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Freedom, Responsibility and the Moral Imperative

 

“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore,
and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. ” 
Galatians 5:1

 

To read or print a pdf version of this commentary, click here.

 

Preface: Unshackled Chains?

 

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In grade school, we learned the story of the Statue of Liberty; a gift from France to America, not only marking the 1871 centennial observance of our country’s independence, but also the abolition of slavery, following the end of our Civil War.  As a result, the sculptor, Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, originally imagined several different possible versions. The original concept would have depicted the majestic Greek goddess holding the broken chains in her hands. But considered too controversial by some, the broken chains subsequently ended up at her feet, disappearing behind her robe.

Even 150 years ago, it would appear the question of how much freedom was too much freedom was a debate with which our forebears had to wrestle. Their assertions were based on their divergent understandings of what the notion of freedom accorded them under our national constitution.

Freedom’s Just Another Word

“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,
Nothing don’t mean nothing honey if it ain’t free…
And feeling good was easy, lord, when he sang the blues.
You know feeling good was good enough for me,
Good enough for me and my Bobby McGee.”  – Singer-songwriter, Janis Joplin

In recent days the free world has become united in its support of the people of Ukraine; fighting overwhelming Russian military forces to maintain their sovereign freedom.

But a week or two ago, the news headlines were all about Canadian trucker’s blockades in Ottawa, protesting certain mandates being imposed by the Canadian government related to the Covid pandemic. They claimed their freedom under their constitutional form of government protected them from such legal requirements. Under another provision of the same set of laws, their leaders were arrested, and the convoy blockage was broken up.

Freedom, of course, does not mean the right to do whatever one chooses. That is called ‘anarchy,’ which comes from a Greek word which means ‘without rules.’  Freedom is the right to set the rules by which a community, group, culture, tribe, religion or nation chooses to govern themselves.

David Galston, director of Westar Institute, put it this way in a recent essay,

“Western history has always associated freedom with responsibility. In short, if you are not responsible, you are not free. … In short, if there is no responsibility, there can be no law. Whatever is said about freedom … responsibility justly limits freedom to ensure morality. In short, freedom is not freedom unless it is moral. The role of government is to ensure the moral order of society.” – Quest Thoughts, 1-29-2022

Yes, of course. But morality can be totally subjective. So I tend to link the notion of morality with  the term ‘common good.’ It still begs the question; but commonality requires a corporate or collective response-ability. In governmental terms  — how we collectively choose to govern our society, or community, or tribe — it then focuses the question as to what standards or guidelines will define the principles we choose to embrace. 

Chains, chains, chains …

“Chain, chain, chain
Your chain of fools, oh yeah”    – Aretha Franklin, 1968

If you’ve ever tried to read and comprehend all books of the Hebrew scriptures collectively known as the “Law” – as the Jesus character had presumably learned them – you quickly realize that they are filled with so many legal requirements and restrictions that mere mortal might feel the shackled weight of so many chains that any notion of freedom would seem impossible. 

At the same time, the Law of Moses – allegedly handed down from on High – constituted a certain moral order which presumed to offer the promises granted by the Divine to those who obeyed those certain commandments.

So, to announce a little “good news” in the canonical gospel of Matthew (chap. 22), the Jesus character is depicted as being in a legal debate; first with the Sadducees, then the Pharisees. This is when one who was well-versed in all the rules puts Jesus to the test; asking him which commandment in the Law was the greatest. And the Galilean sage replies, “You are to love … “

“You are to love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind. This is first and foremost. And the second is like it: ‘You are to love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hangs everything in the Law and the Prophets.” [Mt. 37-40]

But before Matthew either imagined or recorded this encounter between Jesus and those legal experts challenging what one could or should do, the convert Paul had written a letter to the early faith community in Galatia; where there was presumably a religious disagreement going on over the legal requirement to cut off the foreskin of the male penis. Yikes!

I imagine Paul’s message, in part, must have certainly come as a relief to some, when he wrote, “For freedom Christ has set us free.” But he then goes on to clarify and differentiate between the adherence to a certain legal requirement, and the essential and basic moral precedent upon which any such legality should be based; as well as his fundamental identification with the one he calls the Anointed One:

“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love…. For you were called to freedom …; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” [Gal. 5:13-15]

And, about the chain, chain, chains? 

Paul elsewhere refers to it as being a “fool” for Christ. True freedom is the mandate to be the “chain of fools.” Where the “Christ” command is the moral imperative to which one shackles one’s self; to faithfully love your neighbor as one would one’s own self.

© 2022 by John William Bennison, Rel.D.  All rights reserved.
This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.

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