This past week I was invited to speak to a Kiwanis club in a city not far from Ripon. I have been privileged to speak to this particular group on several occasions, so it was a pleasure to join them once again.
As I considered what topic to address, I found myself thinking about liberty, and the basis upon which we, as Americans, have enjoyed our nation’s precious liberties for 234 years. These liberties came at a very high price: the blood of our patriots who fought the wars that secured our freedom.
Let’s begin by defining liberty. First, it means to be free from arbitrary or despotic government or control. Second, to be free from external or foreign rule; independence. Third, to be free from control, interference, obligation, restriction, hampering conditions, etc. And, fourth, the power or right of doing, thinking, speaking, etc., according to choice.
Even with these definitions, defining liberty can be quite challenging. This is because there is a very real tension between liberty for self-interest, and liberty for the good of everyone.
At this point I willing take the risk of deviating into philosophical conundrums pertaining to a more thorough understanding of liberty of which there are two forms: Natural and Civil.
The following are my thoughts taken from the writings of Puritan leader John Winthrop, in his book, “Little Speech on Liberty.”
First, there is “Natural” liberty. This is the same liberty that we share with the animal kingdom. More to the point, this is the liberty to do as one pleases. Natural liberty stems from man’s inherent sinful nature which is in rebellion against any form of authority.
Second, there is “Civil” liberty. This form of liberty is controlled by men who are guided by moral norms. It is the liberty to do “that only which is good, just, and honest.”
More to the point, Civil liberty is the “liberty of social creatures, reared in family, church, and local association, to recognize their duties to their fellows, as well as their right to pursue good ends.”
Mr. Winthrop’s description of Civil liberty could just as well have come straight out of the New Testament! In Philippians 2:3&4, it says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
This approach to life, and the way to deal with others, is foreign to Natural liberty which looks out for “Number One,” first and foremost. It is often the “self” which is uppermost in the thinking with the exercise of Natural liberty.
Now, what we often see touted as liberty today should more accurately be described as license. People choose to focus on their individual liberty to do whatever they please, totally disregarding the rights and liberties of those around them. That is more precisely “license,” and is the death knell of morality in society. Poet John Milton wrote during the seventeenth century these insightful words: “License they mean when they cry ‘Liberty’; for who loves that must first be wise and good.”
One example is the abuse of language. From TV, radio, movies, books, magazines, and people we encounter throughout the course of our daily pursuits, we are assaulted by a language and tone that is offensive and degrading. I have lost count as to the number of times I have approached a table of people (usually teens or men) at a restaurant to ask them to clean up their language.
Someone might say, “But, you don’t have the right to do that!” I would reply that I certainly do have that right. The vocal offenders are exercising their Natural liberty to do whatever they please, and by so doing they are choosing to disregard and disrespect others; whereas I am exercising my Civil liberty of maintaining a societal moral order which benefits everyone.
The erosion of our liberties today will continue unabated until “We the People” demand that our moral order is respected once again. It may seem like an impossible task, but it isn’t if enough people who hold to a godly standard of Civil liberty join forces for the betterment of all.
We can do this!