An Uncertain Freedom
What does it mean to be free? On the Fourth of July, we celebrate 238 years of national independence. Independence Day gives the United States a platform to celebrate and take great pride in the liberty of its citizens. Every year, it seems that the weeks leading up to this annual commemoration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence make it clear that the freedom we embrace is uncertain at best. Our liberties are nearly always under attack by forces competing for the right to define what freedom really means.
Staunch advocates of freedom for all people in the world run into equally strong voices for isolationism. Standing up for “freedom-loving people everywhere” was once a national, patriotic assumption. The justification for intervention in the affairs of other sovereign states and nations rested on the idea that the citizens of the United States shared a common perspective on the intrinsic value of freedom. But that has changed.
Back in 1947, President Harry Truman established this principle in what is known as the Truman Doctrine. In a speech to Congress, he affirmed a nationally embraced passion for freedom that would make it our moral responsibility and national policy “to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” The circumstance prompting the statement was the effort by certain totalitarian communist regimes posing a threat to the liberty of other nations, especially with respect to Soviet interference in Greece and Turkey. Voices for isolationism spoke against the Truman Doctrine. Those voices valued their own declared right to accept no responsibility for the affairs of other nations. In other words, they placed a high value on their freedom to ignore the absence of freedom for others. A broader pursuit of freedom for all was deemed an inferior value to their own individualized freedoms. But at the time of the Truman Doctrine, the recent sacrifices made in World War II to restore freedom to Europe and Asia, the majority of our nation embraced a moral resolve to preserve liberty everywhere.
Several generations have passed since those days. New threats to national freedom continue to appear at an alarming rate all over the world. Islamic regimes compete for domination over nations and make it their raison d’être to smother any voices for freedom that protest the mandates of sharia law. The war raging among various Muslim factions in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Lebanon right now demonstrates the passionate and crazed zeal to suppress sectarian freedom so that self-styled versions of sharia may be imposed by either Shia or Sunni majorities—or those with the greatest might! ISIS, or Islamic State of Iran and Syria, are “out-terrorizing” other regional terrorists while outside forces are reluctant to provide support for any side of the conflict. As history has shown, providing military training and arms for Islamic factions usually ends up placing those same resources in the hands of avowed enemies of freedom at some later date. Weapons used to overthrow one faction inevitably end up being used to fight against forces for freedom once the upper hand has been gained.
Totalitarian regimes representing a wide range of ideologies persist in their attempts to establish sovereignty over nations and curtail any liberties they perceive as threats to their own autocratic control. Recent unrest in Ukraine shows how fragile freedom can be. When a hostile minority with the help of outside nations can foment civil war in a sovereign state, freedoms disappear along political lines. Pro-Russian citizens of the eastern portion of Ukraine, and particularly Crimea, have effectively revolted against the recognized government of Ukraine with the help of Russia and created a deadly and antagonistic situation. All sides are crying out for freedom for themselves with no regard to the consequences for others.
As the “land of the free,” the United States has left little doubt that the passion for freedom once held as the majority perspective has diminished, and in some cases even been overcome by enemies of true liberty. Uneven applications of the Truman Doctrine in US foreign policy have left many disillusioned. We now look only to national security interests to justify our intervention when freedom is threatened. But helping to achieve and preserve freedom is no longer recognized as a sound reason to help liberate an oppressed people. In the recent past, in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, decisions to intervene have raised reasonable questions. How do are we to understand our justification for US intervention in those situations while doing little or nothing to the relieve the plight of people in places like Bosnia, Somalia, Sudan and Rwanda (and many other such trouble spots that expose the disparity in how we choose to get involved in international disputes for the sake of freedom)?
The way we choose either to get involved or look the other way when the freedom of a people comes under attack raises doubts about our commitment to independence for all as a principle. Voices for isolationism grow louder and more pronounced as freedom loses its shine, as it is scuffed and marred by revising its meaning, and by reducing its relevance until it is no longer valued as it once was.
So, has freedom lost its appeal? Not on a privatized basis, no! Ironically as national commitments to the Truman Doctrine disappear, personal, individualized freedom is presently gaining ground as our highest national value. The freedoms of other people and nations matter only as long as a case can be made for how the loss of their liberty impacts “my own,” according to the cultural context in which we find ourselves as a nation. As a result, this self-serving bias embedded in the consciousness of American culture will only lead to a retreat into the kind of self-absorption that ultimately undermines civil society.
Jesus made a direct correlation between truth and freedom when He said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). Since then, instead of viewing these two as complementary, many have pitted one against the other. Truth often limits the freedom to do whatever you want, while freedom becomes a license to act as if truth does not matter.
Which do you value more—freedom or truth? The Declaration of Independence states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Based on those “self-evident truths,” the signers of the document declared that “these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States….” Now 238 years later, these United States of America find that we do not agree on the value of what it means to value what is true and right, but affirm with certainty that liberty always has value. How did that happen?
Independence, by its nature, can never be an absolute value. Therefore the pursuit of freedom always runs the risk of imposing one person’s freedom upon others. Yet the almost idolatrous position personal liberty holds in human society suggests that everyone has the right to be free, and be free on his or her own terms. Truth, on the other hand, is held loosely. The same culture that practically worships freedom views truth as a noble-minded pursuit but one that inevitably leads to a narrow-minded perspective if one claims to have found it. Truth, by its very nature, has to be an absolute value. So, freedom is relative but truth is absolute, a concept foreign to the current thinking of modern society. Public discussion on these issues usually focuses on how either is defined, and who gets to define them.
Independence always depends on something else. It never exists in a vacuum for those who live in a civilized society. A culture, therefore, has to define its values before it can agree on its freedoms. What we value most gets the greatest liberty.
Unfortunately, when we try to avoid the intrusion of values while trying to demand freedom, we find ourselves in a cultural mess. For those of us whose values are biblically defined, the field of play has been slanted against us. Citing the enigmatic and arbitrarily imposed idea usually called “separation of church and state,” we live in a society that tries to embrace values without allowing the voice of truth to speak at the table. Christian principles and ethics, biblical truths and morals, are ruled out of order. The debate over values must be conducted without the intrusion of “religious influences” in shaping those values.
Of course the foolishness of such a premise is immediately apparent. Every attempt to address values must necessarily involve what people believe. Why, then, are the beliefs of everyone but followers of Jesus Christ allowed in the establishment of the very values upon which freedom is founded? Secular humanists, atheists, social architects, psychologists, academics, government officials, and yes, even the entertainment and media industries all declare themselves “value free” and hence, they alone, not religious people, are qualified to determine our nation’s foundations for freedom.
So what if in a pluralistic culture, we actually give everyone a voice? What if Christian values based on biblical principles and truths be given the same serious consideration all the other veiled belief systems get in defining cultural values?
Freedom as presently defined and protected and sought after is such a vague concept, applied so capriciously, that we as a nation have actually stalled out in trying to figure out what true freedom looks like. On July 4th, we celebrate our freedom—even if we are not sure what that means any more!
As you consider the problem and think about absolute values built on irrevocable truths, think of them as the essential foundation for freedom that is truly free for all. Toward that end, remember Paul’s pleas for a life of freedom based on the freedom found in Christ alone:
Galatians 5:1—It was for freedom that Christ set us free
2 Corinthians 3:17—Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.
No nation, and no people within a nation, can be free until their liberty has been secured by the eternal, unchanging truth of Jesus Christ. Every other form of freedom will eventually degenerate into self-serving, self-seeking versions of privatized liberty. The freedom of others will matter only insofar as it does not cost anything to the individual. The noble effort of the Truman Doctrine at least made an effort to establish that freedom should be available for all. The Declaration of Independence and the Pledge of Allegiance affirm that freedom is to be valued highly for all. This kind of freedom can only be found in Christ, but it lasts forever and is to be proclaimed by His free agents to all who will listen. Therefore, let freedom ring as the cry of those who love the liberty of soul that comes from the truth that will set you free. Let the nations be glad…let the soul delight…let the earth rejoice when freedom reigns under the King of kings!
After a week teaching at Emanuel Univ in Oradea, Romania, we are now in Lutsk, Ukraine to begin a series of meetings with church leaders here. We flew out of Budapest this morning to Lviv and then drove the remaining 4 hours here. We have the honor of being with a great friend, Zygmunt Karel from Poland. Our host for the week is a Ukrainian pastor and his family who have overwhelmed us with kindness and hospitality. Can’t wait to get started in our meetings to learn from the ministry leaders here.