Thursday, September 17, 2020

Barriers vs. Boundaries

We don't tend to like restraint here in the United States.   

"I did it my way" is our favorite anthem;  "Don't tread on me" our historical birthright. As Kacey Muscgraves sings so whimsically, "Mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy." 

I get it. Who doesn't want to be free? There's a ton of upside. I don't think anyone disputes that. And yet none of us who live around even one other person are free in the most unfettered sense of the word, at least as the word is used when we talk about our rights. 

Rights coexist with responsibilities. My freedom to do or not do X means someone else has that same freedom to do or not do X, which means - if we are remotely morally consistent - we have responsibilities  of non-interference, at minimum. This means - if we want a remotely civilized society - we will live in the tension of freedom and restraint, of rights and responsibilities. 

My right to swing my fist ends at the space where your nose begins. Same with you. 

I like the image of boundaries and barriers to think through how we determine what brings about the proper mix of freedom and restraint.   

  • Barrier: an undesirable obstacle that hinders our flourishing and ought to be conquered.
  • Boundary: a preventative structure that promotes our flourishing and ought to be embraced. 

Boundaries are set up for our good. We like that the freedom of rivers is curtailed by the boundary of banks. We like that people who want the freedom to rob us are stymied by the boundary of law. We like that someone freely selling us a house is boundaried by the law so that we are not scammed. We like that pilots and doctors have to jump through professional hoops. We generally support this idea of a moral law, “a general rule of right living; especially: such a rule or group of rules conceived as universal and unchanging and as having the sanction of God's will, of conscience, of man's moral nature, or of natural justice as revealed to human reason.” (Merriam-Webster) It's how civilizations, no matter how free, avoid falling into chaos. 

Barriers are boundaries gone bad (at least for the purpose my imagery here). They are obstacles that are in some sense immoral in that they rob us of the ability to flourish as human beings. This idea of flourishing springs from the concept of natural law,  “a body of law or a specific principle held to be derived from nature and binding upon human society in the absence of or in addition to positive law.” (Merriam-Webster). Natural Law involves the idea that there is a design and/or purpose inherent in the world thanks to either nature or nature’s God, and the best societies are those that protect and encourage those purposes. 

The controversy over civil law ("the law established by a nation or state for its own jurisdiction," according to  Merriam-Webster), is whether or not the boundaries put in place by the social contract by which our nation is governed are, in fact, harmonizing with moral and natural law, or if they are actually immoral barriers creating a clashing dissonance that ruins the songs of flourishing.

How's this for a brief summary?

If a law stops you from being robbed of or robbing others of proper flourishing (exploitation, abuse, etc), it's a boundary.  
If a law stops you and others from proper flourishing, it's a barrier. 

So..... what does a mask do during a time of pandemic? 

Do you feel the tension already? Is it a boundary or a barrier?

  • Is 'defunding the police' - diverting funding to social programs/social workers to address crime from a different angle -  a good idea (is current law enforcement practice a barrier or a boundary?)
  • Who flourishes under our current immigration and refugee policies? Boundary or barrier? And to whom?
  • When a Christian cake baker does not have to make a customized cake for a same-sex wedding, is that a boundary for the baker's religious flourishing or a barrier stopping the couple's civil rights?
  • Are tariffs a boundary in which we flourish economically or a barrier to it?
  • Facebook's and Twitter's rules?
  • Minimum wage or universal basic income?
  • The death penalty?
  • Zoning laws?
  • Mail in voting?

I'm not here to resolve any of this tension for you. 

I would just like to see us wrestle with life in a way that acknowledges there is often two significantly different and thoughtfully constructed responses. Sometimes, there is a clear either/or. Other times, there is a lot of room for healthy and constructive tension. 

In the end, the question is not if someone will construct something. The question is who will construct them, and why, and if they will actually protect the design and purpose in which we are intended to flourish.

And while we, as a society, try to figure this out, I wonder if we can keep our basic responsibilities in mind even as we seek to clarify our most fundamental rights. 

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