Saturday, 19 March 2016

The paradoxes of freedom

3070 words, 15 min read

[The following is the text of a talk given at Regenerate 2016.]

This morning I would like to share with you some thoughts about freedom, which is the theme of our weekend. To begin with, it is worth noticing that freedom is something everybody values and wants. In fact, we’d be hard pressed to find anyone in this world who would answer the question of whether freedom is important to them with a ‘no’.

The first, obvious reason for such universal acclaim is that freedom can be understood simply as my ability to do whatever I choose to do. And who wouldn’t want that? Already Aristotle recognized this, when he wrote:

“A man should live as he likes. This, they say, is the privilege of a free man, since, on the other hand, not to live as a man likes is the mark of a slave.”
If I want to go to Regenerate, being free means that no one stops me from going. If I don’t want to go, freedom means that no one is making me go. The point is not about whether I go or not, but about which of the two I want and whether I get it or not. Even without exerting our minds too much, we get to two basic forms of freedom: the freedom to do as I please, and freedom from being made to do what I don’t want.

Now, if you were a single, all-powerful being, freedom would indeed seem absolute and would be the full realization of its first aspect: being in a position to do whatever you please. Since none of us are such a single, all-powerful being, a first, apparent limit on our freedom are the laws of nature that constrain us. Gravity stops me from flying and my inability to breathe under water or my body not withstanding high pressure stop me from diving to great depths. While this is obvious, it introduces constraints into the picture. At the very least, therefore, freedom is about doing as I please, so far as that is possible.

If I want to climb Mt. Everest, freedom means that there are no obstacles in my way, other than ones that are a consequence of what I can physically and mentally do and of what climbing Mt. Everest entails. But, there is another source of constraints: other people. What if I want to do something that they don’t want me to do and that they stop me from doing by using their own freedom. If I use my freedom to play drums in the middle of the night, my neighbor can use their freedom to try and stop me and the result is one free person and one slave, depending on which one of us is stronger.

This is the first paradox of freedom, which Plato put as follows:
“Excess of freedom, whether it lies in state or individuals, 
seems only to pass into excess of slavery.”
Left to its own devices, and used as the only basis for making decisions, freedom turns to slavery and becomes an excuse for the powerful to oppress the weak, for the many to oppress the few. If I don’t like what you are doing and if all I care about is what I want, then freedom leads me to stopping you being free. Your freedom and my freedom are enemies and we arrive at the Latin proverb made famous by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes: “Homo homini lupus” ("Man is wolf to man”).

At this point we pass from a somewhat hypothetical line of thought to the very real state of the world we live in, where exploitation, discrimination, marginalization and even outright exclusion are the result of the freedom of some cancelling out the freedom of others.

In some countries such infringements of freedom are state policy and ruling elites exercise their freedom at the expense of whole populations. Until the age of 15 I myself lived in a country like that. At the time, Czechoslovakia was ruled by an oppressive, totalitarian regime, where it was illegal to meet in larger groups, to say anything critical about the government, to openly practice one’s religion, or to travel abroad; where large parts of the population were spying on the rest of it and where transgression was punished by being sidelined in society, by imprisonment or, during the early years of the regime, even by being put to death.

The abuse of freedom can also take on more indirect forms, where the consequences of the actions of some inhibit the freedom of others. A particularly stark example here is that of access to water, highlighted by Pope Francis in his encyclical, Laudato Si’, where he wrote:
“One particularly serious problem is the quality of water available to the poor. Every day, unsafe water results in many deaths and the spread of water-related diseases [...]. Dysentery and cholera, linked to inadequate hygiene and water supplies, are a significant cause of suffering and of infant mortality. Underground water sources in many places are threatened by the pollution produced in certain mining, farming and industrial activities [...]. It is not only a question of industrial waste. Detergents and chemical products, commonly used in many places of the world, continue to pour into our rivers, lakes and seas.” (§29)
The freedoms of economic interests can result in the ultimate loss of freedom for the poor, which is death.

Does freedom still sound like such a good thing? Should we even want freedom if it just means that it can be weaponized and turned against others?

