At a time when unity and cooperation are most crucial, agents of hostility and division are hard at work. They claim they are defenders of freedom. And President Trump has been egging them on, calling on protesters to “liberate” several states. But in fact their quest is for a nonsense “freedom” that serves no constructive purpose and in fact increases danger. Those who promote it indiscriminately rail again any restrictions that are inconvenient, even if those restrictions put up safeguards that preserve the well-being of the majority of people.
Those who have been howling from Michigan to California to Texas and more insist that they are being oppressed and abused by restrictions that require wearing a face mask –or a cubreboca, as it is called where I live- maintaining social distancing, and staying at home except for essential purposes like food and medications. It is not a tyrannical government that is imposing needless constraints on people. Rather the measures have been put it place to avoid the catastrophic consequences.
Covid-19 has already claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people throughout the world. Millions have already fallen victim to it. Serious lingering effects from the disease continue to be discovered. The virus is highly infectious. The restrictions that have been put in place in the United States and many other countries are emergency measures with the sole intention of saving lives. More lives have been lost in the States than anywhere else on the planet.
Without a vaccine the deadly disease will continue to be a threat. The only other ways to hinder the spread of the horrible disease are found in the courses of action that have been put in place, the very measures that are being resisted by the lockdown protesters. No one enjoys wearing a mask, not being able to go to work or being told to stay at home. No one wants businesses to have to stay closed, risking the possibility of bankruptcy. No one wants a recession. But neither should we ignore the dangers of reopening our communities and workplaces prematurely.
Dr Anthony Fauci, the government’s top public health expert, cautioned in Senate testimony recently that the official coronavirus death toll in the US is in fact an undercount, and that “the consequences could be really serious” if America relaxes safeguards against Covid-19 too abruptly. He said: “There is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you might not be able to control. Not only leading to some suffering and death, but it could even set you back on the road to get economic recovery.”
Yet misguided lockdown protesters have come pressing to lift stay-at-home orders regardless of the risks such action would pose and the lives that would be lost. Some insist –with the support of President Trump who said, “They seem very responsible to me”- that they are willing to die for the economy. It is their right to cast aside the restrictions! So they come to the state capital, often with guns in hand, with the clear intent to threaten and intimidate law makers. They demand freedom!
Some continue to dismiss the dangers presented by the coronavirus and claim the entire crisis is a hoax. Extremists are exploiting the situation as they push conspiracy theories and seek recruits. In Michigan protesters with semi-automatic weapons entered the Capital building. The Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer has been threatened and compared to Adolf Hitler. Protesters have showed up with nooses and Confederate flags. Some signs read, “TYRANTS GET THE ROPE.” Demonstrators with weapons walked into the Senate gallery where they stood above lawmakers. The Michigan attorney general warned against a “powder keg dynamic” fostered by heavily armed protesters.
In at least a half dozen cases around Texas, frustrated small-business owners have turned to heavily armed, militia-style protesters to serve as reopening security squads. Phillip Archibald arrived with his semi-automatic weapon to defend the reopening of Crash-N-Burn tattoo parlor. “It’s not for looks,” declared J.P. Campbell, 45, a military veteran with the group Freedom Fighters of Texas as he stood guard outside the shop with a shotgun draped across his chest. “We’re willing to die.”
“We go out there because we want peace, but we prepare for war,” said C.J. Grisham, 46, a retired Army sergeant whose gun rights group Open Carry Texas helped the arrested owner of a bar in Odessa get a lawyer. “I hope this never happens, but at some point guns are going to have to cease to be a show of force and be a response to force,” he said. President Trump looks to the lockdown protesters and says they are “great people.”
Irrational anti-government impulses drive much of this movement. As one of the protester’s sign reads, “FEAR THE GOV’T, NOT COVID-19!” Certainly there are times to be wary of the government. Measures that are put in place during emergencies can linger far beyond their legitimate usefulness. We might immediately think of the so-called Patriot Act put in place shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But constructive, life-saving measures that have been implemented in response to the coronavirus are not expression of a tyrannical government but acts of wise governments.
Some of the signs carried at the lockdown protests have been humorous in a trivial minded sort of way, like the one that said, “I WANT A HAIRCUT!” More often seen are signs that read “SET US FREE!”, “FREEDOM OVER FEAR!”, and “DEFY FASCIST LOCKDOWN!” In one of the protests a man with a handgun on his hip and a middle aged woman carried a large sign the read, “I WILL NOT TRADE MY FREEDOM FOR YOUR SAFETY!”
But the sentiment conveyed by the sign and expressed in the lockdown protests have nothing to do with real freedom. Real freedom can never disregard the safety of others just so it can stretch its wings. The freedom that the lockdown protesters are demanding is not freedom at all. Freedom worthy of affirmation is not an end in itself.
I recall a striking line from the movie “The Crossing Guard” spoken by a wise ex-con: “If nothing is more important than freedom then freedom is just entertainment.” If freedom does not serve a purpose beyond itself then it is a self-centered trivial thing. Freedom that is nothing more than the opportunity to follow my whims, grasp my personal preferences, and the chance to feed my passing appetites is not a high and noble value. What gives freedom its true worth is the end that freedom serves.
Real freedom is not found in simply doing what we want to do without regard to others. Rather real freedom is found as we do what is for the good of others. As scripture says, “You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become servants to one another” (Galatians 5:13). The purpose of freedom does not reside in my self-satisfaction but in the pursuit of what enhances the lives of others. Genuine freedom is love at work.
Stanley Hauerwas wrote, “We are told that others hate us because they despise our freedoms, but it may be that others sense that what Americans call freedom is bought at the expense of the lives of others.” That has so often been true, and it is certainly true of the sort of freedom the lockdown protesters are demanding. But real freedom is not bought at the expense of others. Rather it comes in the service of others.
A life lived in genuine freedom is a life lived that others might flourish, and in doing so, finding our own fulfilment. Real freedom is not found merely in the act of choosing but in choosing well. And we only choose well when our choices are made so that life might thrive, not only our own life, but the lives of those around us as well. To cite again the book of Galatians, “Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery . . .For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (5:1, 14).
It is a bogus freedom that the lockdown protesters demand for themselves as they brandish their weapons in the midst of a pandemic. Instead of following their lead, lets heed the warnings of the public health experts and support the restrictions they tell us are necessary for the time being as we look forward to when we can set aside our masks, leave our homes, and socialize without endangering ourselves or anyone else. “Love does no wrong to a neighbor” (Romans 13:10), and neither does real freedom.