Freedom: It’s the quintessential American theme, celebrated coast to coast this Fourth of July weekend. A word always emphasized to be sure, but as a concept, freedom is not nearly as well understood – or enjoyed. In fact, what we often call freedom is selfishness, a far cry from the ideal of independence or liberty.
One of the more severe warnings given in the New Testament by the Apostle Paul, centuries before Jefferson, Locke, or Hamilton, was this: “Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence.” Paul knew that not everyone championing freedom was talking about the same thing.
He understood that if the claim to freedom became a privatized, individualistic, egocentric exercise in narcissism, the end result would only be “biting, devouring, and destruction.” The individual might “win,” but it would be at the expense of the greater community, and freedom would become something far less and unworthy of the name.
How tragically and accurately true Paul’s warning rings today, two millennia later. We live in a society where demanding one’s rights or vindication of one’s agenda without regard for who those demands might hurt, is all the rage – and I do mean rage. But that’s not freedom. It’s selfishness.
In a truly free society, each person must weigh the impact his or her actions will have on the community at large. If an action causes more misery than good, it’s not an act of freedom. And even if a person is free to take an action, and even if he or she might somehow benefit personally by that action, if it intentionally harms others, it is not a “right.” It is wrong.
Yes, freedom is your right to do what you think is right, but it’s not your right to harm others. Hurt yourself (if you choose), but not the community. As Paul added to his fierce warning: “Use your freedom as an opportunity, through love, to serve one another.” Where then does true freedom lead us? Ironically, back to servitude! We choose – in freedom – to either serve ourselves, or to serve our neighbors.
In the words of that radical Jacques Ellul: “Christians are called to stand against every form of evil and oppression, to make people more aware, more free. Thus, we are liberated not for selfish reasons, but to live as servants to the world, to go everywhere bearing liberty.”
That is always the choice put before any freedom loving community, and so long as service of the greater good prevails, that community will thrive. But when sacrificial, conciliatory service of others is replaced by stubborn, selfish, individualism – then freedom is lost for all.
Liberty isn’t about being an American, about democracy, or capitalism. Freedom is about choosing love. So, when you are released from the fear, greed, hate, resentment, and selfishness that keep your view of the world utterly shrunken, and you have nothing left but love to give – for yourself, your neighbor, and your God – then, and only then, are you free.