The Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy: “Bargaining with Freedom: No Deal!”
I offer a proposal for your careful consideration. Scores of people already have accepted the deal to which I point; multitudes of others are deliberating the matter even as we watch the fireworks of this Fourth of July weekend and say our prayers on this day of worship.
A word or two of warning are in order as we begin. To give my proposal a fair shake, you will have to disregard large segments of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures that address the subject of freedom. You also may have to ignore most of the literary and rhetorical commentary on liberty that is so integral to the history of our republic.
Well, enough of the preliminaries. Here is the proposition to be considered in worship today, the deal to be brokered: As individuals and as a nation, we can realize many of our most pressing aspirations if only we will relinquish our commitment to the continuation of freedom. I know that a call to give up liberty sounds dreadful, but I also know that the trade-offs involved strike multitudes of people as extremely beneficial. Two citations make the point—our national interest in unity and our preoccupation with security.
Emblazoned in our psyches are pictures of billowing clouds of dense dark smoke shrouding the sites of terrorist attacks against our nation. These horrific events intensified our sense of vulnerability and heightened our fears. “Why can]t we all be alike and get along?” we asked. “Will we ever feel safe again?” we continue to wonder. Disoriented by shock and distracted by anxiety we have elevated unity and security to the status of indispensable values.
Well, the good news is that, if we are willing to bargain with liberty, we can have precisely what we want—thus, my proposal.
Achieving unity that guarantees uniformity requires only strict adherence to a rather simple strategy. Here are some of its elements: Turn “difference” into a moral category and make “being different” as bad as “being alike” is good. Define patriotism as unquestioning loyalty to national policy and brand questions, critiques, and disagreements related to this policy as indicators of disloyalty. Commit to a program of indoctrination rather than education so that people all across the nation will think alike and speak alike. Do not forget our children. Yank youngsters from institutions that tolerate diversity and enroll them in programs that nurture uniformity. Carefully prescribe the books that they can read. Allow no opportunity for an engagement with disturbing ideas. Do not abide unclear generalizations of affirmation that allow friends and colleagues to waffle on their support for the specific details of a particular theology, legislative initiative, or foreign policy. Tag diversity as a threat to be closely monitored rather than as a reality to be greatly appreciated.
Now, I must pause here to observe that continuation of the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion presents this strategy of movement toward uniformity with a sizable problem. The historic provision of religious liberty that has blessed this nation with virtually unparalleled spiritual vitality also has allowed to develop within this nation equally unparalleled religious diversity. The United States is now the most religiously pluralistic nation in the world! Our search for a unity that fosters uniformity is likely to involve efforts to compromise this historic liberty. And, of course, there are effective ways to proceed.
For example, we could reverse the commitment of our founders and establish one religion as the official religion of the nation. Or, knowing the controversy that would stir, we can stop short of support for a formally established faith and just be sure that our public institutions give priority to the symbols and scriptures of the most prevalent religious tradition in our land—our religion, of course, at least for now. We can always use the legislative process to establish sectarian values as public policies. Why, we even can allow government funds to support religious ministries and interpret distinctive symbols of faith as expressions of our culture. I promise you that will work. Though, at the end of the day, we still will not all be alike, we will have in place a form of governance that assures sameness in public appearances and expressions. A comforting sense of unity will prevail even if some protest.
Security actually may be an easier goal to achieve than unity. Again, a simple strategy works if we will minimize concerns about liberty.
Is not a diminution of liberty a small price to pay for the realization of security? Who of us will miss such fundamental guarantees as “innocent until proven guilty” or feel disadvantaged by a compromise of the freedoms of speech and religion? We could all breathe easier under an absolute rule of law that removes from our midst undesirable elements in our society—especially persons whose looks bother us as much as their words. If we could guarantee security, would we miss freedom?
A recurrent principle is self-evident. Freedom stands in the way of our realization of much that we desire.
Let me do a quick mini refresher course on the problems with freedom. You probably know them well, but too much is at stake in our decision-making this morning not to be sure.
One problem with freedom is that it appreciates and protects rather than fears and seeks to eliminate diversity. Freedom nurtures a society in which all kinds of people are welcome and celebrates the dignity and need for respect of each one of them. If that is not enough to make us uncomfortable with freedom, there is more.
