“My friends, you were chosen to be free. So don’t use your freedom as an excuse to do anything you want. Use it as an opportunity to serve each other with love.”Galatians 5:13
Today, I hear a lot of people using the word “freedom” when it comes to their individual rights and choices. Many use this word to imply that there should be no limits, no restraints, no cost for freedom and liberty. We use the word “freedom” quite a bit in this country, but little understand its implications. What is freedom? What does this concept imply? Before we attempt to describe what freedom is perhaps it might be helpful to begin by looking at what it is not.
First of all, freedom isn’t license. Unfortunately for many of us, the idea of freedom is associated with the license to do whatever we want. Too many of us tend to mistakenly assume that freedom implies no responsibilities. It reminds me of a lot of adolescents. Many junior highs will tell us they want to drive a car, but they don’t want the responsibility that comes with driving it. If they get into an accident and wreck the car or injure someone, they want their parents to take the responsibility. Millions of teenage pregnancies suggest that many teenagers want the freedom to enjoy sex, but they don’t want the responsibility of raising a child when pregnancy occurs. We adults want the freedom of quality life with pure drinking water, safe food, good roads, little or no crime, but we don’t want the responsibility of paying taxes to insure these blessings. Citizens of our nation want the right of free elections, yet many won’t even bother to walk across the street to vote. Freedom isn’t license. Freedom isn’t just doing what we want to do.
Second, freedom comes at a cost. Freedom isn’t free. It’s bought with a price. The freedom and liberty that you and I have to travel wherever we please, to worship wherever we choose, to think, say and yes even write whatever we like are all freedoms that were paid for by the precious blood of patriots and lovers of freedom from the Revolutionary War to the War in Iraq. We enjoy liberty today, because yesterday, men and women willingly sacrificed their lives. Too often we forget this in the excitement of the glimmer and explosion of the skyrockets and the waving of flags. Carl Sandburg, the poet laureate when presented the Gold Medal for history and biography by the Academy of Arts and Letters said: “We find it momentous that Lincoln used the word “responsibility” nearly as often as he used the word “freedom.” The free people of the world of arts and letters can well ask themselves, every day and almost as a ritual: ‘Who paid for my freedom, and what’s the price, and am I somehow beholden?'” The question isn’t rhetorical. It’s a burning, historical question. What’s the price of freedom? What does it cost us today? I suspect that from the previous inflationary decades it’s not only the price of our money that’s gone down in value. It’s also our estimation of the cost of freedom. We all desire freedom and liberty, but few of us want to pay the cost. Does freedom and liberty cost us anything? Does it require anything of us? Many years ago, there was a meeting of the Senate Crime Committee in which crime boss Frank Costello was asked the question, “Realizing all that America has done for you, what have you ever done for America as a good citizen?” Costello didn’t have the slightest idea what was meant, and after deep thought, he lamely answered, “Well, I…I paid my taxes!” We all know that there are many things, besides paying taxes, that we can do as individuals and good citizens, to uphold the magnificent traditions of America. Freedom comes at a cost.
Third and finally, freedom comes with responsibilities. Our freedom doesn’t exist in a vacuum. We’re a part of a larger community, a larger society which is held together by a nexus or web of social obligations. The problem we have as a nation is we’ve lost all sense of community. The old idea of being an American has been fragmented into dozens of smaller groups whose loyalties are pitted against each other. We have rich, poor, educated, uneducated, liberals, conservatives, republicans, democrats, leftists, centrists, right wing and so on. The truth is, we Americans all need each other. We are all a part of a multifaceted tapestry. But too often we forget the tapestry and focus only on the threads. Try and remove the threads and the tapestry itself will unwind and unravel. I think that’s one of the things that’s happening to our society. We’ve allowed ourselves to become polarized and fragmented as a society through social media such as Facebook and Twitter. We’ve lost all sense of community. You see, we’re part of a community greater than ourselves and our own group, a community that comes with certain social responsibilities and obligations. That community we call America. None of us enjoys freedom without responsibility. Freedom isn’t really free. A certain dairyman objected to having his cows inspected for tuberculosis and ran the inspector off with a shotgun. In justification of his drastic action, he said, “I am free and twenty-one, and no government official is going to tell me how to run my business.” He forgot something. He forgot that his freedom to sell milk ends where the rights of babies to health begins. He needed to be told in the words of Paul, “My friends, you were chosen to be free. So don’t use your freedom as an excuse to do anything you want. Use it as an opportunity to serve each other with love.” Without a keen sense of social obligation, liberty’s in danger. We need to get back to the notion of community and the responsibilities and obligations that arise with that concept. One way we could do this is by teaching children in our public schools’ courses in citizenship and the social and moral obligations that notion entails. These aren’t religious ideas. These are ideas that are fundamental to the survival of any community. There are other ways too, in which we could nurture our democratic community. For a start, we could exercise our right to vote. In the last presidential election, it is reported that 43% of the electorate did not show up to the polls to vote. This means that just a little over half of all eligible voters voted in the last major national election. Part of being free means exercising our right to vote. We could also become more politically involved in the burning issues that affect all our communities: environmental issues, health care, hunger, poverty, public housing, racial justice, and so on. Anytime we work to better the quality of life in this nation we’re nurturing the democratic community.
As Christians, one of the watchwords of our faith is the word covenant. We’re people of the covenant God made first with Israel and secondly with the Church through Jesus Christ. As Americans we’re also a part of a covenant that holds us all together into that rich tapestry of freedom that we celebrate every fourth of July. Remember, freedom isn’t free. As Paul reminds us, “My friends, you were chosen to be free. So don’t use your freedom as an excuse to do anything you want. Use it as an opportunity to serve each other with love.”
God of freedom and liberty, help us to treasure the spiritual freedom we have in Christ and the civil liberties we enjoy through our Constitution. Help us to always realize that with both our spiritual and political freedom comes certain responsibilities. And most importantly, help us to use our freedom to serve others in love. In Jesus name. Amen.
Questions for Reflection
- Freedom isn’t free. What was the cost paid for our spiritual liberty? Who paid this cost?
- What was the cost paid for the civil liberties we enjoy? Who paid this cost?
- What are some of the responsibilities that come with our spiritual freedom? Our political freedom?
- What are some specific ways that we can use our spiritual and political freedom to serve each other in love?