Unix as Gospel

In July, Christian Computing magazine published an online article entitled Linux for Everyman. The article provided a short overview of Linux and its GPL license, and wanted to give reasons why Christians should consider Linux. The author's main application of Linux to Christianity, however, was the suggestion that Christians could use Linux to rehabilitate old computers to give to those who can't afford computers.

While this is certainly a worthwhile use for Linux (check out What can I do with Unix?), several comments on the article on Linux Today pointed out that members of any religion can do this--and should. Even unbelievers can use Linux to rejuvenate old computers and give to the needy. This isn't unique to Christianity.

What is unique to Christianity is the freedom (Jn 8.36) which is paralleled in free Unix. Free Unix has some parallels in the freedom of the gospel. The analogy is imperfect, of course, as all examples and comparisons are. As I write this (early July, 1999), final arguments have been made in the Microsoft antitrust trial. Many have problems with Microsoft's business practices. Many have problems with Microsoft's software. Yet many have found computing freedom in Unix. The following comments refer primarily to free/open source versions of Unix such as FreeBSD and Linux, rather than proprietary versions such as Solaris.

The recent rise of free versions of Unix has caused something of a revolution in the PC world. Linux and FreeBSD teams have shown an idealism which has again become popular in the computer world: selflessness and an eagerness to help others; the desire to share and give quality software; the desire to give power and freedom to computer users.

Free Unix gives computer users a sense of freedom. Users don't have to settle for one company's way of doing business or producing software. Instead, Unix users have choices. Several writers have pointed out parallels between Unix freedom/Microsoft oppression and the Reformation. One article even showed us Linux Torvalds in a monk's robe.

Free Unix is more than reformation, though. It's revolution. The message is so powerful because of the huge contrast between the open source model and the proprietary model of computing.

Proprietary computing is like God's Law. It's closed to your input. God commands and man must obey. Microsoft sets the prices and users must pay. Doubt it? Until very recently it was almost impossible to purchase a PC without Microsoft products installed. Some of Microsoft's past contracts with computer manufacturers required them to pay Microsoft a fee for all PCs shipped, whether they shipped with Microsoft software or not. Manufacturers passed this along to end users, requiring them to pay for Microsoft software when purchasing computers. They had no choice. It was like the unbending, unflexible, inescapable requirements of the Law. As a human being, you are born under the Law's requirements without having any choice in the matter. As a purchaser of a Dell/Gateway/other prebuilt PC, you purchased Microsoft Windows as well, without having any choice in the matter. In the end, God's Law condemns you forever for breaking it. Neither Microsoft nor its software yet has that power, but being stuck in a Windows crash/reboot/Scandisk/repeat cycle for an hour or two can feel like it.

Compare the misery of life under Law to the freedom and joy of life under Gospel. Rather than being slaves to sin and condemned to eternal death, Christians are free. Christ has released them (Ro 8.2). He has removed the burden, the curse of sin and has given life, all freely, all as a gift. That's grace (Eph 2.8-9).

Open source software echoes that concept of grace (imperfectly, of course). Proprietary software makes you pay stiff prices. Open source software is cheap or free. Windows 95 will cost you $90; Linux costs far less--you can pay $30-70 for an "official" boxed set, or $1-2 for a plain CD. Often you can find computer enthusiasts who will simply give you Unix and will help you install and use it too (for example, see the Unix Giveaway List). Proprietary software manufacturers often make you pay for help. In the open source world, help generally costs you nothing. Proprietary software forces you to work as the sofware maker sees fit. Open source software lets you work in a way that suits you. If you don't like the software you're using, something else is probably available. If your operating system doesn't work the way you'd like, you can change it yourself.

Open source software isn't perfect, nor are those who write and use it. Open source software isn't a Christian movement. However, the open source / free Unix movements show ideals which are pale reflections of the ideals of the Gospel: freedom instead of slavery, giving instead of demanding. The Bible warns Christians who have been freed from slavery not to become slaves again (Gal 5.1). Open source software and free Unix offer freedom to computer users. Christians can appreciate that freedom because of the freedom Christ has given them.

In the end, your choice of software and operating system won't get you into heaven or send you to hell. So why is free Unix important for Christian computer users? Unix is important in the same way that the gospel is important--it brings freedom. Unix gives you freedom to use your computer more efficiently, to use your resources more wisely, and not only to rehabilitate old computers for the needy, but even to tell them about Christ and his forgiveness. Linux as an evangelism tool? I've seen worse ideas.

Bible references:

John 8:36 "So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed."

Romans 8:2 ". . . through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death."

Ephesians 2:8 "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-- 9 not by works, so that no one can boast."

Galatians 5:1 "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery."

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