Clearly the answer here is not to give up on freedom and opt for slavery, but to recognize another dimension of freedom, which is its persistence. Instead of thinking only about how freedom lets me do what I want and how it protects me from having to do what I don’t want, let’s add sustainability to the mix. By also considering the consequences of what we can freely choose to do and subjecting them to evaluation by reason, we’ll discover that certain free actions lead to a reduction of freedom, while others lead to its preservation or even increase. If I want to lock myself in a room and throw away the key, doing so would be a free act, but one that would lead to a reduction in future freedom. Instead, constraining my own freedom in that moment (which, by the way, can be a free act too!) results in a freedom that continues instead of ceasing.

This is the second paradox of freedom, which Chiara Lubich, founder of the Focolare Movement, expressed as follows:
“Obedience is not aimed at taking away your freedom but at making you free.”
But, even with sustainable freedom, we are missing an important element, which is that of the content of what we choose. Simply making free choices sustainable can still leave our freedom be the freedom of an oppressor, exploiter and discriminator - only one who can keep that up for longer.

What we are missing is love!

In fact, Chiara adds another dimension to freedom by expressing a preference for those free choices that are directed towards the good, when she says:
“Freedom is usually defined in this way: it is the choice between good and evil. But I prefer another definition. Freedom is going closer and closer towards good. The closer we go towards good, the freer we are. Jesus said something important with regard to freedom. He said: "The truth will make you free" (Jn. 8:32)”
Notice an important aspect of what Chiara is saying here: The pursuit of the good is a way of making freedom sustainable. The more we direct our actions towards the good, the freer we are. In other words, the pursuit of the good is not a complication or a narrowing down of freedom, but an answer to the question of how to preserve it and make it grow.

What does it mean to say that the truth makes us free? This is a rather curious claim. The truth may seem like a remote and practically unreachable concept. If that is what it takes to be free then we may as well give up!

This is not what Jesus had in mind though when he pointed to truth as the source of freedom. Instead, he explained to his disciples what he meant, when answering the apostle Thomas’ panicked question at the end of the Last Supper: “Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (Jn. 14:5) Jesus’ response was simply: “I am the way and the truth and the life.” (14:6) The truth therefore isn’t some set of rules or teachings or some insight reserved for the brainy, it is Jesus himself. The Jesus who is also life and way, and therefore someone who is inviting us to live and walk with him.

On another occasion, Chiara returned to these words of Jesus and explained them further:
“The truth makes us free because in those who live it, Christ lives, the “new man”; and consequently, the “old man” is dead: we are no longer slaves to our old selves (see Ephesians 4:22-24; Colosians 3:9). We are free from ourselves.

But the word of God frees us also because we are no longer slaves of human conditioning. We love Christ in everyone and, with the grace of God, we do not expect anything from anyone. In addition, the word frees us from being oppressed by circumstances. In fact, nothing happens by chance or merely because it is willed by human beings. The Father is always present in our lives either because he wills something to happen or because he permits it to happen.”
The key to living and walking with Jesus, who is the truth that sets us free, therefore, is to make love the goal of our freedom. And, what’s more, love for all, no matter what. Chiara spoke about this too with great clarity and radicality:
“The first idea that can already revolutionize our souls [... is] universal brotherhood, which frees us from all forms of slavery, because we are slaves of the divisions between rich and poor, between father and children; between black and white, between races; between nationalities, even between different [regions] of the same nation. We are slaves, we criticize one another, and there are many obstacles and barriers.

No, the first idea is to free ourselves from all these forms of slavery and to see [brothers and sisters] in everyone, in everyone... [...] “Even in that woman who talks too much? Even in that elderly man who doesn’t make any sense? Even in that poor person? [...] But is it possible?" Yes, in everyone [...]. We must see them all as possible candidates for unity with God and for unity with one another. We must open our hearts and tear down all the barriers. We must put into our hearts universal brotherhood: I live for universal brotherhood!

So then, if we are all brothers and sisters, we must love everyone. [...] Look, these are just a few words, but they bring a revolution! We must love everyone.”
Far from being a vehicle for discord, for one person being wolf to another, for one person's freedom being in conflict with that of another, freedom directed at the good becomes not only a “freedom to” and a “freedom from” but also a “freedom with” and a “freedom for”.

