Americans love freedom. We revere men like William Wallace, shouting, “Freedom!” while his intestines are pulled out of his living body. We chant slogans, “Give me liberty or give me death!” and declare nothing more important that our rights.
This has always been a value worn on the proverbial American sleeve, but during the pandemic and the painful, awkward, and dangerous moment of reopening the country, the demands by some for freedom at all costs reveal a deeply divided America over the very definition of that freedom.
Are we free to look out for ourselves however we see fit, no limitations because of our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Or are we free to take care of each other so that together we can all experience life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?
As an American Christian who has lived for 18 years in the Horn of Africa, I am grateful for the freedom I experienced growing up in the United States. But living here has forced me to ask to the question, “what do I mean by freedom?”
To answer the question, I turn to two sources. My faith tradition and my cultural surroundings.
Freedom as experienced in the places I’ve lived is different to individual rights. The Somaliland constitution declares that Somaliland has freedom of religion, everyone is free to be Muslim. In other words, Somalis in Somaliland are free as long as they stay within certain constraints. In Djibouti, men and women are equally free to work and attend school, but there aren’t enough jobs and there aren’t enough seats in classrooms. Meaning, people are free as long as opportunities exist. It is freedom, culturally defined by one’s obligation to and role within the community.
There are strengths to this type of freedom. People know where they fit and what the expectations are for their behavior, beliefs, and relationships. Whole communities celebrate a university degree or a new job because they were all invested in the education and all have something to gain by the success. Families rely on members for legal support, healthcare provision, retirement plans, baby-sitting needs. They share clothing, cooking supplies, electricity bills. They are free to belong and that belonging forms a powerful sense of historical belonging, current identity, and future security, inside of which the individual can thrive.
This isn’t a perfect system. Communal pressure keeps people from taking risks, from expressing desire, from standing out among the crowd. This limits economic development and creative enterprise. It keeps people from pursuing academic success for fear of isolating themselves from the community. It leaves little room for the arts or for single-minded pursuit of excellence and innovation in sport, science, food, social welfare. Friends have told me, in private, “I would like to study architecture, but no one in my family has gone to university. Even though my grades show I could handle it, I’m afraid to express such a high desire. Someone might curse me out of envy.” They then purposefully fail an exam or don’t bother showing up. Others have told me they aren’t free to admit that they are in love with their fiancé because that would reveal a character weakness easily exploited, or a happy relationship that would welcome meddling because of envy.
Better to keep silent, to keep from freely expressing ambition or desire. Better to stay private and within the confines of expectations, and not draw attention to oneself.
The American version of freedom is not perfect either, and is also culturally defined. In its current iteration, freedom seems to mean freedom to do whatever I want, consequences for you be damned.
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For the first time in generations, Americans are being asked to consider the collective and this is galling to our concept of individual freedom and autonomy. The pandemic has exposed how powerfully this insistence on personal freedom has swept through the Christian church.
Evangelicals, of which I was born, raised, and remain by church membership, stress individual sin and responsibility, individual forgiveness and salvation, individual relationship with God, and individual eternal pleasures in our own big houses. Even our vision of heaven is one of isolation in houses with many rooms that Jesus has gone on to prepare for us as though he worked for the Holiday Inn.
As I sought to understand my strong reaction to images of gun-wielding Americans storming government offices or churches insisting on gathering during the pandemic, and to reconcile that with what I see in the Horn of Africa of a communal aspect to freedom, I turned to Scripture.
Galatians 3:13 “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.”
And Jesus said in John 8:31, 32, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”
What were the teachings Jesus could have been referring to? My guess is the command to love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your strength and all your mind. And the second, love your neighbor as yourself. I read that alongside Jesus’ words that whatever we do for the least, we do for him. Visit a prisoner, give water to the thirty, clothe the naked, feed the hungry. And here, I have a definition of freedom.
Free to bless. Called to be free to serve. Set free from fear of condemnation, free from addiction, free from greed, free from selfish ambition, free from ignorance of suffering, free from hoarding, free from watching others’ pain and doing nothing about it. Free to bless. Not out of pressure to conform. Not out of fear of reprisal. But freedom to pursue goodness for all.
What is a blessing right now is not the violent demand for individual freedom from restriction but a gracious acquiescence on behalf of the vulnerable. I am not saying the specific out-working of that freedom is to remain in lockdown. I’m not saying we must come out of lockdown. There is no simple answer here to that larger decision. People will die because of the lockdown. People will die if there is no lockdown. We are playing wartime-like triage no matter what. But what we can do, sheltering at home or tentatively reemerging into the world, is love our neighbors well, is be a blessing.
What is a blessing right now is not the freedom to hoard all the ground beef, coffee, and toilet paper but bravely leaving enough so others can eat, drink, and wipe.
What is a blessing right now is not the freedom to insist churches meet anyway because God is the mighty healer but humbly acknowledging that the Spirit can work through computer screens without our physical intervention, or through smaller gatherings.
What is a blessing right now is not the freedom to shout insults across the political aisles but the freedom of speech to listen to another’s pain and to brainstorm constructive ways to move forward together.
What is a blessing right now is not looking to my own desire for freedom to live as I want to but the quiet submission to another’s desire to live at all.
We are free to be a blessing.