In 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 and 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 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).