Published by Worldview Publications
Prolepsis 1994.2 

The Freedom of Personhood

Interpretive Review

Orlando Patterson, Freedom: Freedom in the Making of Western Culture (New York: Basic Books, 1991).1

Dr. Orlando Patterson, author of Freedom: Freedom in the Making of Western Culture, is a distinguished sociologist and scholar at Harvard University. As a young man in Jamaica, he pondered the origin and meaning of slavery. Since his groundbreaking work Slavery and Social Death, he has sought to uncover “the intimate relationship between the birth of freedom in primitive societies and the institution of slavery.” In his book Freedom: Freedom in the Making of Western Culture, “he demonstrates the connection between the debased condition of foreigners, prisoners of war, and women, proving that women, both as domestic slaves and as spoils of war, were the first to articulate the cry for personal liberty.”2

Orlando Patterson shows that freedom eventually emerged as the “supreme value of the Western world.”3 As early as the seventh century BCE, the Greeks began exploring the dimensions of freedom. These Grecian ideas were subsequently adopted by the Romans and widely applied throughout the Roman Empire.

Three Dimensions of Freedom

1. Sovereignal Freedom.

Originally, freedom meant the right of the sovereign to dominate and control his subjects, including enslaving or even killing them if he chose. Freedom also came to mean the right of the sovereign to redeem or release his subjects from slavery and the threat of death. “Sovereignal freedom . . . is simply the power to act as one pleases, regardless of the wishes of others.”4

2. Personal Freedom.

This meant the possibility that slaves could be redeemed, manumitted5 or released to take their place in society as freedmen. “Personal freedom . . . gives a person the sense that one, on the one hand, is not being coerced or restrained by another person in doing something desired and, on the other hand, the conviction that one can do as one pleases within the limits of another person’s desire to do the same.”6

3. Civic or Participatory Freedom.

This meant that freedmen had a legitimate role in the governance of the community. “Civic freedom is the capacity of adult members of a community to participate in its life and governance.”7

It was in this historical framework and against this background that the Christ event occurred. Jesus used slavery and freedom as the ultimate metaphor to define his intervention in the history of mankind.

Law and Freedom

In order to better understand the Christ event in the context of slavery and freedom, we need to return to Creation. When life emerged in the universe from God’s creative word, he placed all living creatures under the protective boundaries of instinctual laws. These instinctual laws assured the survival of life and of living forms in their respective environments. Among these instincts is the principle that many life-forms, including animals, exist at the expense of plants and other animals. This is known as the “food chain.” Like many lower life-forms, man (male and female) exists at the expense of other creatures. In fact, man by nature has been one of the most predatory of all creatures. From the beginning man has hunted or cultivated other living things to supply his own needs. No other living creature is so possessive, territorial, power-hungry and even violently predacious as man. Man is the king of predation.

Then, about the third millennium BCE, God intervened to take this supremely predacious being, guided by instinctual principles, and grant him an early form of awareness or consciousness. This consciousness required the development of words, language and writing. God then gave man explicit laws designed to move mankind beyond his predatory, instinctual nature. These laws placed boundaries on man’s instinctual behavior, on what mankind should and should not do (“Thou shalt” and “Thou shalt not” — see Exodus 20:1-17). Furthermore, these laws were designed to assure mankind that God himself was present with them in history through the medium (mediation) of law. This was repeatedly emphasized by the prophets.8

However, although “holy and just and good” (Romans 7:12, RSV), law stood as an impersonal mediator between God and man and between man and man. Therefore, man’s emerging awareness of law also conveyed a consciousness of separation and alienation from God and from one another. This consciousness filled mankind with terror — the terror of history. For the first time man knew that he was enslaved. Man knew that he was bound to law and destined to die.

Faced with this consciousness, man tried to escape from history, from his sense of alienation and separation. Religion (re-, back + ligare, to bind, bind together) was intended “to bind back” — to reunite mankind with God and with each other. Various rituals, incantations and ceremonies were designed to deliver man from the terror of present history, either by returning him to the (preconscious) beginning and his presumed union with God at Creation, or by forwarding him to the end and a hoped-for “eschatological” union with God in the future. Man also fought to escape his own conscious alienation, enslavement and destiny by projecting them upon other members of mankind. As a recent example, in 1971 Gonville French-Beytagh, then Anglican Dean of Johannesburg, South Africa, was arrested, tried and convicted for his undiscriminating Christian charity. His interrogators — all good Dutch Reformed Protestant Christians — defended apartheid by quoting the Levitical prohibition of bestiality (Leviticus 18:23). French-Beytagh realized with a shock that

apartheid went far deeper than an economic and political denial of human rights and dignity. It was an attempt to split off all the “black” animal part of our nature, with the fears and hatred and sexual drives which we dare not acknowledge even to ourselves, and thrust it into a race whose skin happened to be “dark.” . . . I had had no idea of the depths of this fear and envy of “blackness.” . . . I suddenly saw what apartheid was in fact all about.9

Tragically, mankind has scarcely understood or heeded either the words of the prophets or the condescension of God himself, which were designed to redeem man from his alienation, terror and bondage. The fact is that in the fullness of time, when the concept of human freedom had become widely known and firmly established in the Roman Empire, God came to earth as the Incarnate One (Galatians 4:4).

