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38 - Justice in Contemplation - Part 4: Freedom

Updated: Sep 12, 2023

What do you think about when you think of freedom?

What most think about is personal freedom.

The freedom to do whatever we want, when we want, no matter what. That would include things like the protection of personal rights, personal property, and financial stability. But we would also quickly admit that to ensure certain personal freedoms, other personal freedoms must be sacrificed. I cannot do whatever I want, whenever I want, to whomever I want, because I don’t want others to be able to do whatever they want to me. The foundation of civil society is the willingness to give up a certain amount of freedom to safeguard freedom. In order to live in community with others, we must all agree to hold certain boundaries for the good of all. We could live alone, and be perfectly free to do whatever we wanted, in theory. But if we are to live in proximity with other humans, we’re going to have to exercise certain restrains on our personal liberty for the sake of the whole.

The purpose of curtailing certain freedoms for the sake of community isn’t to protect me from you, but to create a space where community can exist and thrive. The purpose is for community, not individual freedom. When we begin to think of communal constraint in terms of personal benefit, we go down a path where we begin to pull apart the basis of community for our own personal gain. When I start down the path of wanting everyone else’s freedoms curtailed for the sake of my own, community falls apart.

Community is about power-with.

We are currently in the midst of communal breakdown because we have forgotten this one simple truth. Community is about the “us” being bigger than the “me.” Whenever the “me” gets too big, the “us” falls apart. When we understand the need to put our own personal needs second to the needs of the community, then community works. When we’re all fighting for the prominence of our own personal needs over others, no one will get their needs meet. That’s because many of our deepest needs can only be met communally.

Community is what we’re made for.

That also means that individual freedom is less important than the health and wellbeing of the community. We turn that on its head to our own peril. Trying to approach society from an individualistic standpoint is precarious. The American experiment was never meant to guarantee personal freedom above community. We were meant to be one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. How then, have we become so divided, and so intrenched in a system which seems more bent on liberty and justice for some, but not for the whole? Because we have become more vested in personal freedom than freedom for all.

I'm married with three young kids. Every day is a social experiment. I get to watch my kids discovering how relationship works, and how to navigate their own needs in the midst of our family environment. My kids are 5, 8, and 10, and are at the stage where they are most often still trying to put their own needs first. Parenting at this stage can be exhausting, because it seems like we are constantly running from one demand to the next. “Get me chocolate milk,” “get me dinner,” “stop brother from looking at me,” “make sister quiet,” “make brother play my game.”

We all have needs. We are all here in this shared space of living life together. What my wife and I are trying to teach our kids at this stage is how to consider the needs of others. They are deeply invested in figuring out how to get everyone else to meet their needs and do what they want, and we are deeply invested in trying to help them understand the benefits and necessity of considering the needs of others, and the whole.

It seems like our world is in the same basic lesson, and failing to learn it. I also think we’ve leaned to heavily on meeting the needs of the individual, instead of teaching the individual how to meet the needs of the whole. The irony is that when we think it’s about the whole meeting the needs of the individual, the needs of both get lost.

Everything is not here for me.

I am here for everything.

That is the basis of the contemplative perspective.

It’s not a self-effacing idea, but affirms the self as a part of the whole. It balances the good of the one through the good of the many by understanding that this is how the good of both gets fulfilled.

It is good for me to seek the good of others.

It is not good for me to seek my good above the good of others.

This is the foundation of relationships, but also of the entire cosmos. We are all part of one symbiotic organism, small parts of a single whole. When one part gets too invested in their personal freedom, enough to step out of the whole and try to dominate it for their own purpose, the whole suffers, and the one part with it. When everyone is fighting for their own needs above others, no one’s needs get met.

We must understand freedom as a shared experience, or we will not experience much freedom.

We must also understand how we can feed into the freedom of the whole, and how we can constrain that freedom. It’s not just about me giving up some freedom to get certain freedoms, it’s about me being willing to help foster freedom for everyone. The goal cannot be self-centered. It cannot be about my freedom. If we think it’s about trading freedom, then we can begin to think in terms of me having more and you having less. This is how my kids think it works.

