Thursday, December 3, 2009

A Tyrannical Liberty

These days, Christians ought to be careful who they throw there hat in the ring with. Paul warns of the dangers of the Christian being unequally yoked. This is especially true in the area of politics. It is unfortunate when "evangelical" becomes known as a voting block. It is equally unfortunate when the "kingdom of God" becomes equally associated with a particular wing of American politics.

Consider this quote from H.L. Mencken's Notes on Democracy:
The fact is that liberty, in any true sense, is a concept that lies quite beyond the reach of the inferior man’s mind. He can imagine and even esteem, in his way, certain false forms of liberty–for example, the right to choose between two political mountebanks, and to yell for the more obviously dishonest–but the reality is incomprehensible to him. And no wonder, for genuine liberty demands of its votaries a quality he lacks completely, and that is courage. The man who loves it must be willing to fight for it; blood, said Jefferson, is its natural manure. More, he must be able to endureit–an even more arduous business. Liberty means self-reliance, it means resolution, it means enterprise, it means the capacity for doing without. The free man is one who has won a small and precarious territory from the great mob of his inferiors, and is prepared and ready to defend it and make it support him. All around him are enemies, and where he stands there is no friend. He can hope for little help from other men of his own kind, for they have battles of their own to fight. He has made of himself a sort of god in his little world, and he must face the responsibilities of a god, and the dreadful loneliness. Has Homo boobiensany talent for this magnificent self-reliance? He has the same talent for it that he has for writing symphonies in the manner of Ludwig van Beethoven, no less and no more. That is to say, he has no talent whatsoever, nor even any understanding that such a talent exists. Liberty is unfathomable to him. He can no more comprehend it than he can comprehend honour. What he mistakes for it, nine times out of ten, is simply the banal right to empty hallelujahs upon his oppressors. He is an ox whose last proud, defiant gesture is to lick the butcher behind the ear.

This is a dreadful account of the nature of freedom.
One the one hand, I believe that a Christian worldview favors conclusions regarding democracy and liberty. It is no secret that capitalism as a system arose not only because of the efforts of the Enlightenment but the Reformation as well. In history it is difficult to parse out such events to a single cause. And while Enlightenment ideas contributed to the American Revolution, there is no denying that there were numerous Christians who championed the cause of liberty and their Christian ethic influenced America's birth. A true Christian ethic is going to be against oppression and in favor of liberty.

However, on the other hand, there is a notion of liberty that goes beyond a Christian ethic. Some of the founding father's championed an Enlightenment rational that rejection Christian religion. It is a notion of freethinking where man is his own master. Of course, writing much later H.L. Mencken was also no friend of religion--and Christianity.

Mencken may be right about the value of liberty but is misses the mark wide on the purpose of liberty. The purpose of liberty should not be to "claim your piece of the prize." The goal of liberty is not that I should have a "piece of the action" and be the sort of god of that world.

There is a vast difference between sacrificing yourself for the sake of others to win their liberty--and dying to assert yourself and claim your prize of liberty for you. There is a vast difference between freeing the helpless and the weak--lifting the bonds of their oppression--then rising to claim yours for you and you alone. Indeed, if I cherish liberty the goal of liberty should not be to scoff at those who we deem to stupid to grasp it but to share it as if we have a boundless treasure. The hungry man may not realize the depth of his hunger--but as he slowly smells the food, he stomach will churn with hungry. On a cold wet day, the smell of a warm soup will appeal to him as release from his oppression. It is no prize of liberty to stare down our nose at those we find to hold inferior views of liberty while we cling white knuckled to the prize that is ours.

For the Christian, particular the politically conservative Christian, our cherishing of liberty should not be rooted in a deep selfishness. It cannot be rooted in a "pull oneself up by the boots straps" notion of life. We cannot be devoid of compassion for those who lack in life. It may be each persons responsibility to provide for themselves but it is equally each persons privilege to love their neighbor liberally.

While the ethics of the kingdom of God favor, I believe, systems that cherish humans as made in the image of God and therefore should be set free from or never tyrannized under oppression. The ethics of the kingdom of God create a community that loves and sacrifices beyond one's own "piece of the action." Of course, while some political realities or ideals on this earth may reflect God's character and nature better than others political realities or ideals at the end of the day these things, no matter what their stripe, belong to the kingdoms of this age. It is the city of man not the city of God. Thus, even as Mencken posits a notion of liberty, it is a crude liberty that has lost its way stumbling aimlessly in the dark. At the end of the day to be "a sort of god in his little world, and...face the responsibilities of a god, and the dreadful loneliness" is no liberty, it is a tyranny to one's own idolatries.

One who so cherishes liberty that it turns them into a cold hard merciless self-imposed god of their own little world is no ally to a Christian position. While Christians, particularly in America, may cherish liberty and use their vote for policy that they see upholding such liberty, we have a deeper allegiance. One who would use liberty as an altar to sacrifice to himself as self proclaimed god is indeed no alley to which we should yoke ourselves. The Christian ought to be deeply aware of the tyranny that liberty can create.

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