I’ve been musing a lot lately about freedom and liberty. Competing understandings of these concepts are causing chaos in our culture. Overt attempts to advance freedom for some and restrict it for others dominate political discourse. There is always danger when one religion seeks to impose its will on others. For these reasons and many more, I offer three musings and some observations about liberty. Which side of the equation the Church is on matters!
How we understand personal freedom has dominated a protracted season of COVID 19. On one hand are those who believe wearing masks and getting vaccinated are “my” choices to make; no person, group, or government can force me to do it. On the other hand are those who are committed to a concept called the common good—meaning we are citizens of the world and must work together for the health, safety, and protection – the “good” – of all. Of course, every attempt to manage the deadly pandemic gets politicized.
I wonder at what point is it OK to elevate my personal freedom over concern about someone else’s freedom? You can go way back in our country’s history to study this debated issue. Remember, our country’s founders had the “ideal” right but fell far short by not declaring all persons of equal worth. As a result, freedom, including the right to vote, was a long time coming for people of color, women, non-land owners, immigrants, etc.
Even staunch proponents of individualism who declared “my rights” sovereign realized the limits of freedom. For example, John Stuart Mill, an English philosopher who addressed the tension between liberty and authority in On Liberty (1859), said, “The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs or impede their efforts to obtain it.” Of course, many who resisted wearing masks in public clung to the first half of Mill’s statement while ignoring the second half: My freedom exists only when it doesn’t trample someone else’s freedom. This is not a political statement—it’s a statement about being human (all are created in God’s image) and about harmonious living in community with other human beings.
In previous pandemics and national crises, folks in the United States rallied for the good of all Americans. Why not this time? What ideology is swimming in current-day culture that causes people to believe their personal freedom is being trampled upon when the government simply mandates cautionary measures for our protection? I’ve heard many good Christian people railing against governmental leaders who, based on the best science available at the time, sought to keep people from contracting the coronavirus or at least limit its impact (especially, among vulnerable populations). Why didn’t powerful scriptural teachings form the lens for our understanding of freedom? These powerful texts come to mind:
“Hear, O Israel: ‘The Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)
“Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:4)
I contend churches in America should be on the front lines working tirelessly for everyone’s freedom. Any notion of “me” being more important than “we” or a belief God loves, cares about, or favors one group over another is out of alignment with God’s good creation and Jesus’ teachings and example. Any tethering to a political ideology that insists there is no such thing as equality or equal rights is sorely misguided.
I call on people of all faiths to courageously disagree with anyone who insists “my personal freedom and that of my tribe are the only things that matter.” Brian McLaren uses this phrase to respectfully disagree, “I don’t see it that way,” as an invitation to dialogue. Just say “no” to myopic “me and my freedom.” It’s dangerous, distorts the central teachings of Jesus, and blocks our empathy for the other.