Saint Paul, though he never imagined life in a democracy, understood the ambiguities of freedom. In Romans, Paul confesses that he feels anything but free. “I can decide what I want,” he writes, “but I am powerless to do it.” When we’re choosing how to act in a given situation, he says, there’s often a great gulf between how we’re determined to behave and what we actually do. “Wretched man that I am!” Paul writes. “Who can deliver me from this slavery?”
Like Saint Paul, we know that our liberties can’t be entirely unconstrained. As Justice Holmes famously reminded us in a 1919 decision, free speech doesn’t include the right to cry “fire!” in a crowded theater. And experience teaches us that some limitations are welcome.
In a former life at a New England prep school, I ran a dormitory for a dozen junior and senior boys. They, of course, protested the eleven o’clock curfew on Saturday evenings, arguing that we faculty prudes were sabotaging their young social lives, cutting them off from all the most delightful possibilities that could arise from hanging around a bunch of girls in the middle of the night. But each weekend I was amused to note that most of my boys would return well before eleven, obviously relieved to escape the sexual and emotional cauldron that is Saturday night at a co-ed boarding school. They claimed they wanted to be free of all restraints, but they were clearly grateful for at least this one little bit of compulsion. Any parent of teenagers recognizes this.
Freedom is a big problem for everyone. More often than we realize, people run away from it. We’ve all heard stories of newly paroled prisoners whose first act after release is to go out and commit another crime. Some, undoubtedly, can’t control their obsessions. But many acknowledge that they’re trying to get back into prison. Freedom, for them, is just too much to cope with; the constraints of prison are preferable. And it’s not only ex-convicts who act in this way.
Freedom is scary; it leaves many people adrift. That’s why not everyone in the world envies us our American liberties. They long for someone to give their lives direction, to tell them what to do. We like to think of fascism as a foreign phenomenon, confined to Europe in the thirties or to third world countries today, conveniently forgetting that before Pearl Harbor, Hitler had many admirers in this country. Some of them, I’m sorry to say, were relatives of mine. Behind the backs of us children, my beloved Cousin Martha was known to the adults in the family as “Martha the Nazi.” The yearning for a strong, authoritarian leader isn’t limited to the third world; it characterizes many in our own society, as well.
In large measure, we’re free to do what we want with our lives, but we can become dissatisfied when we find we have nothing interesting to do. Many fritter their time away in self-indulgence, engaging in a pointless round of accumulating and consuming. “He who dies with the most toys wins,” reads the ironic bumper sticker of the compulsive shopper.
When Mr. Jefferson enumerated our rights as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” he had a noble ideal in mind: a free people trying to create an open, democratic society, unlike any the world had ever known. But today when people today cry, “It’s a free country, isn’t it?” they’re usually only justifying their own moral poverty, hardly living up to Jefferson’s ideal.
Saint Paul asks, “Who can deliver me from this slavery?” The answer lies in today’s gospel. There, after Jesus invites people to follow him, he asks them to take his yoke, his burden, upon them. Isn’t this a contradiction? While Jesus’ burden may be light and his yoke may be easy, a burden is still a burden and a yoke is still a yoke. Isn’t the point of freedom to avoid all yokes, all burdens, so that we can be free to do what we want?
At the heart of the Christian Gospel there is this paradox: only as we are linked to Christ, only as our lives are bent to his will, are we really free. Saint Augustine discovered this a long time ago. As a teenager he earned a reputation for being wild, getting drunk with his companions, fathering a child when he was not yet sixteen. Then Augustine’s life got caught up in Christ. After his conversion, he realized that liberty was to be found not in doing whatever he wanted, but rather in becoming the man God intended him to be. By taking on the yoke of Christ, he found real freedom.
The freedom that we’ll celebrate tomorrow is a great gift. It gives us the opportunity to make something wonderful of our lives. But, by itself, freedom is only an opportunity; it doesn’t make either us good or our society just. It’s up to you and me to use our freedom to work for goodness and justice. We know how to do that, because Christ himself has shown us the way: "Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me . . . for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." Amen.
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Last Updated on Wednesday, 20 May 2009 13:26