Last week I told you that freedom is not only not free, it’s not cheap. In fact it is very expensive, and not primarily in money. That’s true of any kind of freedom, not just religious freedom. I also said that it was well worth what we pay for it. Having made those statements, it seemed to me appropriate to examine more closely what freedom really means.
One of my favorite sayings, which seems to me to become more relevant all the time, is by Madam Pandit. She said, “Freedom is not for the timid.” Amen, brothers and sisters! It is not for the timid; it is not for the lazy; it is not for the irresponsible. Neither can it be given as a gift but rather must be worked for, earned, maintained and guarded. We have a song in the old blue hymnal called “Freedom Is the Finest Gold”. It isn’t one that I’ve ever asked a congregation to sing because the tune is both difficult and unattractive. But we do hymn freedom, give it the highest value, or at least we say we do; our religion is one of radical freedom; our country is based on principles of freedom. However, I’m not sure that we always look at its implications as carefully as we might, or understand all of its ramifications.
I used to have an extremely autocratic friend. When I would occasionally protest, he would say that most people like having their decisions made for them. I think that he was right. Very few people really want the responsibility that freedom entails. They fear it. And it is a heavy burden.
It is important never to forget the relationship of freedom and responsibility. We don’t always understand, when we say that they go together that this is a necessary rather than merely a desired unity. If we are free to make choices, then we are responsible for those choices. If we are not free, we are not responsible. It is that simple. Whether we act responsibly or not, we are responsible for our own decisions about how to act, if they are, in fact, our own decisions. The question is not whether we are responsible, but how we should exercise our responsibility. Many people will choose some form of slavery over the dangers of that kind of self-determination.
Madam Pandit’s words that freedom is not for the timid can be interpreted as meaning that it must always be defended from those who would like to take it from us. That is true, but we ourselves are the greatest danger to our own freedom when we refuse to make the effort that it takes to exercise it or fear to do so, and fail both to value it enough to make that effort and to understand and accept its limitations, and its possibly unpleasant consequences.
There is a book, Habits of the Heart, by Robert Bellah and others, which mentions a young man in
Some years ago, after the fall of the Soviet Union, when Communist countries were almost daily throwing off the yoke of tyranny, and even China had an abortive rebellion, there was a sense that much of the motivation for the rebellions and the overthrow of tyranny in Eastern Europe has been less the desire for freedom than for the material blessings of a more or less free economy such as we have in a democratic society. Revolution, it was implied, is fired by lack of soap rather than the suppression of freedom. Freedom is the route to achieve widespread cleanliness and unlimited access to television sets and cars, — the instrument, not the goal.
It seems to me that there is something wrong here, although I’m not quite sure how to approach it. Certainly freedom does not stand alone but is either for or from something else — for the opportunity to make one’s own choices; from tyranny. Nevertheless, when the route seems more noble than the goals — than almost any goal that we could name — then we need to rethink the situation. There is nothing wrong with spending the finest gold of freedom for safe streets and soap, but if we could only get them with the dross of tyranny, would we be willing to give up freedom? I think many of us would, and if freedom is only a tool, like money, why should we not?
After all, not only is freedom difficult to exercise and to keep, it is not absolute, either. We would not want everyone to be absolutely free to do whatever he or she wished. There are people who honestly believe that if there were no laws or rules that people would, in their own self-interest, nevertheless behave in civilized fashion. If they understood their self-interest properly, they very likely would, but that is a counsel of perfection, and perfection is very hard to find in this world. Most people’s self-interest is far from being enlightened, and many of us who know better in theory may behave greedily in practice. It is a favorite saying that your freedom ends at the tip of my nose — or whatever part of one’s anatomy sticks out the furthest — and that is true for individuals. However, in a society, it is not that simple. The balancing of individual freedom with the good of society is an extremely difficult acrobatic stunt. It is not made easier either by those people who choose to ignore the public good in order to gain their own ends, nor by those who fear freedom both for themselves and for others.
Those who fear it have reason. The consequences of freedom can be terrible. The consequences of absolute freedom cannot be endured. Even partial freedom is not for the timid. Consider what may happen if you are free to make your own choices. You may choose wrongly. You may choose a way that your own strength cannot sustain and others will not support. You may go down in flames, and you, yourself, have to take the responsibility for it. After all, it was your own choice. You have to do your own thinking rather than depending on some authority to do it for you. No wonder freedom is honored mostly in the breach.
