Commentary

 

Freedom and Responsibility

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By Rev. Walter E. Orthwein

The Liberty Bell, with its inscription: "Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land Unto All the Inhabitants thereof."

(This is from a chapel talk at Bryn Athyn College, on 9/16/2002, by Rev. W.E. Orthwein. 1 )

"Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof." (Leviticus 25:10)

This verse from Leviticus is inscribed on the Liberty Bell. This is most appropriate, for as the Lord says in the Gospel of John, it is His Word that makes people free.

He did not just say "the truth shall make you free," but this:

"If you abide in My Word….you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." (John 8:31-32)

Because the Lord created us to be free, the desire for freedom is built into human nature. The very word "human" implies "free." The two faculties which make us human are liberty and rationality.

This is why freedom is a right. That word, "right," is used very loosely today; people say they have a right to all kinds of things -- education, a job, medical care -- but the right to be free is an essential and absolute right because it stems from what we actually are, by design, by Divine decree.

This is why in the Declaration of Independence that right is said to be "unalienable," a right with which people are "endowed by their Creator." It is not a right granted by any government or human agency, but comes from God.

Similarly, the Constitution of the United States is not a document delineating rights granted to the people by the government; just the opposite. It describes the powers granted to the government by the people, and places strict limits on those powers, lest the government infringe upon the people¹s freedom.

These documents -- the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution -- out of which the American form of government grew and upon which it rests, are echoes of that ancient Levitical proclamation of liberty.

In the teachings of the New Church, liberty and rationality are inseparably linked. We have been given liberty because our conjunction, by love, with the Lord must be reciprocal; love can only be given and accepted freely. And we have been given rationality for the sake of liberty.

What would it mean to be free without understanding?

The Writings give us new and quite profound definitions of "rationality" and "liberty." Rationality is defined as the ability to understand what is good and true. (Divine Love and Wisdom 240) It is not cold logic, or the use of reason apart from love and religious faith, but involves the ability to grasp spiritual principles and apply them to natural life. It is "the capacity to receive spiritual light." (Divine Love and Wisdom 247) So it is closely linked to "conscience." A person with no conscience might be able to reason very cleverly, but would not be "rational" as that word is used in the Writings.

A very similar concept of rationality prevailed with the founders of the United States. They prized reason, and were suspicious of the dogma and superstition of the established churches, but it is clear from many of their statements that Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin and others of the founders did not conceive of reason as an intellectual activity apart from acknowledgment of God and His Word. Quite to the contrary, in their view virtue and religious sensibility were seen as essential elements of the rational.

"Liberty" is defined in the Writings as the ability to do -- not whatever you happen to feel like doing at the moment -- but to do what is true and good. (Divine Love and Wisdom 240)

And again, the ideal of liberty that prevailed with the authors of the American form of government was similar. The civil liberty they sought to establish was not just for the material comfort and pleasure of the people, but so they might be free to better themselves spiritually and become more truly human.

Whether you say freedom can only exist together with rationality, or together with order, it is the same thing. The use of reason is to discern what is orderly -- in the highest sense, what agrees with the order of heaven -- and bring that order down into our lives.

Genuine order flows from spiritual love. The true order of human life does not come by external compulsion, but grows naturally in a society when the loves of the people are governed by the Word.

When there is no order from within, from people freely and rationally governing their own lives and restraining their baser appetites and impulses, then hell breaks loose, and for the sake of its survival society is driven to put in place an order imposed externally, by force.

The point is: license is not liberty; license destroys liberty. We must learn to distinguish between the two. Freedom without responsibility cannot endure. It is not enough to claim our rights, we must exercise the responsibility which makes those rights possible. "If you abide in My Word….you shall be free." (John 8:32)

Responsibility means responsibility to God and our fellow human beings. Love of the Lord and love of the neighbor -- those two great commandments of the Lord's Word -- define the essence of our responsibility, and our keeping of them is the key to retaining the rights we prize so highly.

It all begins with shunning evils as sins. This is the first use of reason: to receive the light of truth, and in that light to discern the evils within ourselves for the purpose of constraining and removing them. And this is the first use of freedom: to compel ourselves to follow the truth

instead of our own natural desires.

This familiar New Church teaching that we have a personal responsibility to shun evils as sins makes this religion ideally suited for a free society -- as do the doctrines concerning usefulness, charity, liberty and rationality, and others.

Genuine liberty can only exist with genuine rationality -- that is, where there is an understanding of spiritual truth, and an acceptance of those principles and virtues which define the order of heaven. In other words, genuine liberty cannot exist apart from the acknowledgment of God, and a willingness to live by His Word.

This is true of an individual's liberty, and of the civil liberty of a nation. The founders of the United States were very clear about the fact that the kind of government they were establishing assumed a virtuous citizenry. They were quite explicit about this. Government by the people would only work if the people were a virtuous people.

Because they were aware of how corrupt human nature is, it is possible to detect a note of skepticism in their writings that the government they were establishing would endure. On the other hand, because they trusted in providence, they were hopeful, too.

The very word "virtue" has an old-fashioned ring to it these days. We're more comfortable talking about "values" now -- a much more malleable, less demanding concept. To our sophisticated ears, the very names of the traditional human virtues sound quaint, if not downright corny. Piety. Humility. Courage. Chastity. Honesty. Patriotism. Patience. Industry. Thrift. Self-reliance, and also a willingness to cooperate with others for the benefit of the whole community.

