I spend a lot of time thinking about freedom these days. It comes with having a new driver. In our house we talk about freedom and responsibility. Just because one can drive, does not mean one will drive. And sometimes the freedom to drive comes up against the responsibility of curfew. Or filling the gas tank.
But I’m also thinking about freedom because it’s our national question. Not just on Independence Weekend, but all the time we debate - consciously and unconsciously - the shape and limits of freedom.
And yet, in our everyday conversations, and certainly in celebrations this weekend, we invoke the word freedom without thinking through what we mean by it. As one person said, “no one raises their eyebrows” if someone uses the term freedom. But when we try to figure out what we actually mean by freedom, the headaches start, the tensions rise, and Americans argue about their most basic word. If you doubt me then just raise the issue of the “freedom of gun ownership” at a mixed family picnic; when some of us see regulating gun ownership as important to our sense of freedom and others seeing regulations as a fundamental attack on our freedom, then I wonder if we even understand the word the same way.
What does freedom mean?
First, I want to think about freedom as we commonly understand it. By freedom we typically mean the freedom from external control or coercion. A teenager in my house might say it as, “I’m free from rules.” And the teen wouldn’t be very different than the famous German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who said, “What else, then, can the freedom of the will be but autonomy, i.e., the property of the will to be a law to itself?”
To think of freedom in this way focuses on our freedom from something. Free from external control. Free from outside authority. Free from the demands, rules, and customs that might affect our behavior.
We can certainly find this notion of freedom in the Bible: just think of the most famous freedom story: the freedom of the Jews from Egypt. When Moses confronted Pharaoh what did he say? “Let my people go!” He wanted freedom from the oppressive slavery imposed by the Egyptians. “Let my people go!”
And we hear something similar in our Declaration of Independence. It declares freedom from the King because of abuses. It listed out the facts of all those abuses, making plain to the world why the colonists needed their freedom from Great Britain. The bulk of the declaration outlines the coercive treatment by the king - “The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.”
The historical examples come from communities - Jews, colonists - seeking freedom from oppression. But the focus of freedom is no longer communal but individual: my freedom, my autonomy. We’ve personalized freedom down to the individual core, until we are each a law unto ourselves. Like the first patriots, we say, “Don’t tread on me.”
The idea of freedom from coercion, the notion of freedom as absolute autonomy, shapes many of our political debates. Ever since the Supreme Court opened the way for same-sex marriage last year, we’ve seen a tremendous increase in “religious freedom” laws and cases across the country: from Kim Davis refusing to sign marriage certificates in Kentucky to North Carolina legislators worried about bathrooms to Mississippi passing segregationist laws against LGBT people.
Now you know I have strong feelings about those cases, so I want to first talk about one that didn’t get much coverage: the “religious freedom” claim of Duquesne (Due-Kane) University. The faculty of Duquesne voted to form a union. The Catholic university claimed religious freedom meant the state could not interfere with its hiring and firing practices. In other words, a union would fundamentally prevent the university from being Catholic.
Duquesne made this argument despite the long tradition of Catholic support for labor unions. Back in 1891, Pope Leo the Thirteenth articulated the Catholic position on the dignity of work. The pope supported unions because he saw “that employers would not necessarily act in the best interests of their employees.” Pope John Paul II reaffirmed Pope Leo’s teaching one hundred years later.
So here’s the irony: Duquesne claimed a religious need to be free from labor unions despite the Catholic tradition affirming the right of workers to unionize. And so Duquesne’s appeal for freedom was not very religious at all. Instead, it wanted freedom from oversight, autonomy to do as it pleased, regardless of the conflict with its own religious mission.
Just like Duquesne, I think our national conversation about so-called religious freedom laws doesn’t reflect much spirituality, but rather a desire to be autonomous; of people wanting to be law to themselves. Certainly one can hear this critique in the recent judgement against the LGBT-segregation law in Mississippi. Judge Carlton Reeves threw out the law, noting how religion only provided a veneer for prejudice because the law doesn’t address any other potential violations of Biblical law: “No state law explicitly allows persons to decline to serve a payday lender based on a religious belief that payday lending violates Deuteronomy 23:19... If a marriage license was withheld for ‘foolish talking’ or ‘jesting,’ see Ephesians 5:4, we would undoubtedly have many fewer marriages.”
