“The Free State of Jones” And The Cost of Freedom

Freedom has a price to pay, and the cost is most often violence. The new movie, “The Free State of Jones,” clearly presents this harsh reality. The movie is based on the real life story of Newton “Newt” Knight, a farmer who deserted the Confederate army. He took up company and became the leader of other poor white farmers in Jones County, Mississippi. [youtube]

From Confederate Soldier to Robin Hood

The Civil War, like most wars, was about money—those who had it and wanted to preserve it at the expense of the free labor of others. The greed of the South went beyond slavery to include taxation by corrupt Confederate soldiers who stole animals and crops from local farmers, leaving their unprotected women and children with little means to survive.

In addition to the senseless loss of lives, Knight was disturbed by the “Twenty Negro Law.” This law was enacted to exempt the sons of wealthy slave owners from fighting in the war. One white male was exempt from military service for every 20 slaves the plantation owned. This was a classic case of the poor man fighting the rich man’s war. This war was crippling the economy and crippling families.

It is under this backdrop that Knight, a principled, loyal, family man rallied fighters in a form of guerrilla warfare against the Confederacy and became “Robin Hood” to his local community. Once they started to defeat military units and concur territories, Knight and his followers sought the support and affirmation of the Union, but that never officially came.

Therefore, they named their community “The Free State of Jones”, laying ground rules of equally of all people, the right for people to benefit from the fruit of their own labor, and to defend their rights to freedom. Some scholars believe that they officially declared themselves an independent nation.

This is a violent and troubling movie. The life they lived and the battles they fought were to preserve their desire for freedom. Freedom has a price to pay, and the cost is most often violence. Click To Tweet

Newton Knight embodied the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.” Unlike Dr. King’s unwavering nonviolent posture, however, Knight—a devout Baptist who was motivated by scriptures—found freedom the very thing he was willing to kill or be killed for. He discovered that the Free State of Jones was his promised land.

This connection between violence, freedom, and justice is a troubling one. It is the trinity that we like to gloss over, ignore, or tie a nice bow around. There is nothing pretty, no happy endings for warfare—spiritual or physical on this side of Heaven. The wages of all sin is death. Somebody has to pay for our sins. The truth is those sacrifices and payments are what usher us into a better way of life.

Men who were once called boys, slaves, and were illiterate are now respected as men and educated professionals who vote because of the very sacrifices and payments of people like Knight.

Watching this movie caused me to ponder again a question that was posed by faith-rooted organizer and activist, Jamye Wooten, during the Summer Reconciliation Institute at Duke Divinity School last year. It is a question that continues to haunt me:

Is God violent? Is God violent? Click To Tweet

Walking into the Promise Land

The Bible itself is a violent book. I hesitate to write that openly or speak it out loud, but it is true. You only read four chapters before the first murder is recorded. It is not a killing in self-defense or of an unloved stranger. It is a jealous murder of a biological brother—someone who is supposed to be loved and the dearest of friends. Flip over a few chapters and God kills a whole population of people because of their sin. Turn a couple chapters more and God gives a command and makes a promise to his servant Abraham.

Leave your country, and your people and your father’s household
and go to the land I will show you.
I will make you a great nation and I will bless you;
I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse;
And all people on earth will be blessed through you.
Genesis 12:1-3 NIV

For this moment we will consider the first promise of the land. Abraham’s descendants will receive land as a blessing. But what is not mentioned here is that land is already occupied by other people groups. For Abraham’s people to get the land that is promised to them, there will be much bloodshed.

Astute Bible students will know that God is indeed using Abraham’s descendants to bring a righteous judgment on people groups that rejected him for over 400 years (Genesis 15:12-19).

This land was promised, it was the place God predestined for them; but they had to fight in order to possess it. Lest anyone be quick to judge Knight for taking matters into his own hands, we must consider the leader and young soldier, Joshua, who was trained under the tutelage of Moses to lead God’s people into the Promised Land. Joshua was a warrior, and thousands of people died at his command.

God’s command to Joshua was not to wait, pray, or be diplomatic. God’s command was to go and take out every last human being (including men, women, and children) in the land. The command was to be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go (Joshua 1:9).”

Get your supplies ready (Joshua 1:10), go to war! This was God’s act of justice.

New Testament, New Kingdom

And what about love, and grace, and Jesus?

God’s grace is most evident in his revealed love for all his creation. It is true that Jesus laid down his own life because of love (John 15:13). We love him because he first loved us (1 John 4:19). And it is also true that he did not die as an old man in his sleep.

His death was that of a criminal—a bloody, violent, torturous one on a cross where he hung as a spectacle for all to see. And the word of God says that it was the Lord’s will to crush him in this way (Is. 53:10) because somebody has to pay the price for sin as an offering for freedom.

Because of this violent murder, people are able to walk in freedom as an inheritance of God’s promise to Abraham. And all people on earth will be blessed through you.

Because of this action, the value of every human life is affirmed, and we have the ability to live in freedom (no longer slaves to the laws of sin and death, Romans 6:6-8, 18; Romans 8:1-4), and we have the right to reap and sow as we work.

You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus,
for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seeds, and heirs according to the promise.
Galatians 3:26-29

There is no division among God’s people. There is no difference between the humanity of a slave and the humanity of a free person. There is a principle of reciprocity and it is this: we reap what we sow. These are the very principles Newton Knight fought so desperately for, and why his followers considered him a great leader and friend. The signs of the times often determine who we consider heroes or villains, but rarely is that determination clear when we are not looking through a biblical lenses. Our holy and consistent God ultimately determines what is right.

He takes sin, the rejection of his commands, and the oppression of people quite seriously. There is always a price to pay. What is the cost of freedom?

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