"Give them not Hell, but

Hope and Courage."

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Freedom of Responsibility (Sunday, January 29, 2012)

            It has been said that wars provide the punctuation marks of history, and it is also true, I think, that different decades also form the paragraphs of this great historical story of which we are all part. Certainly, each decade has its own spirit, its Zeitgeist (how I’ve always loved that word)—its own spirit of the time, which provides each decade with its own flavor, its elan, its color and temperament.

            Think of how severely the changes which society has faced, the issues the world has confronted seem compressed into one ten year period. Think of the changes we all witness during our span of decades on this earth (be it seven or eight or even nine). How the soft spoken and self-satisfied Eisenhower years of the 1950s differ from the “New Frontier” idealism and the “Great Society” pretensions of the early 1960s, and from the dislocations of the second half of that decade that ushered in the 1970s: Civil Rights, Vietnam, Watergate, the rise of Feminism.

            Then think of how the materialism of the 80s gave rise to the self-indulgence and excess of the 90s, then to the hopes, then the fears, of a new millennium. Now, here we are already, well into this second decade of this new century (and what are we supposed to call it? The “tens”? The “twenty-tens”? The “two thousand and tens”? The “teens”? [Not yet] How about “the second decade of the 21st century”?)  God only knows what these years might yield!

Which is why some of us are much more comfortable looking back than looking forward.  But if the 1960s was the “free generation”—with its emphasis both on individual expression (“do your own thing” to use the old expression), as well as idealism and political activism; and if the 1970s was the “me generation” ; then the 1980s, perhaps, represented the triumph of “free enterprise” (with Reagan and Thatcher as the best exemplars of the age, no doubt) .

But what is striking as we take this stroll down memory lane, is that, as distinct as each of these decades was, that the idea of “freedom”—manifested in differing ways no doubt—held a central position in the Zeitgeist of each. The same is true, too, I think, of the decades that have come since.

The quest for freedom is a fundamental precept of American society. It dominates our political history, from the American Revolution and the drafting of the  Bill of Rights, to the Civil War and the fight against slavery, right down to the struggle for votes for women and the Civil Rights movement and the quest for Marriage Equality. It dominates our social history. No other nation has spawned as many vital reform movements—all seeking to enlarge the circle of civil society, that place where freedom becomes alive in people’s everyday lives. Freedom seems to be the vital fuel that keeps American culture and commerce and industry alive and dynamic, truly the envy of nations the world over.

Now, it might be fashionable in some quarters to denigrate or disparage the political freedom we enjoy as Americans. Some would claim that our political system is just as oppressive as any other, that we are no more free than any other people, really. They point as proof  to the huge economic disparities in our nation, to the fact that there is greater economic inequality in the United States than in any other major economy in the world.

These are real problems, and it is right to ask how long political freedom can survive in the face of such economic injustice. It is right to ask whether the advent of a New American Feudalism with the stranglehold of the corporations and the crony capitalists over our society may, indeed, be the greatest threat to our survival as a free nation.

But the greatest hope of our nation still lies in its freedom. So let’s make sure we don’t squander it. Or surrender it to an economic elite who supposedly “know better” – to those same “geniuses” – those “masters of the universe”-- who lost American families somewhere over 19 trillion dollars in household wealth in the Great Recession of 2008 and years following. For our freedom is a precious and rare commodity indeed. It is our birthright. It is more valuable to us than any pay check,the gift not of church or state or government, but endowed to us, from our Creator; the precious legacy of all the men and women of the Earth. 

It is  a commodity all too rare in too many lands, still, in this world of ours. So many people still are not free; they struggle under one form of dictatorship or another—from Cuba in the west, to North Korea in the east, with places like Belarus and Iran and Burma in between, to name just a few. One of the names given to the Statue of Liberty by Italian immigrants entering America around the turn of the 20th century was “Santa Liberta”, “Saint Freedom”.  Compare that to the Chinese students in Tien An Men in 1989, who constructed their own model, and called it the “Goddess of Liberty” to symbolize their struggle for freedom.   

That’s how holy—even religious, even transcendent—personal freedom can seem to those who don’t have it. We should take pride that our nation has been, throughout its history, a beacon of liberty and hope to the oppressed around the world. May we hope that it continues to be such in our own day, as well.

“For those who fought for it, freedom has a taste that others will never know.”

It’s the God’s honest truth, of course. Those who have to fight for their freedom (which is not  most of us) will never take it for granted ever again; they won’t assume (as most of us probably do) that it will be there when we need it; that it is, and always has been, and evermore shall be. Those who fight to defend freedom—or to achieve it—or to regain it—know how precious it is, not just intellectually, but in their bodies, in their very beings. Soldiers on the front line at Omaha Beach knew. The students of Munich of the White Rose knew as they distributed their leaflets under the threat of Nazi tyranny. The man and women who braved East German gunfire to scale the Berlin Wall knew.  The students in Tien An Men who watched their Goddess of Liberty hurled to the ground knew, as did the Chinese student a few days later, who stood silently in front of the tanks that moved down Beijing’s Avenue of Heavenly Peace. The people who marched defiantly in the streets of  Tunis knew, and those in the streets of Cairo, and Tripoli; and those now dying in the streets of Damascus and Homs and other cities across Syria know so well how precious freedom is.

