood in which our sovereignty is so complete, that we have the right to self-define (and therefore dictate the lives of others in relationship to us) and live accordingly. We want and increasingly demand the ability to to do absolutely anything we want to, whenever we want to, to or with anyone we want to, without any unpleasant consequences for any of it. Isn’t this pursuit at least a tiny bit insane?
It’ll never happen; it’s a psychotic pursuit, but that doesn’t stop us from running after it full speed. Now we’ve got the tech to build another world and rule it as its god. In some ways Virtual Reality is just the technological expression of what we’ve been philosophically craving ever since the Fall. But even in a virtual world, reality bites us in the microprocessor. The technology that allows us the most vivid experience of godhood is limited in its power; it’s subject to rules and regulations. If the tech breaks down, so does our bid for deity. Virtual reality still has to reckon with real reality. But sometimes we want to be god so badly that we’re just fine if we end up forgetting the difference between the two. Even if we lose our grip on the way things actually are, though, reality maintains its grip on us.
Unfortunately for our desire for deity, superheroes and the service they render us are fictional, and though we’re increasingly okay with choosing to believe that virtual reality is real, the virtual world remains a ruled world. What’s very real is the global mess which we love to imagine superheroes cleaning up; what’s very real are the personal wrecks in our souls we try to leave behind in the search for another world. There’s just no avoiding it: For human life and the life of the world itself to flourish, certain rules apply. In our lust for autonomy, to be god, we’ve broken them all (James 2:8-11).
Is there ever really a situation in which we’re not ruled by someone else, even when we think we’re calling the shots? Self-rule, autonomy, is a delusion. We are utterly dependent creatures, created to be dependent upon and cared for by a good and loving God, whose law points the way to real, full, freedom in all aspects of life. But we’ve all broken that royal law, and we are way beyond the category of repeat offenders. We need a redeemer who loved God’s law enough to keep it, obeying it himself, suffering the deserved death penalty on behalf of lawbreakers who’d trust in him, and risen to reign not as a superhero, but a sovereign. Jesus frees us from the tyranny of autonomy and its delusional pursuits. He calls us to renounce autonomy, not just rein it in a little.
Jesus understood that autonomy is different from freedom. We confuse those two in the same way we confuse superhero with Savior, rescue with redemption. Though we hate to admit it, freedom demands restraint. But these restraints are conducive to life.
For a rose to bloom, it has to be grounded in good enough soil, receive a good enough amount of rain, and soak up a good enough amount of sunshine. We can’t be reckless and random with a flower and expect it to flourish like it’s meant to. But if the botanical rules, the restraints, are observed, beauty blooms. So it is with humanity.
Read over the ten commandments and imagine a life in which everyone, at all times, kept these commandments, from the heart. The autonomy within us screams that this sounds like hell, but when we take a look at what we tend to complain about in life, injustice, bigotry and betrayal, infidelity and dishonesty – in a word, selfishness – then a humbler revaluation sees these commands as a description of heaven, and the one who kept them perfectly as the perfect king. His rule, which self-aware, freedom-seeking souls crave, makes our souls bloom like spring.
If Jesus the redeemer sets us free, we are free indeed.