by Will Deatherage, Executive Director
Western civilization cherishes liberty more than it cherishes freedom. The distinction between the two values is often unappreciated but should not go unnoticed. Classical philosophers often associate Liberty with the ability to act on desires without restrictions from others; it is a political property. Freedom, on the other hand, is the ability to make uninhibited decisions: a far more personal process. The latter’s definition highlights that by impairing our ability to reason, we can often become our own worst enemies. Even modern philosophers, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, recognize a healthy tension between liberty and freedom. An alcoholic, for example, might have the liberty to drink another beer, since no one is preventing him from doing so, but he is not in a state of freedom because he is enslaved to an animalistic and unreasonable habit.
If you flip through a dictionary, you will likely find that liberty and freedom are practically synonymous. Our modern tendency to conflate the two terms has fostered an individualism that rewards people for doing whatever they want simply because they can: if you are given liberty, you are only “free” if you take advantage of it. This dangerous attitude of autonomy often does more harm than good. The mantra “You can choose what you want to be!” sounds empowering at first, but it is actually rooted in a prideful desire to control our lives and our destinies. This, ironically, enslaves us to sin.
The Kingdom of God is not about autonomy. If anything, entering it requires us to relinquish our pride and submit to the wisdom of the Church’s sacred tradition, which our leaders are charged with protecting. In the Book of Kings, God gives King Solomon a blank check for anything his heart desires. While Solomon could have asked for armies, riches, women, or land, his request is remarkable:
“Give your servant, therefore, an understanding heart
to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong.
For who is able to govern this vast people of yours?”
The LORD was pleased that Solomon made this request.
So God said to him:
“Because you have asked for this—
not for a long life for yourself,
nor for riches,
nor for the life of your enemies,
but for understanding so that you may know what is right—
I do as you requested.” (1 Kings 3:7-12)
Solomon asks for the gift of understanding so that he can righteously judge his people. At first glance, such a power might come across as arrogant and intrusive. Doesn’t Jesus want us to love, not judge, each other? Yes and no. He does want us to love each other, but authentic love does not involve letting people do whatever they want. In fact, it takes an enormous amount of love to courageously confront someone about a bad habit, addiction, or harmful behavior. Such love always involves judgment, but of action, not of character. Furthermore, proper judgment necessitates an appeal to authorities of knowledge. In the past, such authorities consisted of kings, bishops, and academics. Today, with our boundless access to journals and studies, we have the ability to become authorities ourselves. Thus, there is no excuse NOT to judge the actions of those whom we love, but we must always remember that Solomon’s pursuit of judgment came from an authentic concern for his people, not from a lust for power over them.
“Lord, I love your commands.
For I love your command
more than gold, however fine.” (Ps 119)
Our submission to the laws of authorities is not a liability. While anarchist rioters across our nation dress the wolf of unfettered liberty in the sheep’s clothing of authentic freedom, such a worldview only binds us into slavery. There is nothing free about being shot outside your own home or having your business burned down. Governance is natural, and the Church’s spiritual guidance extends far beyond the ordinary bounds of temporal authorities. While I personally sympathize with libertarian ideals, I believe that it is important for every Christian to recognize that an excessive individualism will only lead us to the sin of pride. “I can do whatever I want!” will inevitably yield an empty and unfulfilling life. Reliance on others is only natural, and such reliance necessitates appropriate confrontation with those who are in pain.
Jesus tells us:
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea,
which collects fish of every kind.
When it is full they haul it ashore
and sit down to put what is good into buckets.
What is bad they throw away.” (MT 13: 44-52)
Christians are called to judge actions every day. In a literal sense, “Don’t judge me!” is a fine demand, since we have no authority to judge the state of a person’s soul. However, when this phrase is warped to signify “Don’t judge my actions!” the requester risks surrounding themselves with walls of pride that isolate them from the relationships that reveal the goodness of God. A criminal justice system could not function without judging actions, though it is apparent that the so-called “freedom-fighting” anarchists do not care for law, order, or morality at all. Once we relinquish judgment of actions, we too fall into a state of inner-anarchy.
If you love a drug addict, you have an obligation to respectfully confront them about their substance abuse. If you know someone who is contemplating suicide, it is your holy task to convince them to cherish his or her life. If you are close to someone who is considering gender reassignment surgery, you are required to carefully inform them of its devastating effects. Such tasks will be evaluated by not an Earthly court, but a Heavenly one. No matter how “politically incorrect” it might seem, it is your God-given task to help your friend carry their cross. We are not individuals. We belong to one Mystical Body of Christ. What hurts one of us hurts all of us. The greatest commandment is “Love Your Neighbor.” If you truly love your neighbor, you will judge their actions.