As Americans, we celebrate and talk about freedom often. It has been reverently valued in American life ever since the Declaration of Independence, that document expressing a long list of grievances to the King of Great Britain for doing things like “call[ing] together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public records” and “endeavour[ing] to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the laws for naturalization of foreigners.”
Interesting grievances, don’t you think?
“Freedom” as a concept is notoriously difficult to define. Is freedom synonymous with autonomy? Is it given or earned? Is it absolute, and if not, when do we not have it?
I’m no philosopher, but I have noted that Americans seem to hold to at least three major myths about freedom that are disparate from a Christian, theological understanding of who God is and how we’re called into relationship, both with God’s self and each other.
Myth #1: Freedom is attained through war. Militarism is so thoroughly ingrained in the American psyche that some cannot read that last sentence without immediately assuming that I am un-American or don’t support our troops (call me crazy, but I primarily support our troops by always questioning if it’s necessary for them to be in harm’s way). I have high admiration and respect for our women and men in the armed forces. Some of the nicest, most selfless people I’ve ever met are veterans or active duty military. They serve, protect, and defend our country in crucial ways, on and off the battlefield.
However, I think some serious issues arise in language about “fighting for our freedom.” They may be performing a necessary and dangerous function, but current day warfare is very different from, say, the Revolutionary War in which we were quite literally fighting for our freedom (and as more of a last resort). We’ve been in a constant state of war since 2001, including the war in Afghanistan which has become the longest in our history. Given that, in these 17 years, we’ve spent trillions and are still at war, we’re either highly ineffective at fighting for our freedom, or freedom is not usually won on a battlefield.
We’ve been fighting all that time, the NSA has recorded all my calls, and I still can’t bring more than 3 ounces of liquid in my airplane carry-on.
There are necessary and laudable functions of our military, but some of the most significant expansions of civil rights in this country were attained through peaceful action, education and legislation. Schools, libraries and halls of Congress can be the most consequential front lines for preserving freedom.
Warfare used to be more of a last resort that required sacrifice from everyday Americans. Maybe it should be again. Besides, war never means freedom for the communities in the thick of it. Though the status quo may not have been good either, it’s as the old African proverb says, “When elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers.”
It’s a shame that it’s seen as weak or un-American for a Christian to think that Jesus may have been right: “All who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matt. 26:52).
Myth #2: Freedom is something all Americans experience equally. The United States was founded upon a grand narrative of freedom, but it’s a story that unfortunately begins with the original sin of stealing this land from the indigenous people who were here first, and killing many of them in the process. From the very beginning, we’ve had trouble incorporating the “other” into our quests for freedom. Women, non-whites and minority religions would wait a long time after the adoption of the Constitution before even beginning to attain the freedoms enjoyed by others. We did not suddenly figure this out in my lifetime. It’s simply not true that minorities, the poor and women have experienced this country in the same way that I have.
The writers of the Declaration of Independence famously cited “inalienable rights” endowed by our Creator, which include “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But what practical meaning is there in saying that we have a right to “life” if we don’t have a right to the things that sustain life? How can we affirm a basic right to “life” while we maintain an economic system in which it is not only possible but common for a person fallen on hard times to be without food, shelter or healthcare? How can we claim to believe in a basic right to liberty when we have the highest incarceration rate in the world?
Too many Christians have not learned the biblical language of justice, and in these times we desperately need to take up its word and witness. We must proclaim “woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his own people work for nothing” (Jer. 22:13). We must have the courage to “take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow” (Isa. 1:17).
“Listen to us talk, and the sentiment is clear: freedom is all about what I have the right to do and not do.”
Myth #3: Freedom is about me as an individual. The Declaration of Independence ends by saying, “We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” We’ve drifted quite far from that sense of social responsibility. Listen to us talk, and the sentiment is clear: freedom is all about what I have the right to do and not do. Individualism has reached a fever pitch in the West today, and we are trying to live as individual kingdoms unto ourselves.
When I was growing up, a common retort to being criticized for harmful actions was, “Hey, it’s a free country.” The visual symbol of this attitude is the iconic yellow Gadsden flag with the phrase, “Don’t tread on me.” This flag, ironically, began as a symbol of colonial unity, not the skewed, selfish version of liberty for which it seems to stand today.
Few messages in Scripture are stronger than the idea that we are children of the same God, belong to one human family, and have a responsibility to each other that actually upholds our freedom rather than hindering it. The virtues to which God has called us – love, forgiveness, generosity, etc. – are not possible in a vacuum or an isolated life unwilling to give and share. Perhaps the best summary comes from Paul in Galatians 5:
You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
There is much biting and devouring today. There is no freedom in violence, oppression or living as isolated individuals. The paradoxical truth is that freedom – its purest and most genuine form – comes only from being bound to one another in love.