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WIth US Independence Day behind us, can I now say that for much of my life, “freedom” hasn’t really been a big concern, a priority of mine? Yet I feel like things are shifting as of late.

No doubt my rather blase attitude toward freedom is an indication of privilege. As a white, American, over-educated, middle-class male, I could safely assume that in most cases, freedom was mine.

But there’s more to it than that. Both why I’ve been somewhat half-hearted toward freedom, and also why recently, I wonder if I’ve been wrong.

For so long, freedom was the domain of the uber-patriot and the frat-boy libertarian. You know, the whole — Don’t Tread on Me, Mel Gibson shouting “freedom” at the end of Braveheart, the name of Falwell’s college –yucky stuff.

But at a deeper level, I’ve always had an ambivalence, maybe even an aversion to the autonomous individual of the Enlightenment project. Thomas Jefferson. Independence. The Social Contract. The invisible hand. I remember as an undergrad, a professor being flabbergasted when in a paper I wrote something like, “Being one more ant in a larger anthill isn’t an image that especially worries me.”

At still a yet deeper level, I believe my trust in Jesus Christ, in the church, in scripture made me more concerned with the group than with the individual. The tribes of Israel. The twelve apostles. The common good. “Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others.” “I am not my own, but belong, body and soul, in life and death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.”

Community. Responsibility. Interdependence. Neighbor. Church. All of these weighty treasures, even more than Ayn Rand-selfishness-masquerading-as-philosophy, made “freedom” not a top priority of mine. And all of this still remains.

But something troubling is afoot in our world. While it tosses around mottoes like freedom, it is really more about scapegoating, authoritarianism, conformity, and freedom only for good people, normal people, our kind of people.

It’s been widely noted that the unfulfilled promises of technology and globalization have fueled a backlash of resentment in all sorts of cultures and countries. Six years ago here, I called it “pulling on the emergency brake of history” — change simply coming too fast. I’ve had some sympathies with the anti-globalist perspective, although I confess that my preoccupation might have been more about protecting local delicacies and appellation contrôlée cheeses from being wiped out by McDonalds and Velveeta.

The traditional cheese I was concerned about losing has likely thrived in upscale boutique cheese shops for global elites. But this isn’t only about winners and losers in a global economy.

Freedom belongs somewhere in this conversation too. From Pella, Iowa to Pakistan, huge swaths of people feel beleaguered, under attack, and disrespected. They seem convinced that freedom is a zero-sum game. More for others means less for me. They believe that their values and traditions are the losers — disappearing and declared passe.

Of course, the bad-guys are the usual suspects — the “lamestream media,” Hollywood and a vulgar entertainment industry, huge corporations, educated elites.

But actually their scorn and bitterness is aimed more intensely in the other direction. It is the refugee and immigrant, people of color, the poor, women, queers, and the other people seeking their own freedom who are to blame.

We all know the talking points. They are undeserving. They are soft. They are whiny. They are demanding and ungrateful. It is snowflakes and their “therapeutic mindset,” enforcing political correctness and their claims of micro-aggression. These are the barbarians at the gate, about to undo our cultural heritage.

What changed for me, is the realization that it is just a hop and skip from my well-intentioned concern for the local, the homegrown, and “my cultural heritage” to the ominous claims of “blood and soil”

And the ante is being upped in these culture wars. These newcomers seeking their own freedom aren’t merely denigrating my preferences or eroding my cultural heritage. What they want is “contrary to nature.” The freedom they seek is “disordered,” out of step with the universe, shredding the inviolable built right into the very fabric of nature.

Most of the time we know better than to say it out loud, but essentially there is still a belief in a static ladder of freedom. Some are naturally and unalterably on a higher rung.

And this is where I feel especially culpable and like my religious convictions have misled me. In quiet, yet persistent ways I’ve been too quick to think that I know better than these “others” themselves who they really are, their role in the world, and what freedom means for them.

A few months ago, I wrote something like this over on the “Essay” side of Reformed Journal.
“It isn’t hard to imagine first-century critics deriding Samaritans who wanted to be healed by Jesus as prime examples of not knowing their place. Tax collectors who hoped they could be friends of Jesus, or sex workers who wanted to understand themselves as children of God, they too, must be wildly overeaching their position. Later, it was Gentiles who wanted to be baptized who must have been violating the natural and eternal laws. Enslaved persons who wanted emancipation, women who wanted an education or to work outside the home – they also must be expressing this wanton and misguided desire to be other than who they were intended to be. Isn’t it sadly predictable that today it must be LGBTQ persons who are condemned as wanting disordered freedom?”

I’m becoming more concerned about and alert to claims of freedom. Not especially my own for the time being, but freedom for the marginalized and the newcomer. I want to be on the side of freedom.

My deep-seated wonderings about freedom haven’t gone away entirely. I still think we’d be better off celebrating Interdependence Day than Independence Day. But I’m coming to see that freedom isn’t only a bougie, Western thing. This isn’t just a serious philosophical topic. It is the Gospel at work in the world. If my abstract concerns have provided cover and been an unwitting collaborator with the reactionary forces who have been attacking the marginalized seeking freedom, then I repent and I apologize.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

3 Comments

  • This is good food for thought. Thank you.

  • Repenting and apologizing with you.

  • Marie says:

    This made me think about the fact that the Canadian constitution is often summed up as “seeking the common good”, and the American is “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” A bit different! And while the USA is spoken of as being a “Christian nation” far more than Canada is, “seeking the common good” is much closer to the pith of Jesus’ gospel teachings.

    Another rambling thought here is the preposition that we choose to put with “freedom.” Freedom to? Freedom from? Freedom for? What differences do those make?

    Thanks for the food for thought.

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