Our recent celebration of Independence Day has brought out all the rhetoric of liberty, and rightly so, as we give thanks for a national context where we can live and enjoy many kinds of freedom.
It is also a good reminder, especially this year, that some of life’s most precious things are also fragile things – vulnerable to threats both obvious and subtle.
Freedom is one such blessing, as tyrannies of several kinds lurk in its shadows and exploit its feelings of security and comfort in ways that chip away from its larger benefit.
I remember thinking as a youngster that my freedom was being infringed upon when it was suggested that I take out the trash, mow the grass or share something I valued with someone else.
It sounds silly now, but the response “I don’t have to do that; it’s a free country” was not an uncommon thought when a request called for some sacrifice of energy or resources on my part.
Fortunately, patient and wise parents saw beyond my self-centered immaturity and planted seeds in my thinking that life had more to do with what helped the family and larger community than what I happened to want at the time.
Everyone needed to do his or her part, I learned, to help the family. Free country or not, I wasn’t free not to think about that.
Viktor Frankl, whose reflections on his Holocaust experience have inspired generations of readers in America and abroad, suggested as early as 1956 that our Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor should be complemented with a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.
Freedom without responsibility, he said, degenerates into arbitrariness and a lack of concern for the common good. (Click here to watch an interesting video featuring his suggestion and the work of a foundation that is making it a reality.)
One wonders, amid all the rhetoric of what “freedom-loving Americans” want and don’t want, if such a challenge to our freedom may be lurking in the shadows of our public consciousness as we deal with challenges that range from economics on the national level to immigration on the state level.
The book of Acts presents an interesting brush stroke in its portrait of the earliest Christian community:
“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-45).
And: “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or homes sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold … and it was distributed to each as any had need” (Acts 4:34-35).
While this image from the early church has inspired many communal efforts throughout the centuries, it gave way early to private ownership and competitive economies while still offering its encouragement to be charitable and to commit to the common welfare.
The healthiest societies have been those with connections of concern and support between the powerful and the prosperous and the “least of these.”
One way to see a Christian ideal for a society is to see it as providing a balance of the freedom to advance along life’s path to success and prosperity and the responsibility to help others at other places on the path, whether they be Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, (to use Paul’s words to the Galatian Christians).
Paul, our Founding Fathers whose courage and vision we commemorate on Independence Day, and Viktor Frankl, among countless others, would caution us against thinking of liberty as the freedom not to think about our personal and corporate responsibility to our human family.
The tyranny of unbridled self-interest is as much a threat to genuine freedom as is any despot.
Witness the current debate/stalemate over the response to our economic deficits. Those who have benefited for years from generous government tax handouts to the near disastrous detriment of our overall economy – and the politicians they have bought and paid for – respond to the suggestion that they give up those handouts (a suggestion they cleverly and effectively euphemize as a “tax hike”) as an infringement on their freedom by the now-demonized “government.”
“I don’t have to do that; it’s a free country.” I’m thankful to have had parents who modeled for me the importance of putting on my big-boy pants and taking out the trash and mowing the grass.
Dare we to hope that the “parents” in our national life will be as wise and as willing to act on their wisdom?
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).