Liberty and Freedom

In Enlightenment political theory (this is the political theory that is foundational to the American Declaration of Independence and Constitution) the two primary natural “endowments” are life and liberty (and yes, the Declaration adds Happiness, but that’s another story). Given the history of American jurisprudence, the most appropriate definition of liberty is “the right to speak and act without constraint.” Freedom is the application of this natural liberty in various facets of civic life.

It has been generations since we’ve experience true chaos in America, so now one might think that the purpose of government is to do stuff for us. But in the context of the above natural endowments, the purpose of government is to maintain order and keep chaos at bay. The endowment of liberty can only be expressed through freedom in an orderly society relatively free of threats. It’s this orderly society that government seeks to maintain. In the decade of the 1770s the threat to freedom was not the misdeeds of the citizenry but rather the influence of England. It is not surprising then that the Founding Fathers spoke little of the internal conditions that made freedom possible and spoke a lot about external threats to freedom. But according to their practice it seems they believed freedom was only possible if the citizens were educated, civically responsible and involved.

Because the responsibilities of the citizenry was not a primary topic, I want to get at that subject through a far more mundane avenue: children. On various occasions I have heard parents with more than one child talk about the difference between kids. The one is responsible and the parents can let the responsible child borrow the car and stay out until midnight without many worries. The other is far less responsible and as a result far more restrictions about the use of the car or going to a friend’s house for the evening are required. The parents’ attitudes about freedom remain consistent, but differing levels of responsibility lead to differing levels of freedom. Lack of freedom is not the parents’ fault, it’s the irresponsible child’s fault.

Freedom may also need to be curtailed because of the company we keep. As a grade schooler my son was very responsible and we allowed him a great deal of freedom to roam and come and go as he pleased. Then we moved and our son made a new friend who turned out to be a great kid, but who initially appeared to be a wild child. Until we understood the friendship better, our son’s freedom was severely curtailed, not because of his character or actions, but because of the friends he had.

Civic life is similar. Liberty is the naturally endowed right and freedom is granted to the extent that the populace embodies liberty or, to say it another way, is responsible enough to handle freedom without creating chaos. Furthermore, this is not only a matter of individual character. Freedom is the fruit of all (or the majority) of the citizenry having the character and being responsible in a manner that allows a measure of freedom to be granted without it leading to chaos. Just because I am capable of handling freedom responsibly, it does not necessarily follow that the society in which I live can do this. To a large extent my freedom is determined by “the company I keep.”

As I said above, in the United States we have had a remarkable measure of freedom with few ill effects for so many generations that we forget freedom is not a right. We have been relatively free throughout our history, not only because of the Constitution, but primarily because the country was not in chaos…well, except for the wild west. Although the the so-called Indian Wars are a terrible blot on our history, they are instructive at this point. Both the west-bound settlers and the federal government believed that the west was too chaotic to be governed. For the sake of argument we will accept the government’s conclusion that the problem was not the national policies about settlement of the west and was instead the Native Americans themselves. Because of this, the government practiced a policy of imprisonment, forced relocation, and killing. The Native Americans lost their freedom because they and their situation was deemed too chaotic to be governable. Even though they were endowed with natural liberty, the government was not able to grant them the consequent freedom because of their actions. (And yes, there are more facets to this tragedy, including the question of whether they were human, but for this essay I am limiting myself specifically to the question of naturally endowed liberty.) Even though this chapter in history was horrendous from my contemporary perspective, it was acceptable to the citizenry because they understood at a deep level the proper relationship between liberty, which is naturally endowed, and freedom, which is granted by the government to the degree that chaos does not ensue.

The above example reminds us that as compelling as the ideas expressed in the founding documents are, the execution of these ideas is always messy and far from perfect. Legal slavery, North America’s relation to the native population (in both the U.S. and Canada), the U.S. policy toward Japanese, and to a lesser extent, German citizens during WWII are all historic examples where the proper understanding of liberty and freedom and the identification of the core problem were handled badly. There are many contemporary examples, but because of differing beliefs and sensibilities it’s far harder to nail down either the truth or the proper direction forward without the benefit of historical clarity. (This would include ideas as disparate as immigrant rights, LGBT issues, and internet freedom.) Because I am a political conservative and because on the issue of gun rights I fundamentally differ from many, if not most, other conservatives, I will explore gun rights in the context of liberty and freedom further in the next essay.

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The Bondage of the Will & Christian Liberty

I’ve been reading parts of Luther’s Bondage of the Will again to make sure I’m not misremembering his argument. Luther’s argument is quite similar to Calvin’s later argument that gets filed under “predestination,” although there are differences. In both cases I have no doubt that the Reformers are trying to figure out things that are simply beyond figuring out. They reached a bit too far.

The Reformers are certainly in line with classic Christianity when they declare that our will is in bondage. We do need to keep in mind that when we consider these ideas today there are a cluster of words which we tend to jumble together as vaguely synonymous that need to be distinguished when speaking of this bondage.

Choice, for instance still exists. I can choose to follow God or not to follow God. At the end of the giving of the Law in Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people they have to make a choice. “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (Deut. 30:19). But just because the people chose God and thus chose life did not mean that they were actually able to make good on that choice. They failed over and over because their wills were in bondage. Being free to choose for or against God in principle is far different than the ability to actually follow God’s paths and do what God wants us to do.