The great Lutheran thinker and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it as follows:
“[F]reedom is not a quality which can be revealed - it is not a possession, a presence, an object, nor is it a form of existence - but a relationship and nothing else. In truth, freedom is a relationship between two persons. Being free means "being free for the other," because the other has bound me to him. Only in relationship with the other am I free.”
That a freedom directed towards the good is necessarily about the good of others follows very clearly from the Christian understanding of God, who is the unity of three persons, where each freely gives themselves to an other. It is therefore no surprise to see this insistence on using my freedom for the good of others also in the thought of great Christian advocates and defenders of freedom. Rosa Parks, who fought for racial equality and civil rights at the time of segregation in the 1950s, thought of her own freedom merely a means for gaining freedom for others. She also spoke clearly about the importance of the choices that are presented to us in the following way:
“We may choose order and peace, or confusion and chaos. If we choose the former, we may cultivate and share our talents with others. If we choose the latter, we will isolate and segregate others. We can also expand our vision to include the universe and the diversity of its people, or we can remain narrow and shallow and isolate those who are unfamiliar. [...] I would like to be remembered as a person who wanted to be free... so other people would be also free.”
Thinking of the desire for a freedom directed towards the good of others as being only a Christian concern would be a mistake though, and would in fact go both against the Christian insight that all - without exception! - are children of God and against the very need for freedom to be universal, so that it may be sustainable and lasting, as Rosa Parks put so clearly.

In fact, the importance of a freedom that is linked to the good of others is also present in atheist thought. A good example here is the contemporary philosopher, Slavoj Žižek, who sees our freedom threatened particularly by the interests of corporations whose aim is to develop in us habits of consumption that lead to dependence. While being an atheist, Žižek nonetheless aligns himself with aspects of the Christian understanding of freedom. Most notably he did so when speaking at an Occupy Wall Street gathering in New York five years ago, where he said:
“What is Christianity? It’s the Holy Spirit. What is the Holy Spirit? It’s an egalitarian community of believers who are linked by love for each other and who only have their own freedom and responsibility to do it. In this sense the Holy Spirit is here now, and down there on Wall Street there are pagans who are worshiping blasphemous idols. So all we need is patience.”
Underlying all of the accounts of freedom that I have shared with you this morning is an important aspect that is worth spelling out, namely that of choices. All three variants of freedom that we have looked at: “freedom to”, “freedom from” and “freedom with and for” focus on conditions being suitable for me to do what I want, initially by only considering my own self and eventually in a way where I seek the good, which is necessarily the good of others. However, even when conditions are favorable for me to act freely, there is an instant of choice in which I can decide to pursue my own selfish ends or the good of another. This important moment is described with great clarity by the Austrian psychiatrists and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, who wrote the following about his time at Auschwitz and in other concentration camps:
“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom.”
Frankl’s experience of seeing his fellow prisoners use their freedom for the good of others even under the most extreme of barbaric, inhumane and unfree circumstances is both a great sign of hope and a challenge to us. No matter where I am, no matter what others are subjecting me to, I am still presented with choices where I can opt for a freedom with and for others.

The final example I would like to share with you is that of the Vietnamese Cardinal Francis Nguyễn Văn Thuận, who was kept prisoner in a communist “re-education” camp for 13 years and who spoke about his experience of freedom during that time in the following way, giving us an insight into his soul at a time when he faced the choices Frankl wrote about:
“When I was placed under solitary confinement, five guards were assigned to me who took it in turns to watch me, two at a time. Their leaders had told them: ‘We will replace you every two weeks with another group, so that you do not become ‘contaminated’ by this dangerous bishop.’ Soon they changed their minds though and decided: ‘We won’t replace you anymore: otherwise this bishop will contaminate all the guards!’

At first, the guards would not speak with me. They would only answer yes and no. It was really sad (...). They avoided talking to me.

One night I had a thought: ‘Francis, you are still very rich, you have the love of Christ in your heart; love them as Jesus loved you.’

The next day I began to love them even more, to love Jesus in them, smiling, exchanging kind words with them. I began to tell them stories about my travels abroad (...). They wanted to learn foreign languages: French, English ... My guards became my students!”
And so we arrive at the third paradox of freedom, expressed beautifully by St. Augustine:
“He that is kind is free, though he is a slave;
he that is evil is a slave, though he be a king.”
Finally, I would like to make a suggestion. Let’s take this weekend, where we can put into practice the ideals of living for the good of the other, as an opportunity to experience the reality of what freedom is for each one of us.