We Americans love our freedom. I don’t have any surveys or studies to cite, but I would wager that if you were to take a poll and ask Americans what makes their country special, ‘freedom’ would be near the top of the list. For good reason, too. We enjoy so many blessings and take for granted many privileges that citizens of other countries have never known (or are currently fighting for).
I also suspect that if you were to ask most Americans what ‘freedom’ means, the most common answer would be ‘freedom from coercion.’ In other words, to be free means that no one can tell me what to do. If I want to make poor decisions about my health or my finances, no one is going to stop me. On the positive side, if I have dreams and aspirations for what I want to achieve in my life, the only person who can get in my way is
. Some find this frightening. Others find it inspiring. But it’s the American way.
Yet there are many areas of public life where freedom is restricted, and almost no one questions these restrictions. That’s because the restrictions are perfectly sensible. We have noise ordinances, for example. I can’t drive through your neighborhood at two o’clock in the morning with my stereo turned all the way up and my windows down. I can’t dump trash in the river that runs through my backyard with the excuse that I’m only putting trash in the part of the river that runs through my property.
Some restrictions on our freedom have been relatively recent. Over the last few decades, America has made a radical shift in its laws against tobacco use. Many of us are old enough to remember the days when restaurants (and even airplanes) had smoking sections. Those days are gone, and while some smokers might wish for fewer restrictions, most people don’t question our current smoking laws. That’s because we as a nation made the collective decision that it’s better for public health if some people’s freedom to smoke is restricted.
So far, I’ve only been describing freedom as a lack of coercion. It can be useful to think of freedom this way, and it seems relevant to the current debates about mask-wearing. If we assume that widespread mask-wearing is an effective measure for stopping the spread of the coronavirus (and the current science suggests that it is), the question still remains: Is this enough to justify laws that mandate the use of masks? In other words, is this an example where coercion is acceptable? There is a vocal minority who say ‘no,’ but most people seem to think that the answer is ‘yes.’ The small sacrifice of freedom that’s required of everyone (putting a mask on your face) is worth the benefit that we receive (eradicating the virus more quickly, and fewer deaths along the way).
That’s all fine and good, but there is a better way to think about freedom — a more
way. In fact, the understanding of freedom I’ve been describing, freedom from coercion, is a fairly recent development in human history. Another way to think about freedom is to consider what it means to flourish as a human being and as a child of God. On this understanding, human beings are not blank slates who have to create meaning for their own lives (a rather daunting task when you think about it!). Human beings are created by God to be in fellowship with God and with each other. The bonds of love are what make us human. When these bonds are destroyed, then we are not truly free.
This Christian understanding of freedom has fallen out of favor, because it forces us to acknowledge that there is an objectivity to our lives. Freedom is not simply about what
want to do or what
want to do, but about what God has called
. On this understanding of freedom, the absence of coercion is not enough. A person who ‘freely’ chooses to live only for oneself, or to pursue wealth above all else, or to engage in exploitative relationship is not truly free. Just as an acorn that is never allowed to grow into an oak tree is an acorn that never realizes its full potential, a human who never loves is a human who has never learned the true meaning of freedom. As Jesus declares, “you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32)
We Christians would do well to recover this understanding of freedom, especially in the midst of our current crisis. This isn’t just about masks. It’s not about personal health vs. the economy, as if ‘the economy’ is some impersonal force and not actual people’s livelihoods! It is, however, about
. Instead of deliberating about the amount of personal freedom that is worth giving up, we can follow Christ’s example by seeking out opportunities to share God’s love. Because the more we love, the more free we will become. Recalling the words of St. Paul,
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better
than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of
others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in
the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but
emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” (Philippians
I’m continually grateful to belong to the community of The Church of St. Michael & St. George, where this love is made manifest every day. Thank you for the Christlike love you share with me and my family. May we grow into it more and more.