(For our parish magazines. Meanwhile, if you want to read something really scarey, go to the government's ID cards website and read the press release, Benefits of Identity Cards will be delivered soon, Home Secretary tells Manchester. When you get to the piece which says that issuing prototype identity cards to workers at Manchester airport will “help ... kick start joint work to explore opportunities for streamlining airside pass regimes,” you realize that the truly frightening thing is not that these people have a cunning plan but that they really haven’t got a clue what they are talking about. They are committed to supporting the course of action irregardless of the possible consequences. Then look at this piece in the New Statesman: John Pilger sees freedom die quietly. What was so brilliant about the TV series In the Thick of It was the way that it showed our leaders as one suspects they truly are: people driven more by fear of office politics than by any truly grand designs. See this clip here on YouTube. The considerable swearing may offend some, but the fact that it is now clearly part of institutional ‘life at the top’ is also itself telling.)
The Trouble with Freedom
Given that the Church of England has just decided to ban vicars from joining the British National Party, I feel now might be a good time to consider the question of freedom.
Not that I particularly wanted to join the BNP, but I can’t get over the nasty feeling that I am somehow less free today than I was a week ago.
Throughout human history, freedom has been a fundamental issue. The biblical story of the Exodus, for example, has inspired many other enslaved peoples. Long before Martin Luther-King’s cry of, “Free at last!”, Black American slaves were singing, “Go down, Moses,” to express their own hopes: “We need not always weep and mourn, Let my people go, And wear these slavery chains forlorn, Let my people go.”
But — and this is not as stupid a question as it might appear — why do we want to be free?
The most obvious reason might seem that people want to do what they want without interference from others. This is the ‘freedom’ which expresses itself in the language of ‘rights’: “I’ve got a right to — you can’t stop me.”
Yet this is really little more than selfishness, and it is not the ‘freedom to do what I want’ which motivates people to risk beatings, imprisonment and even death in order to gain it not just for themselves but for others.
Then there is another way of looking at freedom, which sees it primarily in terms of equality of treatment and opportunity. That seems to be the social model prevailing in our own society at the present.
But, as we are increasingly seeing, that may not be the same thing as freedom at all. In fact it may be, and I fear has become, a massive exercise in social conditioning, where what matters is not the freedom of the individual but the outcome desired by the Conditioners.
Of course, from the viewpoint of the Conditioners, these outcomes are ‘good’ for us. But the society geared to produce ‘desirable outcomes’ is quite different from one which aims at maximising freedom for its citizens.
Pigeons who have been taught to play ping-pong (it has been done), may seem cleverer to those who have taught them, but they are hardly more ‘pigeon-y’ as a result.
What may seem surprising to some, though, is the importance of freedom in the Christian understanding of humanity. Not that you’d guess this from looking at the historical record of the churches, which very often have been at the forefront of social control.
We must not forget, however, that Jesus was born into a society as tightly regulated in many ways as Islamic culture. Anyone familiar with Orthodox Judaism will know that, although people are glad to accept them, there are a multitude of rules and regulations covering many aspects of day-to-day life.
Jesus, however, not only deliberately overturned such rules, he questioned the very adequacy of God’s Law: “You have heard that is was said [in the seventh Commandment], ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ but I say to you, ‘Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
And here is the paradox. We are made to be free — that is why people will die for freedom. But freedom is so much more difficult than living under the law. That is why freedom is so hard to preserve.
Rev John P Richardson