What is this thing called “freedom”?

Karl-Hoecker-album-Laughing-at-Auschwitz-(1)eIn the last week, there has been a vigorous debate concerning a few incidents in which a member  of President Trump’s leadership was refused service at a restaurant, and in which two others were heckled while trying to eat Mexican food at local establishments. The debate has focused on the idea of civility: whether and to what degree our nation is harmed when the tenor of discourse becomes rancorous.

I do not wish to engage that debate; I genuinely do not know how I feel about those incidents, or how I would locate the line at which civil discourse becomes beside the point. But I would like to take the incidents as an excuse to explore a theological issue, because underneath the actions of the protesters was an intuitive understanding of human freedom — an understanding we badly need to clarify for our own time.

You see, “civility” is only the uppermost layer that these incidents engage. The more profound issue involves freedom and accountability. It is fundamental to Christian theology that human beings are moral free agents. The story of Adam and Eve in the Garden is all about that freedom (and its misuse): God places human beings in the garden of the world, charges them to help it flourish, and gives them free scope to do anything — eat anything, touch anything, talk to anything — except one single tree, which is barred from their reach. Giving them that commandment gives them their freedom, to obey it or to risk the natural consequences of disobedience. The very prohibition constitutes them as moral free agents.

That freedom has led too often to our harm, but it remains intact. Over the course of our lives, not one of us will exercise our freedom with perfect love; that’s what sin is about. But each of us always has the chance, in every decision, to act with love or against it. Even in situations where both options are pretty bad, still, we have the freedom to choose which seems to us better, and which seems to us worse. That freedom constitutes our human dignity: it is the fundamental way in which we have been made in the image of God, who, when Moses asked God’s name, replied, I will be who I will be.

The people who are arguing that government workers should not be engaged during their private time are adhering to the custom that federal employees check their politics at the office door. There has been a lot of cynicism about that concept in the blogosphere 646and in certain media, but I am the child of federal workers, and I can say that they and their colleagues did their best to render faithful and informed service to this nation under Presidents and Congresses of both parties. And they kept confidential what was meant to be kept confidential, and they spoke their opinions to the national leadership both when they agreed with what was being done and when they disagreed in principle or thought they had a better way to accomplish the goal. I was and am proud of them for honoring this tradition, and I continue to believe that it is the best option for our nation.

But I also knew there were orders they would not have followed, situations in which they would have resigned their posts rather than assist in actions or policies which they felt to be fundamentally misguided. Our nation allows for that, too: even our soldiers, who are part of the strongest tradition of obedience in our nation, are expected to disobey if they are ordered to massacre a group of civilians or to commit torture, and we condemn them if they do not. Indeed, we more than condemn them: we put them on trial and hold them accountable.

This boundary points to the fact that our status as free moral agents does not stop when we enter our office door or step onto the floor of a factory or even when we march onto a field of battle. In every circumstance, we still have both the freedom and the obligation to choose what we are willing to be part of and how we are willing to act. We are never reduced to obedient parts of a machine, people who must only hear and obey; we are always called to live in consonance with divine love.

I was born into a Jewish family, and one of the challenges of being born with that Karl Hoecker album Laughing at Auschwitz (7)heritage is knowing that my ancestors were slaughtered by nice people. (I say that without irony.) Most of the people who killed my ancestors were loving parents, good citizens, careful cooks, lovers of good music, churchgoers, people who were kind to their friends. I would probably have socialized with them without any qualms at all. In fact, the pictures attached to this post are of Nazi concentration camp workers, doing things I enjoy doing: eating blueberries, laughing in the sun with their friends, tending small children, playing with a dog. They lacked only two things: courage and integrity. And when the war was over and they were put on trial in Nuremberg and held to account for their actions, each person said more or less the same thing: We were only following orders. We did what we were told.

Without courage and integrity, even the best of us can be led to commit irreparable harm. Without courage and integrity, it is impossible for us to claim and inhabit our freedom. To me, the most harrowing thing about this policy of separating parents from children has been the fact that our border agents were willing to carry those orders out. I know what it is to be under pressure; I understand that they have to feed their own families, and that sometimes we make compromises to meet those obligations. But ripping toddlers away from their parents is so far on the other side of any red line I can imagine being willing to live with that their compliance takes my breath away.

It is possible, of course, that some of them support this policy and can carry it out in good conscience. That is also an issue: when cruelty is deliberately embraced as a tactic, we are all the poorer. But whatever those hecklers, those protesters, that restauranteur thought they were doing, they held out to our nation’s leadership and to the rest of us a reminder that no authority in heaven or on earth overrides the freedom of conscience of even one human being: on earth, because God has endowed us with moral freedom, and in heaven, because God is bound by God’s own decision to offer us this gift.

I will close with some words from Vatican II: “In accordance with their dignity, all human beings, because they are persons, that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and, therefore, bearing a personal responsibility, are both impelled by their nature and bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth once they come to know it and to direct their whole lives in accordance with its demands” (Dignitatis humanae, no. 2).


A Cathedral in Time


I have a confession to make: Over the years, I have preached the Sabbath as a matter of duty, but without great conviction. For most of my life, nobody I knew honored it — literally, not one person. And I empathized. I’m a single working woman, trying to manage the same pressures of time and occupation as the people I’m preaching to: when you’re working fifty hours a week (or more) and trying to care for a home, tend animals or children, see friends at least once a year, keep up with the news, volunteer for causes you support, and be a good citizen, something has to go — and that something is, most often, reflection. And besides, I’m a priest; I work on the Sabbath. It’s the one day I can’t take off.

The first time I got a sense of what I might be missing was when I moved to New Jersey, to a town in which a large number of my neighbors were Orthodox or Ultra-Orthodox Jews. The first Saturday I lived there, I woke up and took the dogs out. Something was different. It niggled at my mind. As the day went on, I realized what it was: noise. There was no sound of cars, no leaf-blowers, lawn-movers, television sets, none of the usual Saturday-morning occupations — just the occasional soft sounds of conversation from families out for an afternoon stroll. Adults pushed seniors in wheelchairs or babies in carriages. Small children danced around their parents, while teenagers talked to one another. Everything I saw — every single thing — was about cultivating rich relationships, the kind of relationships that all too often get squeezed out of our lives by the eternal press of Busy. And it kept on like that, week after week, year after year: one day in which our humanity was more important than our usefulness. One day in which we could remember who we are.

Jonathan Rosen, the author of a wonderful and rich essay named The Talmud and the Internet, writes of computers as “a cathedral not in space but in time, harder to see, but no less grand.” It’s as good a description as any of the Sabbath: a cathedral we build to fence off time so that we can offer ourselves to God and to one another. It’s a beautiful idea, and, I have come to see, a deeply necessary one.

But it took the last year in the life of our nation for me to see just how necessary it is. You and I are living in a field of constant manipulation, in which advertisers, politicians, meme-creators, and businessmen want us to do anything at all but think. An example: this morning, a woman I have known for years posted an article that asked, “Why didn’t liberals care about kids at the border under Obama?” My first reaction, of course, was that they had; there was considerable outcry about the need to respond compassionately to the wave of unaccompanied minors. My second was to remember the lack of compassion shown when those kids were transported by bus into their new hometowns in Red states, and when the buses were met — all too often ( but then, once is too often) — by mobs of angry people yelling at them to go home.

But my third reaction is the one that matters: I pulled back and was able to see the strategy that was being used here. You see, my friend who posted that article is a woman of deep compassion. But the article was doing everything possible to push her to avoid engaging that compassion: it worked to deflect its readers’ attention away from the actual issue — children who were in desperate need, both during Barack Obama’s presidency and now, during Donald Trump’s — and re-focus it into pointing fingers at members of the opposite political party and blaming them for all the problems of the world.

More and more of the content we are being fed works like that: it tries to deflect us from what matters, turn us around, and whip us into a storm of mutual recrimination.  And it works, largely because we do not pull back long enough to realize how we are being used. Or just how destructive these tactics are, both to our nation and to our humanity.

The truth, of course, is that many of the problems of our time have no simple cure. They are large and intractable, and no one — not one president or politician or talking head or think-tank leader or innovator — has the answer that will make it go away. Putting together a suggestion for improvement is risky, precisely because any suggestion will be so imperfect, so incremental compared to what’s really at stake. And so it’s safer — politically safer — to encourage us to blame one another than it is to risk the chance of failure.

But incremental improvement is still improvement, and the big problems can be bent into better trajectories only when we are willing to work together. Divide and conquer may win elections, but when it becomes our modus operandi as a nation, we all lose. And in our effort to resist being drawn into that tempest of finger-pointing, sabbath is among our best tools. We begin to remember the humanity of others when we take time to remember our own. We regain the capacity to live from our better selves when we set aside time to be with the people and things who nourish them. We remember that before God commanded us to work, he gave us life, and that his most fundamental teaching is not that we win, but that we love.