The question is, why is it honored at all? How can the quest for freedom justify revolution when the need for soap cannot, if soap is really what is wanted, and freedom is merely the road to it? Obviously freedom must be more than that. Perhaps it is partly simply because it is not for the timid. Most of us admire courage and desire it. We admire those people who are willing to take responsibility, who are willing to think for themselves and make their own decisions. They are the leaders, the innovators, the creators. It takes freedom to change things and therefore improve them, though it may also make them worse.
However, it is more than just a route to those things that we desire, it is the only route to the primary goal of human life which must be more than health and wellbeing, safety and the opportunity to reproduce, or even cleanliness. That goal can be expressed in many ways. It can be called self-fulfillment, the attainment of being, finding meaning in life, or glorifying God. It simply cannot be reached without the personal responsibility which freedom both gives and requires. Unless it is the consequence of your own choice it has no meaning. No one else can make meaning for you, can fulfill you, or show through you that aspect of life that is more than material gratification. You have to do it yourself, and you have to be free to do it. That is why working for freedom is its own justification, why self-determination is more than just one tool among others for getting what we want and need. It is the only tool to reach things of ultimate value, and if we really have it, though we may use it in error, we have nevertheless come in sight of our goal. Freedom is what gives meaning to our choices, since without it we can make no real choices at all. To first decide and then to choose the good is what religion is about. Of course, authoritarian religions do it for you, but in their beginnings and in their bases, there was first the freedom to choose the good. The only argument then is whether theirs was the right, only and final choice, and if it can therefore be imposed on others who have no further choice in the matter. This is true of any authoritarian system, religious or secular.
Freedom is not just desirable but necessary, a justification for revolution, a means greater than most of the ends for which it is used. It is our tragedy that it is also extremely fragile, that it is feared by most and hated by many, that it is very hardly won, and even more hardly maintained. It is said that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. That is because there are so few willing to incur its dangers for very long, socially, even in the partial form that communities can allow, and personally, hardly at all.
It is amazing that despite the forces arrayed against it, it continues to survive. Ultimately it can neither be bestowed nor taken away by any outside agency. In the most authoritarian regimes, although they can keep people from saying or doing anything, they cannot keep them from freedom of thought, and they cannot take away the freedom to choose to bow to their authority or not. The price of liberty may be death, but some are willing to pay the price. It is in ourselves that we are bound or free.
Most, most of the time, would not have freedom as a gift, if it could be given. They will praise it at the same time that they run from it. My friend was right. Most of us are grateful to have our decisions made for us. We throw away the freedom we have because we cannot bear to take the responsibility for our own decisions. Freedom is not for the irresponsible. Nor for the morally lazy. It takes effort to make up your own mind, choose your own direction, make for your own goals. It is not for the timid. It is hard to bear the disagreement of those we care for, scary to brave the disapproval of those who have power over our material and social well-being. It is comfortable and safe to agree, to go along, to let society, or family, or happenstance choose your direction.
We fear freedom for ourselves and we also fear it for others. Although freedom cannot be bestowed or taken away on a personal basis, since we are either free within ourselves or we are not, by our own choice, there are freedoms which we can repress, make illegal, and punish. We can fear new ideas or knowledge, or for that matter old ones with which we disagree, and punish their free expression in the fear that they will convince others. Although freedom of speech, of the press and of religion is the first guarantee of freedom in the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution, it is constantly undergoing attacks, often at the instigation of our elected leaders with the majority’s full approval as in calls for prayer in the public schools and laws against burning the flag in protest against the government. Differences in belief call our own beliefs into question, and although we will not be convinced against our will, we seem to fear the weakness of our own ideas, that if others hear differences, the truth of the superiority of our government, our country or our faith cannot stand against questions.
Well, I don’t think that the truth always wins in the marketplace of ideas at least in the short run, but without the freedom to express it, it never will, and without different ideas to test it, how can we know that it is true? Only those with the courage to test the truth can be truly free. Only those with the courage to insist that others be heard equally with themselves can be truly free. Only those with the courage to take responsibility for themselves and allow it to others can be free. Only those with the courage to fight for freedoms for themselves and for others can be truly free. Freedom is indeed the finest gold, the only gold which can gain us our highest goals. May we hold always to the determination and the will and the courage to create freedom.
Tomorrow is the celebration of the American hero, Martin Luther King, Jr. In the most famous of his famous speeches he said: