The Purpose of Freedom
Our public discourse today is saturated with the word “freedom”, but the more the word is used, the less meaning it seems to convey.
For many in our culture, the concept of freedom is only understood in a negative way. Freedom is the unbinding of any authority over us. It is freedom from. Patrick Henry’s famous dictum, “Give me liberty or give me death” would be the mantra of this crowd. In this view, any degree of authority over an individual is deemed oppression and any civil power is called “tyranny.” Thus, the primary goal of life and citizenship is to rid oneself of as many constraints as possible to live a full, actualized life as an individual, liberated from the restrictions of the group.
This notion of freedom, which has been around forever I guess, became mainstream a few years ago with the rise of the Tea Party Movement, decrying the overreach of big government and idolizing individual rights. The good for the many was subjugated to the good for the individual. This political ideology is born of individualism, nurtured by the thought of Ayn Rand, and, when taken to the extreme, leads to nihilism. If the greatest good is my own personal freedom, what hinders me from doing anything to anyone for any reason other than the sheer fact that my freedom says I can?
Just last week, I saw a photo of a large tanker truck towing a massive tank of oxygen to a hospital for the second straight day for patients struggling with COVID-19. And for the second straight day, the truck had to navigate its way through crowds of anti-vaccination protestors. What is that scene, if not a clear exhibition of nihilism? People are- quite literally- protesting what would save their lives and cheering their own death, all in the name of liberation from an overreaching government that is advocating for nothing more than our safety from a deadly pandemic.
In the last Arkansas legislative session, legislators passed a bill which forbade school districts, as state-funded entities, from mandating masks, the most minor of inconveniences when facing a global pandemic. In a grand ironic twist, legislators who decry the overreach of big government mandated to duly elected school boards what they could and couldn’t do in the name of keeping safe the children in their care (who are the only citizens of this country yet to be eligible for the vaccine). Clearly, big government is only big government when the other side is making the decision.
However, amidst these political notions of freedom, the Christian tradition offers an alternative understanding of freedom. It is not so much a negative freedom as a positive freedom; not so much a freedom from as a freedom for. The Christian tradition invites us to ponder the purpose of our freedom, not just the freedom of our freedom. Is freedom an end in and of itself or should it be placed in service to a higher virtue still? Christianity ties our freedom to love, compassion, wisdom, and the common good.
If a person refuses to abide by the safety protocols of a skydiving expedition in the name of “proving their freedom,” and jumps out of an airplane without a parachute, is that person fully free? No, they are dead, and you can’t be less free than dead. If a person puts their foot down in the name of freedom and ignores the warnings of a government-sanctioned and tax-funded red-light, is that person free? No, they are a danger to themselves and anyone in proximity to them. If a person refuses to abide by conservation laws that prohibit them from dumping their cow manure into a river, which then impacts everyone downstream from them, is that person free? No, they are selfish because they refuse to care for the flourishing of their neighbors.
Freedom that cares nothing about the purpose and responsibility of that freedom is simply moral adolescence, not freedom. Most people I know teach their children to serve, love, and respect others as moral goods, but then we, as a collective people, pass policies in the name of “freedom” that esteem and encourage the exact opposite. Our freedom has become untethered to love, wisdom, respect, and reverence for the common good. It is freedom for nothing more than freedom’s sake, and, in the end, it deifies the self, dehumanizes the neighbor, and destroys the common good.
And that political ideology works until it doesn’t. It works until individual rights collide with one another and must be negotiated. Even more so, it works until life reveals to us that we are not individuals, separated from one another. We are inseparable from each other. Our good and our harm are mutually intertwined. My freedom and your freedom are “inextricably linked,” to borrow a phrase from Martin Luther King Jr. I don’t own air or rivers or public health or public spaces. That belongs to ALL of us. Illimitable individualism fails us, not because it isn’t politically expedient, but because it is existentially untrue. Good political theory can’t spring from faulty anthropology. Our lives bleed into each other, oftentimes quite literally.
This is why our external freedom (freedom from) must be joined with an internal freedom (freedom for). Our freedom must be tempered by compassion, deepened by wisdom, and guided by love or else it is a faux freedom. Our freedom must lead us on the paths of life or it’s not freedom we’re truly celebrating. Many of the deadly sins of our culture- selfishness, greed, hubris, lying- wear the guise of “freedom” and pretend to be virtues rather than vices.
Even worse, many Christians have been discipled in this political ideology which, in the end, proves more formative than their faith does. When one’s political ideology hinders one from loving God and neighbor, it’s the political ideology that must change. Otherwise, what you have is an idol, not an ideology. You can discern when an ideology has become an idol at the point when people begin to celebrate the very thing that is leading them towards death, praise juvenility as if it’s freedom, and are willing to lay down their lives on an altar made of lies for the sake of a god who cares nothing for them or their neighbors.
Ironically, too many people in our culture are enslaved by their distorted view of freedom, and their hollow “liberation” is precisely what keeps all of us in chains, as well as the common good. The battle cry of this new version of freedom- one void of meaning and sanity- appears to be, “Give us freedom AND give us death.”
There is a better way, though. True freedom is not merely freedom from, but freedom for. It believes the truth and tells the truth and is free to go wherever the Truth leads it. It seeks the good of the neighbor. It strives for justice and equity. It cultivates life and the things that make for life. It wears a mask and receives the vaccine. This is the freedom for which Christ has made us free, and it’s the sort of freedom that would liberate and heal us all, especially our children who have yet to be vaccinated. Surely, the freedom of Christ would have us do nothing less.