Heart in the stone fence

A House Divided


Jesus said, “If a kingdom be divided against itself,
that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house be divided against itself,
that house cannot stand.” (Mark 3:24-25)

You’d have to be willfully blind not to notice that these are anxious times in our nation. Whoever you are, wherever you fall on the political spectrum, it’s hard to a-house-dividedescape the sense that we are a house bitterly divided: by political affiliation, by race, by degrees of wealth and of education, by gender, by national origin, by ideals of the good life and of who should be included in it. Each day, the rhetoric gets more heated, with Republicans and Democrats accusing one another of crimes, sending out clickbait, comparing one another to Nazis. Every day and every night, our pundits go at it, on Fox, on CNN, on Breitbart, on CNBC and NPR, tossing around names and strategies as if they were calling a boxing event: Pelosi, Schumer, Trump, Obama, Ryan, Bannon, Republican, Democrat, Centrist, Extremist, asking, Who’s gonna win? Who’s gonna win? Who’s gonna win?

With due respect to everyone in the room, I’d like to suggest that if that’s the question we are asking, we are all going to lose. As the pledge of allegiance reminds us, we are called to be one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all, and we stand or fall together. We have never lived fully into that aspiration — for the first seventy years of our nation’s history, women, African-Americans, and poor white men were not allowed to vote — but we have been guided by that sense of liberty and justice in such a way that we have, gradually and at a high cost, pushed against our own limitations in an attempt to extend liberty and justice to all. That’s why it is so frightening now to hear ourselves demonize one another, speak of fellow citizens as if they were enemies of all that is good and honorable and true. It is contrary to the better angels of our nature, and it is damaging to our republic. A house divided cannot stand.
The causes of our division are manifold, rooted in history and economics and regional ideology and the different ways in which we think of identity, but I think that underneath it all is a deep-rooted spiritual malaise, one which is illuminated by our reading from Samuel — our fundamental ambivalence about our freedom.
The scene opens when Samuel is in his old age. Samuel had been called by God as a child and had led the people of Israel faithfully and well, but now they come to him and demand a king, saying, “We will have a king over us, that we may be like the other nations.” (I Sam 8:20) It seems like a reasonable enough request, to be governed like other nations. What could go wrong??

The answer lies in what came before the kingship, when Israel was not like other nations precisely because the other nations were led by men, but Israel was led directly by God. When the Hebrews came out of Egypt, God dwelt among them in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. God signaled when they should march and when they should remain in camp. And while Moses governed the people day to day, when there was a particularly vexing issue, he could enter into the direct presence of God and ask for wisdom. Following Moses’ death, Joshua appeared, then a series of men and women who are known as judges. Judges arose on an ad hoc basis, mostly when Israel was facing some kind of threat. Each was called directly by God; each led Israel for a time; but none passed on the leadership to their offspring. They were more like presidents than kings: chosen for a season, with the understanding that they would not be in leadership forever.

In a system with temporary leaders, true authority remains vested elsewhere: with the people, and, in the case of the Hebrews, with God. That’s why, when the Hebrews demand a king, God comforts Samuel, saying, “They have not rejected you. They have rejected me.” (I Sam 8:7) The one thing that the system of judges required was faith: faith that God would raise up leaders when they were needed, and faith that the people would come to one another’s defense when those leaders called. It was a system that endowed the Hebrew people with powerful freedom — freedom to make choices, freedom to respond to the Spirit of God.