Liberty is another one of those ideas that tends to confuse us. Paul says, “[C]reation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). A cursory reading of this verse might lead one to think that bondage and liberty are opposite and if my will was once in bondage (reading Luther back into Paul) then in Christ my will is no longer in bondage but now has liberty (or “freedom” in the NRSV) to do what it chooses (reading pop culture back into Paul). But that reading misses the point.

Many years ago, in my first steps out of Dispensationalism, I discovered R.J. Rushdoony, a “theonomist” who believed that civil law should be based on Old Testament law (a Christian version of sharia, to put it into a contemporary context). In spite of his misguided attempts in this direction, he was a pretty good historical scholar. In a monograph entitled, “The Changed Meaning of Liberty,” he wrote the following: “Liberty as a privilege had reference to a religious fact of immunity from civil controls and regulations. Thus, the ancient privilege of the church is its freedom from the state because it is Christ’s personal domain and body and hence subject to no controls but those of His law.”

Rushdoony is putting it into the civil context between the Christian church and the Roman empire, but originally this is what Paul was talking about in relation to the Old Testament law. As Christians, who are dead to the Law and alive to Christ, we have “liberty” as an immunity to the Law. We can no longer be charged as lawbreakers because those laws don’t apply to us in our new context. This is how the U.S. Navy uses the term. When a ship enters port most of the sailors are let off duty to go wander the town. They are “at liberty.” This means they are no longer under the strict rules of life on the ship, although they are under obligation to follow local law and if they are in uniform they still have to salute a uniformed officer, etc.

This sort of “liberty” is very different than actual freedom as we think of it today. Comedian Ron White, in his well known “They Call Me Tater Salad” story, said that when he was talking to the cops after a bar brawl he had the right to remain silent but he didn’t have the ability. Christian liberty is like that; it doesn’t imply we have the ability. Even with our Christian liberty, our wills are still bound. We can choose to follow God, but, like Ron White, we don’t have the ability.

Christian transformation is a mysterious process where Christ’s will operates through us to transform us in spite of our best efforts. Transformation requires our cooperation. We have to choose God on the level of choosing or rejecting that Moses spoke of in Deuteronomy, but our wills are unable to follow through with our choice, so we keep on doing what we don’t want to do (Rom. 7). But in spite of all this bondage, Christ works in us to do that which we cannot do and transformation actually happens.

There is also a lifelong process of taking back the will and turning it to the purpose that God intended when he instilled it in human beings. But that process is not what you might think. Once Christ is at work within us, his will guides our hearts and directs us in what we should do and how we should think. (This is the ultimate goal, anyway.) So the correct way to battle our own stubborn will is to ignore it. Of course this is easier said than done. We will never win an outright fight over our wills. We can, in contrast, learn to ignore its insistent directions, and over time it becomes more and more quiet. The will lies at the center of what we must put to death in our Christian struggle, and the way we do that is to starve it by ignoring it. And as it dies, it simultaneously comes to life, but in this new life, it imprints on Christ’s will within us, and thus is tamed. Although throughout our earthly life, it will no doubt always have a tendency to rise up and say, “My will, and not yours be done.”

So freedom, as we think of freedom in the modern world, is never possible. We humans were not created to be free and we quickly get out of control if we try to act on our supposed freedom, like a balloon zipping around a room when we let go of it. We were created with the purpose of allowing God to drive, not us. Luther describes this as bondage to Christ (hearkening back to Paul’s imagery of the bond slave). That’s imagery that we naturally shrink back from, but it is there that we find true liberty – like sailors on shore liberty: freed from the concerns of the ships rules and free to truly joy in God.

The Rohingya and Syria

I read the article because of the title. “Rohingya see glimmer of hope in Suu Kyi’s election victory.” I never heard of Rohingya and was curious why his name popped up in my news feed. Turns out that it was not a person. The Rohingya are a minority group in Myanmar. The article came from The Arab News, a paper I hardly ever read (and only when I click on a headline in my news feed that seems interesting). The Rohingya have lived in Myanmar long enough that their origins are in question (probably from the Bengal region). What is for certain is they are not Burmese and are not an officially recognized ethnic group. Because they are mostly Muslim, the majority Bengali population does not like them.

Today they are considered by groups that pay attention to this stuff to be one of the most persecuted ethnic groups in the world. Many now live in refugee camps that are reportedly better described as prisons. They have high hopes that Suu Kyi’s NLD party, that just won the national election in a landslide, will deal with their perilous situation.

I am quite frankly worried about all the anti-Muslim and anti-Syrian rhetoric that has become so chic in the U.S. There are even those that want to put Syrian refugees into internment camps. Granted, there is a certain risk in allowing any stranger to live next door. But I think we might do well to pause and try to learn a lesson from the Myanmar debacle. It would be far more dangerous in the long run to dehumanize hundreds of thousands of legitimate refugees and other immigrants from Syria. If we were to do that, we would have a decades-long disaster on our hands similar to Myanmar and the Rohingya. (France’s historic tendency to ghettoize immigrants, and especially Algerians, and the result of that policy is both tragic and instructive in this case.)

And, aside from the policy debate, I am horrified that we, as a society, are so quick to relegate a whole nation to this not-quite-human status. Given the rhetoric, it might be best if we dismantle and melt down the Statue of Liberty. The metal could be use to build fences to imprison the nation of Syria