I've been seeing this commentary on life during COVID-19 pop up on social media. It got lots of virtual applause, and why not? Who doesn't love freedom? And who doesn't want to avoid being conditioned by "they"? It got me thinking about how we Christians wrestle with notion of freedom in general, especially our exercise of the freedoms guaranteed to us as citizens of the United States.
My thoughts are almost certainly incomplete and perhaps misguided, but I really think we need to wrestle more deeply with the broader theme that this meme addresses.
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Here's the reality: some freedoms are deeply important for the common good, and the exercise of them is not selfish at all. Some freedoms are remarkably detrimental to the public good, and the exercise of them is, in fact, selfish.
If you are a Christian familiar with the Bible, you know this to be true. Read what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 8-10. Ye, this is about church life rather than civil life in this particular case, but as best as I can tell this principle is a foundational one for Christians in all of life.
- “We have the right to eat anything we want, even food sacrificed to idols. But if what I eat is going to call my brother to stumble because he thinks eating such food would be sinful, I’m not going to eat it. In fact, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.” (1 Corinthians 8)
- "Am I not free? Am I not an apostle?... Don’t we have the right to food and drink? Don’t we have the right to take a wife along with us? But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.... I have not used any of these rights.... What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make full use of my rights as a preacher of the gospel. Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings." (1 Corinthians 9)
- “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others... If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the one who told you and for the sake of conscience. I am referring to the other person’s conscience, not yours. So you ask, “Why should I give up my freedom to accommodate the scruples of another?” or, “If I am eating with gratitude to God, why am I insulted for eating food that I have properly given thanks for?” These are good questions...Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. (1 Corinthians 10)
If I am understanding Paul correctly, freedom is a complicated issue for Christians. In the Bible we are freed in two ways: from and to. We are not simply freed from the chains of sin; we are freed to serve God righteously. We are not simply freed from hatred; we are freed to love. We are not simply freed from stinginess; we are freed to generosity. We are freed from selfishness to selflessness.
American freedom tends to be presented primarily as freedom from the government's attempts to unjustly impose restraints on our lives. That is an excellent start, to be sure, and our Constitution is a pretty remarkable foundation. However, freedom from is not enough. The questions is what are we freed to do? The United States, while establishing important foundational aspects of what we can do in a free civilization, has not provided direction on what we should do as we exercise those freedoms. And without that sense of direction, terrible misuses of freedoms often follow.
- Pornography, anyone? It follows free speech. So does the remarkably crass entertainment that is so ubiquitous. We are freed from the government stopping free expression, but freedom can be used horribly and destructively. It's possible to exercise the freedom of speech selfishly.
- We have a "right to privacy," a freedom from government intrusion into personal autonomy. It's possible to exercise a freedom that has a terrible impact on others. Pro-life advocates have been making this argument for years. So have opponents of the legalization of drugs.
- We are free from a government that might want to take our guns - and, as our gun crime statistics show, it's possible to use this freedom selfishly.
- We are free from a government that wants to stop our free assembly - but we can assemble with neo-Nazis, or storm the capital, or clog up traffic such that ambulances can't get their patients to the ER, etc. We can assemble selfishly.
- We are free from government intrusion into worship. We can also form cults that abuse people financially, physically, and spiritually. We can exercise religious freedom selfishly.
It's just too simplistic to complain that boundaries or structure or rules are a menacing act of brainwashing. It turns out some freedoms are, in fact, exercised selfishly. I think we all agree on this point.
Now, to be clear, there is doubt that there are some power-hungry politicians who would love to selfishly wrest freedom away from we the people so that their power increases. That, too, has been part and parcel of the history of the world, and we are no exception. That danger always lurks. The panic that followed the beginning of the pandemic is the kind of "soft spot" that opportunists can exploit, and in that sense I am sympathetic to what the meme is (I think) trying to address. It is very possible that the curtailing of freedoms was unconstitutional; we already see that some restrictions have been shot down in the courts, and others will surely be analyzed in hindsight and affirmed or rejected. I appreciate living in a country that focuses on curtailing creeping facism.
But - and now I am back to the broader theme of freedoms in general - pointing out that an insistence on exercising freedoms might be selfish is not necessarily brainwashing, unless you think the Apostle Paul was brainwashing the early church.
If our track record is any indication, a freedom can be both protected by the constitution and selfish in at least some of its expressions. These are not mutually contradictory stances. I know that requires us to wrestle with ethical complexities, but it's a complex world. It ought to be expected.
I hope we can be honest about a reality of life that touches on all our freedoms: they are ripe for misuse, and selfishness crouches outside the door of the best of us, and it would be good for us to go through thoughtful reflection on how we exercise all the freedoms that we fight to protect.
All of our freedoms are freeing us to do something. What is it we ought to do with the freedoms we have? How do we best serve others with our freedoms?
Let's think and talk deeply about the complexities of living in a world where we are not only (hopefully) free from injustice and selfishness, but also free to pursue righteousness and selflessness.