Commentary: Liberty

Buffalo, NY – Novelist Aldous Huxley wrote, "Liberties are not given, they are taken." These words have taken on new meaning for me after spending three months in Cambodia earlier this year. Cambodia is a country which was devastated in the 1960's and 70's by corrupt government, carpet bombing by the US as part of the secret war in Southeast Asia, but most of all by the three year eight month Khmer Rouge regime which cut a swath through the heart and soul of Cambodia. There is no doubt that evil men took away the liberties of a proud and gracious people.

It has given me pause to think about the meaning of our own Independence Day, now that I am back in my native land. We live in tumultuous, uncertain and difficult times. As the U.S. economy struggles, as the conflicts in Iraq and Iran drag on, I wonder how complicit I might be in letting our liberties slip away. It is a serious mistake to trade our liberties and freedom for transient things such promises of security and the latest electronic marvel. Cambodian history gives us just one clear, poignant example of how evil people can and will take away land, food, family, education, religion and even hope itself. Without hope, there is nothing meaningful to live for.

Liberty is defined as "a state of freedom; freedom from arbitrary or despotic control". The truth, of course, is that in one respect absolute freedom is unbounded chaos. On the other hand trying to institutionalize and legislate freedoms becomes just another source of bondage. Freedom is always a matter of degree, of boundaries, of personal rights and responsibilities.

Often in our culture the moment one speaks about liberty, we hear arguments about absolute rights. Strident voices screaming for the right to own guns or shouting for the right abortion on demand. These are important issues to be sure. For the record I own no guns, nor do I favor abortion. But I would back those who want those liberties to remain available in our nation. The devil, as they say are in the details. Liberties, no matter how absolute they may be stated, have boundaries. Do we as a society want people to individually own fully armed attack helicopters and working howitzers? Should a woman to be able to have an abortion at 8 months? Yet when we focus only on the most contentious of issues, I am apprehensive that many important liberties go by the wayside, invisible under the radar cluttered with the noise of a few big concerns. I find myself, as Independence Day approaches, wondering if in fact the government is listening in on my phone calls. A directive from President Bush makes that a reality that President Obama has not yet seen fit to overturn. Knowledge is at least as powerful as a gun. I wonder if there is danger in the current mantra that some businesses in the U.S. are too "big" to fail. Liberty, I would argue, is for all; not just those who have a lot of money. Shouldn't there be freedom for the big corporations to fail, painful though it may be?

I worry about those who would take our liberty away, but I wonder how much we have willingly given up. Consumers spend huge amounts of money for phones and other devices which just ten years ago they did without. As a result these same people, as employees, have given up the freedom of being left alone. Own a cell phone and everyone, including your employer, expects you to always be available. Facebook and other "social" sites are filled with people who have given up the liberty to choose privacy. One errant click and that embarrassing video or photo will live on the internet forever.

Blind Every minute we spend on something new, every new-fangled gizmo that we hang on our belts or carry in our purses is just a bit more ponderous chain, which, as Morley's ghost in "A Christmas Carol" declares, we forge on our own link by link. When we accept directives and technologies thoughtlessly, when we careen blindly down the road to the future, what we are most likely to leave behind is liberty. The liberty to live in a full and meaningful way. We need to find truth to be independent, to know liberty, to be free. As a Christian, I believe that the truth will set us free. (John 8:31-32) It is messy and no easy task, to be willing to give each person the liberty to discover truth and freedom for themselves. I suspect that most of us spend little time thinking about whether the life we live is one that holds liberty dear. I know I often take my liberties for granted. Yet if we allow our liberty to be taken from us, if we give it away bit by bit, we will lose our freedom before we know it. I wonder if the real danger was best stated by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. (gue ta) "None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free."

It is something to contemplate this 4th of July.

Listener-Commentator Gary Schindler is vicar of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Springville.

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