The words of the Declaration of Independence are inspiring even after 240-plus years: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Those foundational sentiments are truly unique in the history of the world. America became an experiment in liberty and freedom unlike any other nation! That is something for which we should be both proud and grateful.
And yet, the practical reality is that the freedom Americans celebrate often is exercised in a way that disregards the freedom of others around them. Oftentimes, the cry of the common man is: “I have my rights, it’s a free country!”
That same issue is seen in theological matters. Perhaps the central divide between people of faith is between grace and law. Those who emphasize grace center their attention on the fact that there is “freedom in Christ” and we are no longer under the bondage of Old Testament law. On the other side of the debate, however, is stressed that God’s moral law never changes and we still, as free moral agents, must act and react in response to the moral directives of holy Scripture. In this way, even in matters of faith, we have a tension that we need to resolve between freedom and responsibility.
We live in an age in which the individual has become freer than ever to pursue his or her happiness. Our relative affluence, the development of labor-saving devices, the glut of information available to us, the ease of travel and movement, and the abundance of devices to talk, text, and connect on social media has given us unprecedented flexibility to enjoy our freedom.
And yet, we often do not see corresponding care in exercising responsibility in individual lives. With every freedom there is a responsibility. The Apostle Paul gave the admonition: “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.”
Paul’s word to the first century church is needed in our 21st century society. We do not live life in a vacuum; our actions have direct impact on other people. We live in a social context in which the way we exercise our freedom can impact and limit the freedom of others. Therefore we must take care to act responsibly. Consider for instance:
- We are free to express ourselves openly on social media; but we must take care that we show respect to other people as special creations of God.
- We are free to spend our money as we see fit; but we must take care that the basic physical needs of ourselves and our families are met.
- We are free to espouse our strongly held religious or political convictions; but we must take care to respect others who hold opposing views as worthy human beings as well.
- We are free to associate with a wide group of friends and acquaintances; but we must take care that the primary relationships of spouse and family are not neglected.
On July 4, 1970, in the midst of the Vietnam War, a rally in Washington, D.C., known as Honor America Day, was held. The elderly Bishop Fulton J. Sheen addressed the crowd that day with a call for the establishment either literally or figuratively of a “Statue of Responsibility” in Los Angeles harbor to balance the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor.
The Bishop’s call to responsibility needs to be heard today. As we celebrate our nation’s independence once again, let us all personally commit ourselves to a renewed sense of responsibility that will help us keep in check the dangers of unbridled freedom. Let us live life in such a way that takes into account all the rights and freedoms of those around us as we aim to live in a community of mutual respect and care for each other. It is only in this way that the American promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” will be realized for generations to come!
The Rev. Timothy A. Johnson shares this space with the Revs. Rod Anderson and Trish Sullivan Vanni as well as spiritual writers Dr. Bernard E. Johnson, Nanette Missaghi and Beryl Schewe. “Spiritually Speaking” appears weekly.