As I was in the midst of teaching the ancient Roman Stoic Epictetus at Oakdale Prison, an inmate stood up and launched into an argument that Stoicism is a loser’s philosophy. I challenged him: “What does it mean to be a loser? Was Jesus on the cross a loser?
President Obama’s speech in Newtown on December 17 included this pivotal question: “Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?” The president is bristling here at the way our political discourse reflexively leaps to claims about individual rights and freedoms.
Every pastor needs to
address the issue of freedom and accountability. It's part of the pastor's role
in nurturing a church community: neither a laissez-faire atmosphere nor a
judicial one helps people grow as disciples.
God grants astonishing freedom to creatures who bear the imago dei. The Arab Spring is only the latest evidence of the human desire for freedom. What's more, and far more awkward in a culture of autonomous freedom like ours, is that the God who gives us freedom also holds us accountable for what we do with this gift.
Franzen has turned his considerable novelistic talents to a kind of inquisitorial examination of the American ideal of freedom. He shows how freedom is negatively construed—focused on what we are free from and not on what freedom might be for, what worthy ends it might be used to pursue.
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Leonard Bernstein was there to celebrate with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The great chorus did not voice the familiar "Freude, Freude" ("joy, joy") but instead sang "Freiheit, Freiheit" ("freedom, freedom"). That simple, direct, unambiguous moment, however, is not the norm for thinking about freedom.
It may seem odd that at the beginning of the 21st century our lives are so pervasively dominated by rules, big rules and small rules, rules that frame our interactions and rules that enter into the fine fabric of our personal lives.
When I was a kid, my brother and I loved playing with toy dinosaurs. I’d let my brother take the ever-popular T. Rex while I went for the stegosaurus. Its back plates and tail spikes were cool, but it was this dinosaur’s second brain that put it over the top for me. I think I intuited at an early age that two brains are a good idea in the scheme of things.
Toni Morrison’s novel A Mercy begins with a Sophie’s Choice moment for a slave woman living in Barbados in the late 17th century. Her master owes a debt to a trader, and he offers the woman’s infant son as collateral. She pushes her preadolescent daughter toward the trader and begs him to take the girl instead.
Americans celebrate freedom as a national right and immortalize its twin sister liberty in the glorious statue that many of our ancestors saw as they came to this country. For me, the great-great grandson of enslaved Africans, freedom is a cherished gift long withheld from those in my familial lineage.