Freedom insists that people think for themselves even when exceedingly difficult decisions must be made. Freedom risks disagreement and, in fact, invites critique as well as affirmation in relation both to government and religion. And freedom insists that the majority of the population display respect and provide basic rights even to minorities with whom they disagree. Do you see? Freedom invites controversy, risks dissent and, yes, tolerates the possibility of unwanted consequences.
Friends, I am offering you a really good deal. Back off your insistence on freedom or give it up entirely and I can guarantee you unity, security, and much, much more.
But wait; speaking to you from behind this sacred desk, I must be completely honest with you. There is a downside to an acceptance of my bargain. Certain grave difficulties inevitably arise in the absence of freedom.
Spiritually speaking, where there is no freedom, there is no true faith—real faith is always the product of an un-coerced decision. Morally speaking, where there is no freedom, there is no authentic morality—moral integrity requires freely made choices to do right for the sake of right, not forced behavior controlled by the threat of serious reprisals for deviations from it. Politically speaking, where there is no freedom, there is no democracy—freedom guarantees a voice for minorities and rights even for dissenters. Developmentally speaking, where there is no freedom, there is no maturity—personal, spiritual, or political. A rigid legalism, a tyrannical politics, or a narrow religion anesthetizes conscience, blunts growth in thought, and robs people of initiative.
Then, too, where there is no freedom, there is no love. Real love—love for another person, for a church, for a mosque, for a temple, for a nation—never can be produced by intimidation, imposition, or coercion. So, where there is no freedom, there is no love and where there is no love, relationships languish without grace and forgiveness, and with very little hope.
So, what do you think? In a national marketplace of ideas where wares such as efficiency, unity, security, orthodoxy, and popularity are hawked as assurances that can be purchased for the price of liberty, what kind of deal are your willing to make? Honestly, catch any one of us at the right moment, a moment of extreme fear or runaway anxiety, and we may not be able to see the loss of freedom as too high a price to pay for a realization of unity and security. That is why weekend we must look at this matter today.
The choice between freedom and everything else is yours to make, just as it is mine. But as I stand here in this place of worship, a house of prayer for all people, making that observation, I find myself assaulted by a collage of images.
I see Moses, the ancient patriarch, defying the Pharoah of Egypt because of his unyielding conviction that God wants all people free.
I see a first century tentmaker, an elderly apostle schooled in the law, threatened with execution unless he backs away from an insistence on freedom and acknowledges the primacy of legalism; and he will not relent, not even for the promise of life over death.
I see the Prophet Mohammed speaking and writing of freedom as a primal principle of religion. As the Q’ran instructs, “There is no compulsion in religion.”
I see Patrick Henry standing behind a pulpit in colonial Virginia screaming, “Give me liberty or give me death.”
I see patriots in the colonies of this nation eagerly declaring independence and then responsibly struggling to frame a constitution that guarantees freedom and justice for all.
I see, not far from this place of worship, a national cemetery in which rows and rows of white stones mark graves in which lay the remains of thousands of men and women who have died to protect that freedom.
I see the Old South Meeting House on the Freedom Trail in Boston, which I walked again only a few days ago, and I hear George Washington asking how civil leaders can prize personal faith in their speeches while taking actions to federalize houses of worship for their own political purposes.
I see an African American minister who stood in this pulpit only a few days before his death, praising God for the promise of freedom and calling the nation to make this freedom a reality for all people.
I see an old Christian man named John bent over a piece of parchment scrawling across it in ink the good news that when Jesus makes a person free that person is really free.
My God, I pray, what has happened? All of these biblical, historical, political people considered freedom as valuable as life itself. None of them would have bargained with freedom. What has happened? How did freedom become a negotiable commodity? Who dared place freedom on the bargain table?
Listen, dear friends. Please forget the proposal with which I began this sermon. I have no deal for you. To give up freedom for anything else is to give up too much. In the final analysis, nothing that matters in life requires forfeiting freedom—not friends, not love, not loyalty, not patriotism, not religion, not faith, not God.
Please replace my all too timely proposition with a timeless exhortation that sets before us a word of truth that echoes through the ages and resonates within my soul as the Word of God:
You were called to be free
brothers and sisters, stand
firm, then, and do not let
yourselves be burdened again—
(never again)—by a yoke of slavery.
If you want to bargain with freedom, as an expression of faith, I must say to you, “No deal!” We were created for freedom. We are called to a life of freedom. Let us be true to that calling and faithful in our protection of the liberty given to us in God’s loving act of creation. Stand firm in freedom!
God help us! Amen.