by John Indermark
Not long after I had pre-enrolled in seminary, my pastor gave an essay to me written by one of the Niebuhr brothers. The paper explored the theme of freedom and responsibility, and Pastor Pollmann asked me to present a series of short presentations on it during worship. I no longer have what I wrote, which is no great loss. I no longer have the original essay, which IS a great loss.
Fifty years later, the core of that essay looms large – not just for me, but I believe for the viability of democracy. Niebuhr’s core idea, at least the one I grasped, was basic: freedom and responsibility cannot be separated from one another without significant danger. For an individual. For a church. For a nation.
Responsibility without freedom goes by many names. Drudgery. Blind obedience. Slavery. Consider the destructive possibilities of such a state of affairs. Nuremberg comes to mind: I was only following orders. Or three-hundred and fifty years of slavery in this nation followed by a century and more of Jim Crow and segregation, whose consequences still erode this nation– especially when some refuse to grasp (or admit) the affront of those days, reminiscing instead about “lost causes.” Responsibility without freedom is a dead-end street –in its worst cases, it becomes a literal killing field of human spirit and community.
But responsibility devoid of freedom it is not the only danger when those two are separated.
To some, actually I suspect to many, freedom has become deified into an unqualified good – which is to say, freedom trumps all other qualities and serves as life’s ultimate arbiter. Absolute personal freedom is to be unfettered by anything or anyone. Or is it? This is the other pandemic now ripping our nation apart.
Freedom without responsibility also goes by many names. Licentiousness. Anarchy. The disintegration of community bonds. Consider the destructive possibilities it has unleashed among us. The transformation of masks and vaccines from public health tools to save lives into a political battlefield where MY freedom to do as I choose is everything, regardless of any consequences for the lives of others. Or the freedom to vote for a chosen candidate becomes a license to lie about the validity of the choices and votes of others, a cancer seen in: 1) the lies about the truth of the November election; 2) the abortive attempt on January 6th to violently install the losing candidate over the choice of the majority; and 3) the efforts now underway to legislate voter suppression to eliminate the franchise of those pesky “others” – whether “other” is defined by party or race or country of origin. Freedom without responsibility dis-members society.
The bottom line is this. We have vaccines to combat Covid. We do not have vaccines to combat the collapse of community when “my freedom” is exalted over all, including truth. Jesus once said the truth will set you free – NOT you are free to invent your own truth. For church, for democracy, to hold together: freedom must be yoked with responsibility. If it is not, the lines of the Irish poet Yeats come to mind, written ironically in the wake of the 1918 flu pandemic and the first stirrings of European fascism:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world . . .
While the worst are full of passionate intensity.