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 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, then what hinders me from doing anything to anyone for any reason other than the sheer fact that my freedom says I can?
Recently, 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 what they perceive to be 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 that 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 – who are the only people in this country yet to be eligible for the vaccine – in their care.
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 waste 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.
Pastor of Second Baptist Church in Little Rock, Arkansas.