Bruce Thweatt pastors at Enumclaw Community Church and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Freedom is one of our most cherished privileges – and it should be – since most of the history of the world has been a sequence of one ruler after another who claimed by right of force the power of life and death over all other people. In fact, the cultures that denied the “right of kings” to rule over all others were few and often short-lived. Athenian democracy and the Roman Republic are just about all the examples you can come up with without some serious research and neither of them lasted very long. Rome’s republic lasted a couple of centuries until the urge to conquest and the ambition of politicians turned the republic into the empire. Casual historians have been commenting about the life span of the Roman Republic and the striking similarity to our American republic’s political and social trends for decades and not without some justification.
Rome’s slip into autocracy was greatly facilitated by a social trend that looked for some powerful ruler to provide all they wanted in life (the bread and circuses) combined with the concentration of wealth and influence into a smaller portion of the population that resulted in a few families setting the policies of government for their own benefit. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? But even so, the trend that did the most damage was the concept too many citizens adopted of thinking that freedom consisted of doing whatever you wanted, without regard for the consequences of those choices. Romans stopped thinking of their responsibility to their society and thought of their society as the vehicle of giving them whatever they wanted;in their view, Rome owed them whatever they wanted and they were entitled to do whatever they pleased. So Romans slipped into an era of excess and decline even while their power over the world around them increased.
You may be wondering why I am talking about Rome’s decline as our nation’s anniversary approaches, so here it is: when Romans lost their concept of right and wrong based in their historic values of duty, loyalty, family and honor and moved into a philosophy of doing what they pleased, their freedoms became toxic. Society lost its cohesion. They polarized politically. They viewed each other with suspicion and people divided by classes and occupations and wealth and no longer thought of themselves as one people. This is what happens when freedom becomes defined only as being able to do as you please.
There is another way to define freedom, but it isn’t as popular as the easy one (do what you want). There is a freedom that exists when you learn to act deliberately, intentionally choosing your actions based on what is good even when that may not be what you want. It’s the freedom that an alcoholic might find when he chooses to join AA and live each day choosing sobriety; a freedom that permits him to live without being enslaved to the thing he wants. It is the freedom of a person who chooses not to engage in the cycle of hate and revenge when he has been mistreated, but instead chooses not to let his own life be defined by the misdeeds of others. It’s the freedom that comes from knowing the truth instead of accepting the convenient and well-marketed talking points of people who want to manipulate you. It’s the freedom that comes from choosing to do what is right instead of just doing whatever it takes to get what you want.
This is the freedom Jesus demonstrated when he showed we could choose God and God’s way of life, even if all the powers of the earth line up to try to force us to do as we want. It’s the freedom that not even death can take away. Jesus was free even while they put the chains on him and dragged him away to face trial. He was free even while they flogged him and ridiculed him. He was free even while they nailed him to a cross and put him to death because every single time he chose to be himself, to be faithful to his purpose and to be faithful no matter what someone else did. Not even death could get Jesus to give up his freedom and accept the slavery of doing what these rulers of earth required of him.
So as we remember the founding of our nation and the ideals that shaped our republic, let us also remember that freedom is not just doing what you want, but is actually the capacity for choosing which path you will take, the path of good or the path of evil. No one gets to choose what is good or evil for themselves, but you always must choose between them. Choose wisely, America.