There’s a lot of talk in America today about the meaning of freedom.
Some of this talk is thoughtful and wise, and some of it is thoughtless and irresponsible. This is the way it’s been for a long time – not only since the start of America, but maybe since the dawn of human history.
You might say that it comes down to two basic ideas of what freedom is: freedom from or freedom for. Those two are intimately connected, but you wouldn’t always know that from the talk you hear.
What’s driving a lot of this talk today is the squabble over wearing face masks. Most people agree that it’s a good idea. It protects others from your germs, and, to a lesser extent, it protects you from the germs of others. The question is whether you should be required to wear a mask in public areas.
Polls show that a clear majority of people support mask wearing. The rest, presumably, do not – and they are usually the loudest, so they’re the ones you hear from most often.
Some Kansans are outraged at the recent statewide mask order by Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly. Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas has received death threats because of his mask order. Across the country, many public health officials have resigned after being threatened for doing their jobs.
But experts say it only takes a few people who don’t comply with public health orders to infect a large population – and the number of infections already is exploding throughout the country.
I suppose no one wants to wear a face mask, maybe especially those health care workers whose jobs require them to wear one almost all the time. Masks are hot, they’re uncomfortable, they’re itchy, and you can barely understand a word anyone is saying while wearing one.
But you wear one to protect others, and yourself, from infection. It’s a matter of safety. It’s a matter of caring.
Others consider individual freedom more important. It’s common to hear someone say, “I won’t wear a mask as a matter of principle. I don’t want the government telling me what I can and can’t do.”
What if a business says it won’t serve you unless you’re wearing a mask? “I don’t want anyone telling me what I can and can’t do.”
What about those signs that say, “No shirt, no shoes, no service”? Are you free to ignore them, too? What about the laws requiring you to wear a helmet while riding a bike, or a seat belt while riding in a car? Can’t a society make any laws to protect its citizens?
Wearing a masks is a “personal decision,” some say. One state governor said recently, “We’ve told people to focus on personal responsibility.” Translated from the political dog-whistle doublespeak, that means, “Do as you like; no one cares.”
It’s gotten strangely political. Donald Trump, who thinks everything is about him, suggests that some people wear masks as a way to “signal disproval of him.”
As the ostensible head of the country, Trump might set a good example for the rest of us by putting one on, but apparently he sees it as a sign of weakness. That’s a line you’ll hear a lot in some circles. People who wear masks are fraidy cats. They’re sheep. They’re blind followers of some vast conspiracy, choose your favorite from a long list of fictional plots and schemes.
Some churches have even gotten into it. They claim an absolute right to do anything they want under the protection of the First Amendment. But the courts have been pretty consistent in ruling that society has a right to protect its citizens from harmful behavior, even those that stem from religious piety.
Here’s what it comes down to, in the words of William Schweiker. He’s an ethicist at the University of Chicago, and a United Methodist elder. He wonders, “How did orders, whether federal, state, or local, meant to protect public health ever come to be seen as a restriction of rights or liberty?”
Then he answers his own question. “It happens when freedom becomes license unbounded by concern for others.” It happens when we define freedom as personal license.
Here’s an example from one of my favorite bad movies, John Wayne’s “The Alamo.” I use this as an example because John Wayne is typical of a certain attitude, and because I’m a longtime Alamo buff. I’ve been hooked on the story since 1955, when I was seven years old, and I first saw Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett series on a tiny round screen in my home in Nokomis, Illinois.
Wayne’s Alamo movie is typical of them all. Given a choice between fact and cheesy fiction, it chooses fiction just about every time. And for a big-budget Western with lots of action, there’s a lot of speechifyin’ goin’ on here.
For example, playing Crockett, Wayne makes this speech that has now become famous: “Republic: I like the sound of the word. It means people can live free, talk free, go or come, buy or sell, be drunk or sober, however they choose.”
Really? Is that what it means to be free – being drunk or sober, however you choose? Can’t you be a drunk in Moscow? Can’t you be an opium addict in Beijing? Can you say that you are truly free in either place? Isn’t there more to freedom than this? Isn’t there much more?