But if we would remain free, such virtues are essential. Heavenly ideals are not brought down to earth easily, or without conflict. Their implementation will not be perfect, because human beings are not perfect and this world is not perfect.

With this in mind, the crack in the Liberty Bell seems only to make it an even better symbol of American liberty. America is a work in progress. It always has been and always will be. Its great ideals may be only imperfectly realized, but the country's striving to realize them more perfectly never stops.

May it be so with each of us. Who among us can say we fully live up to the ideals we profess? Yet we must keep trying. And in this far-from-perfect world, the American experiment in free government still shines as a beacon to the world.

It is a common saying that "peace begins with me." Or "charity begins with me." It is the same with freedom. We have a responsibility to examine ourselves and strive to be worthy of the civil liberty we enjoy. (See True Christian Religion 414.)

The Lord said we should not hide our light under a bushel, but let it shine so others can see it. This is true of the light of freedom, also. And the sound of freedom. If we value it, and understand the nature of it, and work to make ourselves worthy of exercising it, then the Lord's command will be obeyed, and the joyful sound of freedom will ring ever louder throughout all the land, to all the inhabitants thereof.

Footnotes:

1. NCBS Editor's Note: This talk was given a year after the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001. It's an American-centric talk, but the author's discussion of ideals of the American founders, and the American experiment, apply more widely -- to the more universal human needs for freedom and responsibility.

The Bible

 

John 8

Study

           

1 Jesus went unto the mount of Olives.

2 And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them.

3 And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst,

4 They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act.

5 Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?

6 This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.

7 So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.

8 And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground.

9 And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.

10 When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee?

11 She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.

12 Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.

13 The Pharisees therefore said unto him, Thou bearest record of thyself; thy record is not true.

14 Jesus answered and said unto them, Though I bear record of myself, yet my record is true: for I know whence I came, and whither I go; but ye cannot tell whence I come, and whither I go.

15 Ye judge after the flesh; I judge no man.

16 And yet if I judge, my judgment is true: for I am not alone, but I and the Father that sent me.

17 It is also written in your law, that the testimony of two men is true.

18 I am one that bear witness of myself, and the Father that sent me beareth witness of me.

19 Then said they unto him, Where is thy Father? Jesus answered, Ye neither know me, nor my Father: if ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also.

20 These words spake Jesus in the treasury, as he taught in the temple: and no man laid hands on him; for his hour was not yet come.

21 Then said Jesus again unto them, I go my way, and ye shall seek me, and shall die in your sins: whither I go, ye cannot come.

22 Then said the Jews, Will he kill himself? because he saith, Whither I go, ye cannot come.

23 And he said unto them, Ye are from beneath; I am from above: ye are of this world; I am not of this world.

24 I said therefore unto you, that ye shall die in your sins: for if ye believe not that I am he, ye shall die in your sins.

25 Then said they unto him, Who art thou? And Jesus saith unto them, Even the same that I said unto you from the beginning.

26 I have many things to say and to judge of you: but he that sent me is true; and I speak to the world those things which I have heard of him.

27 They understood not that he spake to them of the Father.

28 Then said Jesus unto them, When ye have lifted up the Son of man, then shall ye know that I am he, and that I do nothing of myself; but as my Father hath taught me, I speak these things.

29 And he that sent me is with me: the Father hath not left me alone; for I do always those things that please him.

30 As he spake these words, many believed on him.

31 Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed;

32 And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

33 They answered him, We be Abraham's seed, and were never in bondage to any man: how sayest thou, Ye shall be made free?

34 Jesus answered them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin.

35 And the servant abideth not in the house for ever: but the Son abideth ever.

36 If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.

37 I know that ye are Abraham's seed; but ye seek to kill me, because my word hath no place in you.

38 I speak that which I have seen with my Father: and ye do that which ye have seen with your father.

39 They answered and said unto him, Abraham is our father. Jesus saith unto them, If ye were Abraham's children, ye would do the works of Abraham.

40 But now ye seek to kill me, a man that hath told you the truth, which I have heard of God: this did not Abraham.

41 Ye do the deeds of your father. Then said they to him, We be not born of fornication; we have one Father, even God.

42 Jesus said unto them, If God were your Father, ye would love me: for I proceeded forth and came from God; neither came I of myself, but he sent me.

43 Why do ye not understand my speech? even because ye cannot hear my word.

44 Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it.

45 And because I tell you the truth, ye believe me not.

46 Which of you convinceth me of sin? And if I say the truth, why do ye not believe me?

47 He that is of God heareth God's words: ye therefore hear them not, because ye are not of God.

48 Then answered the Jews, and said unto him, Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan, and hast a devil?

49 Jesus answered, I have not a devil; but I honour my Father, and ye do dishonour me.

50 And I seek not mine own glory: there is one that seeketh and judgeth.

51 Verily, verily, I say unto you, If a man keep my saying, he shall never see death.

52 Then said the Jews unto him, Now we know that thou hast a devil. Abraham is dead, and the prophets; and thou sayest, If a man keep my saying, he shall never taste of death.

53 Art thou greater than our father Abraham, which is dead? and the prophets are dead: whom makest thou thyself?

54 Jesus answered, If I honour myself, my honour is nothing: it is my Father that honoureth me; of whom ye say, that he is your God:

55 Yet ye have not known him; but I know him: and if I should say, I know him not, I shall be a liar like unto you: but I know him, and keep his saying.

56 Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad.

57 Then said the Jews unto him, Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast thou seen Abraham?

58 Jesus said unto them, Verily,verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.

59 Then took they up stones to cast at him: but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by.