Faces on Faith: Defining freedom
Well, another Fourth of July weekend has come and gone. Red, white and blue were the colors of the day. Here on Sanibel a great parade and spectacular marked the occasion, as we celebrated the 241st of our nation. Independence Day, we call it, in recognition of the Declaration of Independence that was promulgated during the first week of July, 1776.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” wrote Jefferson, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Over the course of the last week you have undoubtedly heard many of our national songs. Perhaps you even sang a few of them yourself. Songs which inevitably emphasize freedom. Some were written two centuries ago, like the national anthem which calls America “the land of the free.” Others just a few decades back, like Neil Diamond’s “America,” which speaks of “freedom’s light burning bright.” These songs that celebrate our nation always seem to stress the importance of freedom.
Truth be told, it’s a word we use rather carelessly. We often see freedom as a privilege, as a right, but fail to remember with freedom comes with responsibility. “Hey this is a free country,” we might say to someone who challenges our thinking, “I can say whatever I damn well please and no one can stop me.”
Yet not all speech is protected, we still have to think before we speak. We cherish our freedom to worship as we wish, but sometimes forget we need to protect the right of others to practice or not practice religion their way as well. We argue that we’re free to bear arms, but may neglect the overriding need for public safety.
At the end of their most recent term we saw the Supreme Court hand down decisions that involved multiple understandings of freedom. Time and again the court must address the issue of freedom. Whose rights take precedence when freedoms conflict? Does a woman’s freedom to make personal medical choices override another person’s religious freedom? Does a corporation enjoy certain inalienable rights? How far does freedom extend?
Obviously, as a nation, we need to continue to wrestle with these and similar questions. Defining what we mean by freedom is essential, yet it is also ever changing. In 1776 those inalienable rights of all men meant men literally. And not even all men at that. White men, with property. The truth is we are constantly fine-tuning our understanding of freedom!
In my religious tradition, freedom is not understood as being able to do anything you want, rather, freedom is understood as having the ability to do the right thing.
And maybe, as I think about it, that might be a starting point for our national debate as well. This is a pluralistic and diverse country. I’m not suggesting we all need to become Christians for our nation to work well. But, I am suggesting we need to move away from self-centeredness and truly care about one another. I am suggesting we all need to be working for the greater good. I am suggesting we need to remember that having freedom doesn’t mean having license. It doesn’t mean being able to do whatever we darn well please. Having freedom means being willing and able to do the right thing. The Fourth of July may be over for another year, but the work of defining freedom lasts all year long!