As President George W. Bush said in his Second Inaugural Address (I know that it’s over 40 degrees outside; but hell really must be freezing over for me to quote George W. Bush for the second time in three weeks)—he said, correctly, in my estimation: “There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom.”

Indeed “Only freedom can work such miracles!”

But it’s one thing to talk about freedom (in that speech, President Bush used the words “free”, “freedom”, or “liberty” an amazing 49 times) , It’s another thing to practice it, or more importantly for a President, perhaps, actually to encourage it and foster it in the real world. As Adlai Stevenson (whom I am much happier quoting) told the American Legion convention in 1952: "Patriotism is not a short and frenzied outburst of emotion but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime."

We may often praise freedom as a glorious ideal. But true freedom is not just an ideal; indeed, it is perhaps the most real, the most embodied, flesh and bones, of human ideals. True freedom cannot exist in a vacuum. It is not merely a god whose name we invoke to cover up our transgressions. True freedom, both in the political and religious sense, is the living force by which men and women are empowered to fulfill their ultimate potential as human beings. Freedom is never an end in itself, but always a means toward an end. The purity of our freedom guarantees the rightness of the goals which we seek.

In the letter to the Galatians in the New Testament, St. Paul put it very succinctly: “For, dear brothers and sisters, you have been given freedom: not freedom to do wrong, but freedom to love and serve each other.”

Freedom does not cut us off from each other, but joins us to them. It does not lessen our commitment to others, but deepens and strengthens the ties that bind. Freedom does not stand in contradiction to responsibility; they are not opposites. Rather, true freedom leads inevitably to our assuming greater responsibility—for our own lives; for the one another; for the life of society and the world.

Emerson once said that when the half-gods go, the real gods finally arrive. Certainly, there are any number of pretenders to the throne of true freedom. A first false idol is, of course, license. License defines freedom as our ability to do whatever we want to do, whenever we want to do it. This false god stresses the sanctity of action, without any regard for consequences. (Like a President, say, who launches an ill-conceived war for “Freedom” without having a clue as to what the consequences of that war might be.)  To this way of thinking, the fewer outside hindrances to our action, the better; the fewer people in the way, the better. In our private lives, this becomes the philosophy of “Live for today.”  Or “Live for the present” or “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. And maybe bring the whole world down with us.”

Those who trumpet an extremely individualistic notion of freedom deny the fundamental reality of our radical interdependence—as individuals, as groups, and as nations. They follow the precepts of Ayn Rand (perhaps the most heinous goddess of false freedom of all time), and deny that politically and economically, we are part of a commonwealth with one another,  and that spiritually and mystically, we are part of an interdependent web of creation with all living things.

            If there is one assumption we need to integrate into our beings if this human race of ours is to survive, it is that  we are not here in this world alone, and that we do not live for ourselves alone. A life which constantly seeks to limit and control its interpersonal responsibilities (even in the name of “freedom”) is a sterile and dead existence. It is a living death. (Perhaps a comfortable one, and a nicely gilded one, but a living death nonetheless.)

            Now, as people who have been here for more than a few years, you and I know what this world can do. Other people (even those we like; even those we love) can be a pain in the… neck… sometimes. They give us grief; they make us cry; they make us mad; they don’t always bring out the best in us. But that is just how this life is.

Just last night, Elizabeth and I watched the film, The Tree of Life. What a strange film. Way too deep for me, I’m afraid. But it had (at least) one good line. At one point, the mother tells her son: "The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by." Only insofar as we are able to love one another will there be any hope for us, will there be a purpose to our lives when the closing bell rings for each one of us.

As the Eagles used to sing:

Desperado, you ain’t getting no younger,

Your pain and your hunger,

They’re driving you wild.

And “freedom”? That’s just some people talking,

Your prison is walking this world all alone.

Very simply, we need one another. Others need us. There is a symbiosis—a balance—in Nature, which needs to be reflected in human societies if they are to be healthy and whole and just.

None of us was created to be slaves to another. Nor were any of us created to enslave others. We were endowed by our Creator with the right to share the Earth together, with the ability to help one another, and with the calling to live in peace with all creatures.

We exist in a continual state of covenant—covenant with one another and covenant with that Creative Force in the universe in whom we live and move and have our being.

Love is a circle, it knows no bounds,

The  more  you give, the more comes around…

It is freedom which allows the circles of our lives to grow wider and wider. Freedom allows us to share just as widely as we may the gifts of our lives and the wealth which they produce. Freedom allows us to be the fully human beings that we would be, that we can be.

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