Samuel brought that lesson home when he tried to warn them of the dangers of monarchy. He shows them what it will look like when the resources that are meant to sustain everyone — food, drink, livestock, human labor — are diverted instead to serve the whims of one man and his family and their overweening need for power and for display. He gives them a choice between an egalitarian society and one in which the many serve the needs of the few — and the Hebrews choose the latter. They opt to David_BeheadingGoliath_4206-1080x575surrender their freedom for what they believe to be security. When they ask for a king, they ask for a strong man, a leader who will “fight their battles for them”— as if any king could fight a battle without an army! The truth was that the Hebrews were going to be fighting their own battles, either under the leadership of God or of a mortal man. And yet, they feared the demands imposed by freedom. They renounced responsibility for their own lives, and displaced it onto a leader.
Looking at America in the 21st century, it is hard not to suspect that we may have engaged in a similar displacement. A strong sense of personal and civic responsibility lay at the roots of our national project. In the 1830s, when Alexis de Toqueville visited the United States, he was astonished at the culture of civic volunteerism. He wrote, “Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools. Finally, if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of a great example, they associate…As soon as several inhabitants have taken an opinion or an idea they wish to promote in society, they seek each other out and unite together once they have made contact. From that moment, they are no longer isolated but have become a power seen from afar whose activities serve as an example and whose words are heeded.” He described, in other words, a vibrant civic culture, one in which Americans worked together for the common good, even though most of them did not yet have the right to cast a ballot.
If you look at the United States today, that spirit of engagement has drained away, replaced by the more-or-less complete privatization of our lives. The unrelenting pressures of the job market have eroded the time we have available to give to one another. When we do get home, the temptation is to grab whatever time we have to be with our families, or just turn on the television and zone out, or ingest a substance and zone out, or go shopping and drown our anxieties in a flood of unnecessary consumer activity. If we do notice what is going on around us, we flood the internet and social media with commentary — none of which actually engages the tools we have been given, as citizens of a democracy, to effect real change. And if all that seems isolated and hollow, mental health professionals will give you pills to dull your pain, rather than engaging in costly talk therapy that might motivate us to change our lives. In contrast to the promise of our democracy, many of us feel sharply disempowered, too small to make a difference even for the things we care about, and too focused on our own survival to care that our neighbor is drowning. And then we become frustrated and bitter that our government is not managing to do what we, ourselves, were meant to be doing for one another.
The Bible reminds us, however, that human nature is not weak, but strong, infused with the image and vitality of God. Adam and Eve did not understand this: when the serpent whispered to Eve, “You shall be like a god,” she forgot in whose image she had been made. To lure her to transgress, the serpent offered what she already had in full measure, and in agreeing to be seduced, Adam and Eve became in fact the debased and weak creatures they thought they had been all along.
But in Christ, God has restored our agency. He has healed our human nature and returned to us our power and our strength and our courage and our hope. When God raised Jesus from the dead and left the disciples and Mary Magdalene to peer into an empty tomb, he showed us that all our anxieties are paper tigers. The bad things of this world may leave scars in our flesh, but they cannot contain the life of God that surges within us and lifts us from the ashes and frees us to claim our freedom.
Witness St. Paul: born in Judaism, he persecuted the early disciples of Jesus, encountered God and underwent a radical conversion, and spend the rest of his life traveling all over the Roman Empire — on foot, by boat, in danger, in peace — proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ, until he was captured and brought to his martyrdom.
Paul was propelled by a strong faith: faith in God, yes, but, more specifically, faith that God would use him, Paul, to make a difference in this world. For Paul, conviction and action were inseparable: “I believed, therefore have I spoken.” (II Cor 4: 13) He knows that belief is a verb, not simply a disposition of the heart, a verb which propels us outward in the service of others. “All things are for your sakes,” he writes, and then he explains the source of his strength: “though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for a weight of glory eternal in the heavens.” (II Cor 4:16-17) Paul has his security, a security that is found not in the size of an army or the strength of a warrior, but in the unbreakable promise of God: that even if Paul’s body, his earthly tent, is dissolved, “we have a home prepared for us, eternal in the heavens.” (II Cor 5:1) He knows that no power on earth can destroy him, that no loss on earth will be final, that even death will not have the final word. And knowing these things, he takes courage — courage to speak what is true and to do what is right.
Paul shows us the true nature of Christian faith: it propels us out of our private sanctuaries (which too easily fetter us in isolation) and turns us back to the world. Always, we are tempted to surrender our power: to God, to man, to the state, to a leader. But what if we are not meant to surrender it, but to use it? It is, after all, the power to do good, to use our creativity in the service of the welfare of everyone in our society. And that is not a matter of forcing everyone to become Christian, but of being a Christian to everyone — of honoring them with Christ’s own love. There is only one place in which
Jesus speaks of the criteria by which we will ultimately be judged, and his criterion is si
mple: “as you have done it to the least of these my brothers, you have done it to me.”(Matt 25:40)

The healing of our divided house does not rest in the hands of any leader, but in ours. We are the ones who know the needs of our communities; we are the ones who have the capacity to respond — to give, to care, to act. There is no king or strongman or president who can save us from that responsibility, and no savior will do so. After all, it is our very God and savior who has given us that freedom, who has commanded us to love our neighbor and our enemy and the stranger at our gates, to name them our brothers 2015-Monterrey-Day-2-4787-1600x720and sisters and mothers. This world is in our hands, and that is a daunting challenge. But we are in God’s hands, and with God, all things are possible.

** De Tocqueville quotes are from Democracy in America, 1835, 1840. The analysis of our contemporary culture is indebted to Bruce E. Levine, “Are Americans a Broken People?”, rawstory.com, June 5, 2018.