Wayne, or his scriptwriter, has mistaken freedom for personal license. This is a randy teenager’s vision of freedom, the kind of thing you might expect in the comic strip “Zits.” Truth is, many of us do operate from a stunted notion of freedom. We live an adult version of the adolescent fantasy of staying up all night eating junk food and watching bad movies on TV.
But there’s always a cost. I am free to stay up all night just because I want to, but if I do that, I may not be able to function as freely as I’d like the next day. I can eat all the junk food I can stuff down and watch all the junk TV I can stomach, but I may not feel very good afterward, and if I don’t, I have no one to blame but myself, though I am the last one I’ll blame, of course.
Freedom as license always has a cost, but it goes farther than you. When you interpret freedom in terms of your rights alone, you often trample on the rights of others. Usually the only people who can get away with this kind of radical individualism are from groups that are in power, economically and socially.
When you’re on top of the social heap, it’s easy to believe that your rights count more than the rights of others, and it’s easy to enforce, too.
John Stuart Mill, the great 19th-century English philosopher, wrote extensively about the limits of freedom. He defined liberty the way John Wayne defined a republic – living your own life in your own way. But he also said there were rightful boundaries to a person’s liberty. He called it the “harm principle.” Your liberty ends when it harms others. Or, as someone has put it: “Your freedom to swing your fist stops where my nose begins.”
The Apostle Paul sums up the Christian philosophy of freedom in his letter to the church at Galatia. Hear this carefully.
He says: “You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters. Only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love. All the law has been fulfilled in a single statement: Love your neighbor as yourself” (Galatians 5: 13-14 CEB).
In case you don’t hear that clearly enough, he amplifies the thought in his letter to the Philippians. You ought to have the same attitude as Jesus, he says. That is: “Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others” (Philippians 2:3-4 CEB).
The theme of freedom resonates throughout the Bible. The master story is the liberation of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt, and the foundation of Israel as a foreshadowing of God’s kingdom. That’s followed by the sad story of Israel’s failure to live out its own ideals. Finally, we have the story that Paul tells of God bringing the whole world to freedom through the life and sacrifice of Jesus.
We are blessed to live in a land that guarantees our God-given freedom as human beings. But our government does not give us this freedom. It only recognizes our freedom and guards it.
Freedom is not something within the power of any government to give, only to deny. Freedom is a gift from God. God gives us freedom because God is free, and we are made in God’s image.
That image has become tarnished by sin, and in our sinful state we abuse our freedom more than we honor it. Jesus came to free us from slavery to sin and to restore us to true freedom so that as children of God and heirs of the freedom of God, we might lead lives that give glory and honor to God.
There’s a purpose to freedom, you see. Freedom is more than doing as you please. Freedom always implies responsibility for the other. Freedom means responsibility because there are two dimensions of freedom.
The first dimension is freedom from – freedom from tyranny, freedom from injustice, from want, from fear. All of these are conditions of oppression and domination. They call for liberation, for your freedom from these conditions.
But liberation from always leads to a new dimension of freedom: freedom to grow to your full potential, freedom to love, freedom to be and freedom to be for – freedom for a purpose greater than yourself, freedom for something – and most importantly, for someone besides yourself.
Freedom is not a competition in which I always get my way. Freedom is sharing life with others who also are free. Freedom is recognizing that my freedom can’t come at your expense, just as your freedom can’t come at my expense. We have to learn to get along as people whose freedoms are interconnected and interdependent.
I can’t be truly free unless others are free, and others can’t be truly free unless I am free, and all of us together are truly free only when we are free for one another. It’s a paradox but it’s true. We are free only when we bind ourselves to others in love. When we live only for ourselves, we are the most pitifully enslaved creatures on earth.
Wave your “Don’t tread on me” banner as high as you want, but if you’re not living for others, if you’re living only for yourself, you are barely living at all, and the one thing you’re not is free.
Freedom is a gift from God to be used in service to others, not in service to self. If you don’t understand that, you are living outside God’s kingdom, not in it. God wants you in it, but you are free to stay outside. It’s your choice. Let me tell you, though. It’s better inside than out.
This message was delivered outdoors at Edgerton United Methodist Church on July 5, 2020, the Fifth Sunday After Pentecost, from Galatians 5: 13-14, and Philippians 2:3-4.