As Judge Reeves saw, faith, religion, and the Bible were not at stake in the case; but instead a deeper problem. It would be fine for people to desire autonomy if all they did was rule themselves. But the State of Mississippi wanted to allow some citizens the unique ability to rule over others, to say my interpretation of the Bible must govern your life. And that’s the danger of freedom as autonomy: we move from making a rule for ourselves to making a rule for all.
Our focus on freedom as autonomy causes us to miss other understandings of freedom. We can look back to Exodus. Moses didn’t just seek freedom from Egypt. He said more than “let my people go.” The freedom he sought had a purpose. “Let my people go so that they may worship God.” More than freedom from Egypt, Moses sought freedom to do something.
Parents know this difference intuitively. “You want the car to go where?” The parent-teenager conversation isn’t just about autonomy, it’s about purpose. What will you do with your freedom?
We remember the stirring beginning of the Declaration of Independence precisely because they speak to the purpose of our freedom. The signers of the declaration knew they had to answer the question, “What is our freedom for?” And we remember their answer, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
This understanding of freedom - freedom as purposeful - shaped the apostle Paul. This morning we heard from his letter to the Galatians, where he combined two ideas we don’t normally associate: freedom and slavery. At first Paul sounded like Immanuel Kant and those who understand freedom as autonomy; “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
But then the picture changed. Paul went on, “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.” I want us to pause here. Paul clearly understood freedom as something more and something different than personal autonomy. “Through love become slaves to one another.”
The whole point of freedom in Paul’s mind concerned our relationship to other people. He answered the question - “what is freedom for?” - by saying, “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Understood this way, the whole point of freedom isn’t doing what I want but is serving other people. It’s not freedom from other people, but freedom to more fully and completely engage in community.
While much of the “freedom” conversation in our country revolves around the rights of religious people to engage in discrimination, I think we’ve missed a far more important question of freedom. These questions don’t involve the First Amendment but rather the Fourth Amendment, not freedom of religion but freedom from unreasonable search and seizure.
Take the recent case Utah v. Strieff. In that case a police officer surveilled a house for possible drug activity. The officer decided to stop and question a man for visiting the house. During the questioning he got Strieff’s name and identification.
The stop would normally be considered illegal because the officer did not have enough reasonable suspicion for it. However, after the fact of the stop, the officer learned Strieff had an outstanding warrant and used this as pretext for a search which revealed possession of a small amount of drugs. The State of Utah used the after-the-fact discovery of the warrant as justification of the search.
The case reminded me of something I saw while doing a police ride along last year. The officers I rode with stopped a number of people and, when running their licenses, found each one had outstanding warrants for things like unpaid parking tickets. This is an issue which affects many in the central city - warrants for outstanding fines. But now the Supreme Court just gave officers a way to legitimize stops that otherwise would be illegal.
This deeply troubled Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who noted in a dissent, “
“This case involves a suspicionless stop, one in which the officer initiated this chain of events without justification … this case tells everyone, white and black, guilty and innocent, that an officer can verify your legal status at any time. It says that your body is subject to invasion while courts excuse the violation of your rights. It implies that you are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged.”
It can be hard to sympathize with Strieff, a defendant who turned out to be guilty of the crime suspected by the police officer conducting the illegal search. And yet as Justice Sotomayor recognized, none of us can be free unless all experience fair and equal treatment before the law.
Justice Sotomayor did not see freedom as autonomy - I’ll do what I want - but rather freedom as the commitment to equality, freedom with a purpose, freedom to be citizens.
When I need to remember this distinction between the freedom of autonomy and the freedom of equality, I remember Jesus. Jesus didn’t say to the disciples, “I’m on my own, I wash my hands of your problems.” No, that was Pontius Pilate's line. Instead, Jesus, “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself,” and gave his life in service to others. And in the end we know Jesus was far more free than Pilate, because a life lived for equality is far better than a life lived for oneself. Alleluia and Amen.