Christ and Freedom

In one respect the historical Christ lived outside and above the boundaries of law. As the Master, he exercised his sovereignal freedom. Contrary to commonly understood law, he declared, “I AM . . . ” (YHWH, Ultimate Being).10 Contrary to such law, he forgave sins, healed the sick, tamed the elements, and raised the dead. By these words and acts, he introduced “contingency” into the universe — a universe that is not determined but open to infinite possibilities. No longer did mankind “have” to remain sick, suffer, or die. In Christ, man now had a choice. Man therefore had freedom.

In another respect the historical Christ submitted himself to the rule, obligations and consequences of law. He became the Bondman, the Slave. He had nowhere to lay his head. He was rejected, tormented and abandoned by his fellow men. Under the rule of law, he was finally tried, tortured, and sentenced to death, even death on a cross.

In still another respect the historical Christ lived as the Eschatological Prophet. He lived to proclaim the imminent coming of the “kingdom of God” and the continual mediatorial presence of God himself with all mankind. He said, “ . . . I am with you alway[s], even unto the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20, KJV).

By his death and resurrection into history, Jesus Christ inaugurated a new world order. In this order the Risen One supersedes the mediation of law. God himself is now mediatorially present with mankind in history. Therefore, history need no longer hold its terror for man. Because the Risen Christ is Mediator, mankind is no longer condemned to instinctual predation and, finally, death. Man is no longer kept “at arm’s length” through the impersonal mediation of law. Neither need man any longer harbor the delusion of autonomy — the delusion that he is self-contained and must “make himself” in history. Man now has the new contingency, the new choice, the new personal freedom and responsibility to embrace truth, faith, hope, love, life. This new contingency is found alone in the Person of the Risen Christ. The Risen Christ is present in history. He is with us always and everywhere. He alone is our Truth, our Freedom, our Faith, Hope and Love. There is no truth, freedom, faith, hope, love — and thus no true personhood — without him.

In view of this, we now can anticipate the end of our instinctual predation. In faith we can anticipate the end of our legal limitations, our pretensions to being autonomous (self-contained). We now can begin to live as relationally human. We can live in and with the faith, hope and love of the Person of Christ in history. We no longer need to be slaves or servants. Invasion, harassment, violence, deprivation and death no longer need to hold their terror for us either as individuals or as a community. We do not live in a predetermined, predestined universe that necessarily excludes contingency, choice and personal freedom. Rather, we are free to live now and forever in a universe of infinite possibilities. However, these contingencies, choices and freedoms are ours only through the mediatorial presence of the Risen Christ. He alone can mediate the universal “I–thou” human relationships of mankind.11


Man first creatively emerged as a predacious animal primate governed by instincts that enabled him to survive as a species in particular earthly environments. With the creative emergence of consciousness, God gave man laws designed to place boundaries on his predation, to open him to the world, and to enable mankind to live with one another.

However, in the conscious presence of law as an impersonal mediator between God and man and between man and man, mankind perceived a sense of separation and alienation from God and man and a terrifying consciousness that his destiny was death. As part of his reaction to this new and terrifying consciousness, man made efforts through religion to reunite himself to God and man. Also, as part of his reaction to the terror of history, man began to project his fears, instincts and drives upon others. This led to violence, war and slavery. More recently, man has sought to declare himself independent of law, autonomous (self-contained), and “free” to “make himself” in history according to his own “instincts.”

However, God himself has acted in history as Master, as Slave, as Eschatological Prophet. Furthermore, in his resurrection God has created in his own Personhood new contingencies, new choices and, therefore, new freedoms and responsibilities for all mankind. Man is now personally free through Christ to choose life rather than death, faith rather than distrust, hope rather than despair, love rather than hatred, freedom rather than bondage. Thus, we now have freedom in history through the mediatorial presence of the Risen Christ.


  1. Orlando Patterson, Freedom: Freedom in the Making of Western Culture, is available from Barnes & Noble at (go back)
  2. Orlando Patterson, Freedom: Freedom in the Making of Western Culture (New York: Basic Books, 1991), book jacket. (go back)
  3. Ibid., p. ix. (go back)
  4. Ibid., pp. 3, 4. (go back)
  5. A term meaning to free from slavery or bondage, emancipate. (go back)
  6. Patterson, Freedom, p. 3. (go back)
  7. Ibid., p. 4. (go back)
  8. See Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return, or Cosmos and History, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1954), p. 104. (go back)
  9. Quoted in Miss Margaret Dewey, “Episcopal Retreat: Transcript of Third Meditation” (n.d.), p. 5. (go back)
  10. See John 6:35, cf. vv. 41, 48, 51; 8:12, 18, 23, 28; 9:5, 39; 10:7, cf. v. 9; 10:11, cf. v. 14; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1, cf. v. 5; 18:6, cf. vv. 8, 37; Revelation 1:8, cf. vv. 11, 17, 21:6, 22:13; 1:18; cf. Exodus 3:14. (go back)
  11. See “Incarnation and Parousia — Ultimate ‘I,’ Ultimate ‘Thou,’” Outlook (Prequel 1991.6); Martin Buber, I and Thou (1923). Martin Buber, I and Thou, tr. Walter Kaufman, is available from Barnes & Noble at (go back)

This article was originally published March 1994 under the Quest imprint.

Copyright © 1994 Worldview Publications