Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
Philippians 2:5-6 (NRSV)
“We know that there is no help for us but from one another, that no hand will save us if we do not reach out our hand. And the hand that you reach out is empty, as mine is. You have nothing. You possess nothing. You own nothing. You are free.”
Ursula K Le Guin, The Dispossessed
If you are the dealer
I’m out of the game
If you are the healer
It means I’m broken and lame
If thine is the glory then
Mine must be the shame
You want it darker
We kill the flame
Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker
What does it mean to be free? For most of the modern era, our understanding of freedom has been shaped by the world we live in, in which the freedom and power of some was made possible by the enslavement and powerlessness of others.
Just as freedom came to be seen in the West as the highest value and the universal good, the practice of slavery came to be the foundation of Western economies. The modern liberal conception of freedom emerges from the twinned institutions of private property and slavery. To be free is to be someone who is not a slave; to be a person who owns oneself. It is also to be a person who is capable of owning things, including those people who have been turned into property.
Many of the important figures in the struggle for the Enlightenment ideal of freedom for some were perfectly happy with the unfreedom of others. Both democracy and feminism were born out of a world built on the Atlantic slave trade. Our idea of freedom, then, has been deeply shaped by the central role of slavery in the world we inhabit, to the point where sometimes it seems like we wouldn’t know what freedom was if it weren’t for the existence of others who are unfree. In the UK, we celebrate our national identity by singing that Britain shall never be slaves. But the freedom we have is that unlike those who laboured to enrich us, we have the power for self-determination, sovereignty over our own nation and land, and the accumulated wealth of generation after generation of slave traders, imperial rulers, and masters of great estates and households.
The prison industrial complex functions in many ways to continue these practices of unfreedom on which our notion of what it means to be free depend. To hope that prisoners be set free is a challenge to rethink the way we organise society, and to rethink what we mean by “freedom”. The scholar Jared Sexton suggests that we might begin not from the figure of the free, property-owning person, whose freedom relies on power over others, but from the position of the enslaved person, the incarcerated person.
To begin from here is to start not with the scramble for possessions, but from the experience of absolute loss, what he describes as “the landless inhabitation of selfless existence”. Not possession, then, but dispossession: to know that, like God made human, we are nothing, that we have nothing, that we own nothing.
It is to know we have no claim on the world and nothing is owed to us. Jesus was tempted in the desert by Satan, who offered him material goods, power, and rulership over all the nations of the world; he refused in order that he might do instead the will of God.
Let us pray that we will do likewise.
Marika Rose (@marikarose) is senior lecturer in philosophical theology at the University of Winchester. She is a trustee of Greenbelt festival and co-founder of Southampton Radical Reading Group. Her first book, A Theology of Failure: Žižek Against Christian Innocence was published by Fordham University Press in 2019.