How far can I walk, run, or cycle from my home in order to take my daily exercise? Do replacement washers for a dripping tap count as ‘necessary items’? Why can I visit a supermarket but not a church or a mosque or synagogue? If I drive forty minutes to stand on an empty beach am I actually breaking the law?
These questions, or similar, will probably have been asked by most of us over the last few weeks. And I bet they’re questions you never thought you’d be asking yourself in this country. Restrictions on how long we can exercise and where; restrictions on whom we can meet and why, what we can buy and how far we can travel have all come into force quite suddenly, quite strictly.
The restrictions serve to remind us how much we value our freedom. As The Byrds famously sang:
You don’t miss your water,
Till your well runs dry.
We miss our freedoms. We’ve grown so accustomed to them that we tend to take them for granted. We are freedom fundamentalists. America calls itself the ‘Home of the Free,’ and we grandly say, ‘It’s a free country,’ when challenged as to the rightness or propriety of our actions or our words. But with all these restrictions in place for an indefinite period of time, is our country free any longer? I think the answer to that question is emphatically: Yes, freer than ever. But I need to explain why.
A well-known and respected Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, said back in February of this year that the ‘invented’ coronavirus epidemic was ‘an ideal pretext’ for the government to extend extraordinary measures of control over a society that is being gulled into relinquishing its freedoms through panic. He later had to retract his extremely ill-judged comments.
Agamben may sound like a firebrand. But actually his views aren’t a million miles from a much closer to home and familiar thinker:
The essence of liberty has always lain in the ability to choose as you wish to choose … uncoerced, unbullied, not swallowed up in some vast system.Isaiah Berlin, Freedom and its Betrayal
It’s the obviously faulty idea that the essence of liberty lies somehow in examples of its absence that bothers me here. And yet, let’s be honest, we’ve probably all felt unsettled by news footage of police patrolling parks and beaches or standing at roadblocks. I felt sheepish driving to a neighbouring village the other day to put a candle on a church path as part of that village’s powerful prayer response to a recent trauma. Now, I might see my journey as necessary, but would the police? Aren’t Agamben and Berlin onto something?
I believe Christianity offers a more complex and finely-nuanced conception of liberty than either Agamben’s or Berlin’s libertarian accounts allow for. The Christian conception of freedom owes a great deal to St Paul.
It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to the yoke of slavery.Galatians 5:1
‘Stand firm and do not be subject again to the yoke of slavery.’ Agamben and Berlin would happily concur. And of course, the imposition of lockdown could be characterised as a yoke of slavery. But I think that would be simplistic, or plain wrong. Wrong because of Paul’s radical further claim that ‘we are members of one another’ (Ephesians 4:25) and ‘subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.’ (Ephesians 5:21) And this, I think, is crucial for our understanding of liberty. Liberty as Christians understand the term, is not an unrestricted freedom to choose for ourselves, not a set of individual rights and liberties to be defended at all costs from the collective or the culture or the state. No, our liberty is an expression of mutual interdependence. It is freedom in and through belonging to one another. We are subject to one another, members of one another as the body of Christ.
Freedom has political and social and legal implications, but its essence is self-giving love. For St Paul, through the pain, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, human beings are released from the more or less empty cultural collectivities of Jew or Gentile and so on, and into one another. Paul does not intend this ‘into one another’ to be a denial or subsuming of individuality, but its fulfilment in a body.
For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body – whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.1 Corinthians 12:13; cf. Galatians 3:28
Our freedom is essentially shared. As a result, I don’t think any of us should look on the current restrictive measures as infringements of our individual liberties, but as expressions of that ultimate liberty: the love of God and neighbour.
If the Son sets you free, you are free indeed.John 8:36
Accepting restrictions in order to keep our neighbours and loved ones safe is not freedom denied; it is freedom exemplified.
Yours in Christ,
teach us to see our liberties enshrined
not ultimately in laws or in constitutions or even in creeds,
but in one another through Your Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ
whom to serve is perfect freedom.
May we find our freedom in obedience to You
our strength in knowing we walk with You,
and our fulfilment in love of You