I found this article made me think hard, but it answered something that sometimes bugs me.
Advent, tyranny and freedom
‘Free Thine own from Satan’s tyranny.’ These words come from the much-loved Advent carol, ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’. We sing it most years, and it has always moved me. The Lord Jesus comes to set me free.
Tyranny, though. Doesn’t that sound a little odd? I have the vote, a standard of living and access to medical care that, frankly, would make a medieval despot go green with envy, and that’s not counting the amusements open to me through the Web. Isn’t tyranny to do with oppression: no free speech, poverty and being devalued by whoever rules?
Actually, not quite. Tyranny can take those obviously oppressive forms. But Christian theology at its best has a more nuanced and wider view. At the heart of tyranny lies the idea of lawlessness: a rule or authority that does not properly recognise the laws that should properly confine it.
It arises when someone takes or exercises an authority that doesn’t belong to them – the classic example in our time is a coup d’état against a civilian government by the military. Or it can arise when someone who has a lawful authority uses their power unlawfully, as when a Prime Minister or President proposes laws on subjects which are outside his or her jurisdiction.
Now the reason that matters is that tyranny is not necessarily ‘oppressive’ in the classical sense of displeasing and obviously demeaning those it rules. A tyrant can be very popular indeed among those he or she rules. And in fact tyrants may make strenuous efforts to please and indulge those they rule. A tyrant may manipulate, placate and bribe rather than oppress.
The Roman poet Juvenal lamented the way the people of Rome, around the year AD 100, had come to surrender their responsibilities and power under the old Republic to the emperors: ‘The people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions, and all else, now concerns itself no more, and longs eagerly for just two things – bread and circuses!’
Or put another way, so long as the emperors provide food and entertainment, they are free to rule as they see fit. Food and entertainment. Are you thinking of all those TV shows which entertain us as they depict how we can prepare lobster thermidor at home?
And that, I suspect, illuminates what Christian theology means by the tyranny of Satan. A rule that usurps God’s place by offering us what we would like the truth to be, rather than what the truth is. That, after all, is just how he tempted our common parents in Eden. And in particular he offers us flattery: that we are so important we are entitled to have whatever we want; that we are wise enough to determine our own good; that we can be whatever we want.
Flattery, though, is one of the cruellest forms of oppression. It’s doubly corrupting, because it is both an addictive drug so we crave more of it, and it deafens us to the truth, because truth doesn’t always flatter us. Flattery genuinely degrades and demeans, because the flatterer doesn’t think others are worth being told the truth. But best of all from the flatterer’s point of view, there is the perpetual amusement of seeing the flattered not even aware of what is being done to them, and even welcoming it.
And so not the least of our blessings in being freed from Satan’s tyranny is being freed from his flattery. But, curiously, not everyone wants freedom if it means no flattery and one of the tragedies of Satan’s tyranny is how easy it is to love it.
Rev’d Michael Ovey, PhD, MTh, MA, BCL, BA
Doctrine, Apologetics & Liturgy
Mike believes that the more we know the truth about God, his grace and greatness, the more we love and trust him. His vision is for students at Oak Hill to grow in knowledge and loving trust in this God.
Before coming to Oak Hill, Mike was a civil service lawyer drafting government legislation. He trained at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, and worked as a curate for four years at All Saints, Crowborough, before teaching for three years at Moore Theological College, Sydney. He joined Oak Hill in 1998 and since then has finished a PhD in the field of Trinitarian theology.
He is married to Heather, and they have three children, Charlie, Harry and Anastasia. He remains incurably optimistic about the prospects of Arsenal FC and the England rugby team, solace being provided by the works of PG Wodehouse. Most recent writing includes co-authoring the book, Pierced for our Transgressions (IVP).