Being Big In Our Smallness
Being Big in Our Smallness: March 15, 2017
I’ve been thinking of the difference, if there is one, between freedom and liberty. And I've been rereading some of America’s founding documents.
Surprisingly, at least to me, neither freedom nor liberty were mentioned much. Liberty was mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, in two of the Amendments to the Constitution, and in seven of the states' Ratification documents. Freedom is mentioned even fewer times
One helpful distinction I found online was from an essay by Eyler Robert Coates in 1996. He said, “Speaking generally, Freedom usually means to be free from something, whereas Liberty usually means to be free to do something, although both refer to the quality or state of being free.“ Not super helpful when the definition includes the words to be defined, but okay. So, freedom of the press or freedom of religion is freedom from government interference. Liberty is the system of freedom granted to all citizens.
Even more helpful was rereading a speech by Rabbi Jeffrey Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, that he gave upon accepting the Templeton Prize last May. Rabbi Sacks is a great speaker. I once heard an interview with him in which he said that all the Jewish festivals can be summed up, “They tried to kill us. God saved us. Let’s eat.”
In this speech, The Danger of Outsourcing Morality, he laments that we have come to a place where we’ve outsourced everything, including memory.
Lacking memory we have forgotten one of the most important lessons to have emerged from the wars of religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth century and the new birth of freedom that followed. Even to say it sounds antiquarian but it is this: A free society is a moral achievement. Without self-restraint, without the capacity to defer the gratification of instinct, and without the habits of heart and deed that we call virtues, we will eventually lose our freedom.
That is what Locke meant when he contrasted liberty, the freedom to do what we ought, with license, the freedom to do what we want. It’s what Adam Smith signaled when, before he wrote The Wealth of Nations, he wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments. It’s what Washington meant when he said, "Human rights can only be assured among a virtuous people." And Benjamin Franklin when he said, "Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom." And Jefferson when he said, "A nation as a society forms a moral person, and every member of it is personally responsible for his society."
I think that distinction between liberty and license is what I was really trying to untangle.
Given the tenor of the current political skirmishes about freedom, this distinction between liberty and license is important. And this is where, paradoxically, I think the paradoxes of Christianity can offer a corrective in the midst of the conflict.
As Christians, we begin on the moral high ground of the Shema, which means, "Hear!":
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.
Talk about these commandments all the dang time, right? That’s in Deuteronomy 6: 4-9.
But as Christians we also trust the incarnate Lord our God who says in Mark 10: 42-45:
You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
I’m reading Colson Whitehead’s fine, difficult book, The Underground Railroad. The main character, Cora, is a runaway slave; and, for many months, is stuck in limbo in a steep-pitched attic. Cora thinks, “Being free had nothing to do with chains or how much space you had. On the plantation, she was not free, but she moved unrestricted on its acres, tasting the air and tracing the summer stars. The place was big in its smallness. Here, she was free of her master but slunk around a warren so tiny she couldn’t stand.”
Following the path of Jesus does not free us to do whatever we want to do; does not free us to enslave or even to harm other people to make our lives easier or safer or more profitable. Calling myself a Christian frees me to serve others; to fight for justice for others; to humble myself for the rights of the many. To glory in the big smallness of Love.
We can choose not to serve this master, but it comes at a price. To be free of the demands of Christianity—and you know, of course, that Islam and Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism, Taoism and Sikhism, they all demand the same sacrifice of self-preference—to be free of the demands of an authentic religious practice is to slink around the tiny warren of selfhood that doesn’t allow you to stand up straight.
You’re not reading this as an apology for slavery, are you? I’m trying to say quite the opposite. There is never any way for humans to assume the role of master. If we do, it all goes awry. All world religions are very clear on this point. When we set ourselves up as gods, we fail.
Here’s a wonderful paradox from the Christian apostle, Paul: “When I am weak, then I am strong.” The reverse is true, too. When I am strong on my own, then I am weak, because I am not acknowledging my reliance on God, and I am too easily persuaded that my success is my own. That is why it is said that power corrupts.
Remember that citation above from Mark when Jesus says not to be like the Gentile rulers and high authorities? That comes right after Jesus has explained to his disciples the outline of what is about to happen—he’ll be condemned, mocked, spit upon, flogged, killed, and three days later, rise again. James and John listen and then ask whether, at the end of all that, Jesus might grant that they could sit on either side of him in glory.
The gospels don’t record that Jesus sighs or rolls his eyes. But holy moly, James and John. Do you want ice cream, too? Maybe a pony?
Jesus responds that, no, I can't grant your desire for access, for pride of place, for privilege. In fact, what I've been saying all along is this: whoever would be great must be a servant. We're establishing a whole new world order, and it's upside-down. Follow me.
So we have freedoms, but the greatest freedom is found in surrender and service. We have liberty to exercise our freedoms, but we do not have license to hurt others. Our allegiance to God is, or should be, greater than our allegiance to any nation. “If anyone (and I would add, any nation) wants to be first, he shall be last of all.” (Mark 9:35)
May our freedom be freedom from fear, and our liberty be freedom to serve.
It seems appropriate to end with a prayer. This is a Collect for the Nation from the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer.
Lord God Almighty, you have made all the peoples of the earth for your glory, to serve you in freedom and in peace: Give to the people of our country a zeal for justice and the strength of forbearance, that we may use our liberty in accordance with your gracious will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.