Freedom’s Dark Mask

By Chuck Conniry

My daughter, Krystal, and I had a delightful theological conversation the other night. We talked about human freedom in light of Dostoevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor.

The Grand Inquisitor is a story about Christ’s return to earth (to Seville) during the Inquisition. Not to be confused with the glorious Second Coming at the end of time, this was a momentary visit in which Jesus chose to appear “where the fires were crackling under the heretics.” He came quietly, as he had 15 centuries before. Yet the people recognized him at once.

His face exuded divine love and grace. His eyes glowed with infinite understanding, causing the people’s hearts to vibrate with love. He held out his hands and blessed them. Healing power was manifest. The crowds fell down and kissed the ground on which he walked. Children scattered flowers before him, crying, “Hosanna!”

He reached the steps of the cathedral as mourners carried the coffin of a young girl to the church. The mother threw herself down and cried, “If it is truly you, give me back my child!” They set the coffin at his feet. Jesus whispered tenderly, “Talitha cumi.” The little girl sat up in surprise. She looked around and smiled, still clasping the white roses with which she was buried. The people shouted and wept at the sight.

At that moment, the Cardinal appeared on the scene. Just the day before he had burned 100 heretics at the stake. Now it was Jesus’ turn. The Cardinal – the Grand Inquisitor – ordered his guards to arrest Jesus. They cast him into a dark, dank prison cell.

The Grand Inquisitor had watched from a distance as the coffin was placed before Jesus. He saw the little girl rise from the dead … and his eyes grew dark. He knew it was Jesus! But Jesus had given over the keys of the Kingdom 1,500 years ago, and the Cardinal was not about to give them back.

That night the Grand Inquisitor paid Jesus a visit. He stood silently in the shadows for almost two minutes. Then he barked out a startling accusation. Jesus forfeited his claim on human beings when he gave them the freedom to choose. Freedom, said the Grand Inquisitor, is too lofty a goal for such weak and wretched creatures. And when Jesus successfully endured Satan’s threefold temptation in the wilderness, he set the bar of free choice so high that no mortal could ever reach it. In the end, said the Grand Inquisitor, people do not want freedom; they want comfort: “Enslave us, but feed us!” they say.

As Krystal and I pondered this parable, we reflected on the many comforts of life that masquerade as freedoms. Jesus faced the sum of these in the wilderness.

He had both the power and authority to turn stone into bread. At other times he multiplied loaves and fish and fed thousands. But this was different. Satisfying his craving for food under these circumstances would have meant forfeiting the freedom to say no to temptation for a loaf of bread.

Had Jesus thrown himself from the pinnacle of the temple, he could have ordered his angels to save him. But in pulling the divine trump card he would have surrendered the freedom to be as human as he is divine. Yes, Jesus suspended the law of gravity and walked on water, but he welcomed another into the same experience. And the object lesson for Peter in that instance was the same point Jesus made in this instance: in the human condition we are to trust God.

Jesus was already the rightful ruler of the cosmos. Had he opted to worship Satan and travel a cross-less road to glory, he would have given up the freedom to do the hardest-yet-greatest thing that God could ever have done for his beloved creation.

This is freedom’s dark mask: choosing what’s right over what’s easy … over what’s comfortable.

Krystal and I sat back in our thoughts, silently praying that Jesus would help weak and wretched creatures like us prove the Grand Inquisitor wrong.