They are always wanting someone else’s freedom curtailed so they can do what they want. One wants to sing, the other wants quiet; who should get what they want? What they think is that the one with the most power has the most freedom. They are constantly pushing each other, fighting for their way. Sometimes they even get physical. They are already practicing the idea that might makes right. And they can often see mom and dad as the most free, because we are the most dominant and in control of what happens for the family. What they don’t understand is how much we sacrifice and work for their good, not our own. They think we are constantly constraining them for our own benefit. They don’t understand that we are most often constraining them for their own benefit. But the goal is to help them grow into, and learn how to constrain themselves for their own benefit. In order for them to get any of their needs met, they must learn how to meet the needs of others. When no one knows how to meet the needs of others, no one gets what they need, especially when it comes to love and community.

Do you know what the word “politic” means?

It means sensible or wise action?

It means doing what is the most good.

The word came from the original Greek word “polis” which simply meant “city,” which also then started being used to describe a person in that city, a “polities” or “citizen.” It bears the idea that in order for citizens to live in close proximity, a necessary harmony is required. It also became sensible to have certain individuals devoted to that harmony, which we now call politicians.

Governments were formed in order to ensure the harmony of the city and its citizens. They were given a certain amount of power over citizens in order to keep the peace. They were meant to do what was good for the whole city. But what happens when those charged with safe-guarding the harmony of the entire city begin to favor certain individuals or groups over others, or when they begin favoring their own good over that of those they govern? Then the whole idea of "politic" breaks down.

Governance which is good requires people that are good, people that can seek the good of others over themselves, people that are "politic".

How far we have wavered from that idea. Now the very word “politics” means to be divisive, to be about your own party, your own personal agenda, or the agenda of only those who favor you. We have come to see the political process as a means of power-over and not power-with. We have come to see the government as a means for personal power because we have forgotten how to be good people, people who are about the good of the whole.

In a democracy, the heart of the government reflects the heart of the people. As individual citizens, when we are about electing people who will only do what is good for us, we end up electing people who tend to only do what is good for them, because that is our basis for good. We should not be surprised by how petty our politics are, when we ourselves have become so petty. When we only know how to seek our own good above others, it should not surprise us when others attempt to seek their own good above ours.

How can we expect others to be more altruistic than we are?

Why should we expect others to bend to our good, if we are unwilling to bend to theirs? Do we really think everyone else should do the work of sacrificing their freedoms for ours?

This will not work.

How can we get to a place where we are all working together for the harmony of everyone? How can we learn again how to put our personal freedoms beneath the freedom of all?

We can clearly see the result of seeking freedom for some at the cost of others.

The problem becomes when those benefiting from a lopsided freedom don't care how their privilege is hurting others. If the system is benefiting me, why would I change the system?

In a world where the power of the few comes from the powerlessness of the many, and the majority is allowed to dominate the minority for the sake of its own good, who wouldn’t want to be in power? The goal of equality in a system of power-over isn’t about equality at all, it’s about taking turns as the ones who get to control the system for their own benefit. And no one should be surprised, in that system, when the powerful won’t lay down their power so the powerless can take their place.

True equality is creating a space where everyone is working for the good of everyone, not one group working to gain power over others. When we believe that the good of the individual supersedes the good of the whole, we will get exactly what we see in our current society; national infighting for control of a system designed to only benefit some. A system designed to only benefit some, eventually only benefits the few. And as it progresses, it will benefit fewer and fewer people, until it eventually only benefits the one. This is how a democracy becomes an oligarchy, and eventually a dictatorship.

The only way power remains balanced, between those who have more and those who have less, is if those who have more understand the need to give it to those who don’t.

The responsibility of power is to understand that it is balanced by a giving flow.

The more we are empowered by God, who is a giving flow of love, the more we will be in the giving flow of that love. The freedom of stepping into true power is the freedom from the grip of false power. False power is about trying to get what we don’t have. True power is about giving what we already have. True power is the ability to love all things.

Love is freedom, and freedom is love.

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