We are experiencing a dilemma these days. Public health versus personal freedoms. Collectively getting a vaccination for better collective health or refusing to do so using your individual rights. Wearing or having your kid wear a protective face covering to improve public safety or refusing the wearing of masks declaring personal freedom.
I won’t get into the science that overwhelmingly shows the efficacy of both vaccines and masks.
What I want to look at today is what ethics and Christian ethics has to say on the issue of individual freedom versus the pursuit of the collective good, in this case, good public health.
Let me begin by looking at basic, secular ethics when it comes to individual freedom and the public good.
First, we need to define freedom.
I define freedom in general terms as the capacity to live fully, void of forced constraints. Put simply, freedom means being able to live without some kind of power constraining us.
But that “us” is vital. Look at masks. You may say, well, I am free to live free from the constraint of a mask. But unless you are living on an island alone, there is someone else to consider. I and others live alongside you on the island. And if we live in close contact, notions of personal freedom must be considered alongside persons. I deserve to live free from constraints just like you do, namely the constraints that the Covid virus would entail.
This raises a dilemma, doesn’t it? What happens when individual freedoms conflict? We are seeing tha play out now, aren’t we?
This dilemma tells us something crucial – freedom must exist in community, among individuals living together, for it to matter much. If your freedom restrains my freedom, there is no freedom shared among us. You have it and I don’t.
The ideas is to maximize the freedom of all, not just individual me or individual you. How we can all live as free as possible, that is the key question. Is life amid a pandemic feeling so free?
So, the dilemma is really about individual freedom and collective freedom, between your right to personal freedom and the community’s right to be as free as possible.
Christian ethics actually helps us confront our dilemma. In fact, it seems to me what Jesus would do and what Christian ethics has to say is often left out of the debate.
The best way to approach the idea of Christian freedom is to consider two things: where human freedom comes from in the Christian understanding. And what the point of human freedom, what the aim of freedom is.
Well, the source of Christian freedom and the point and aim of that freedom are one and the same – God!
Freedom comes from God. Freedom is a gift of our Triune God. Want to know what freedom looks like, look at the Trinity. Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit, on the basis of love, seflessly and freely living in community with one another. The freedom found in the selfless love of the Trinity overflows as a gift to us.
The overflowing gift of freedom is revealed most powerfully to us in the person of Christ. Jesus was the freest person who ever lived, right? He revealed the free life to us most potently and most clearly.
And what did Jesus do? He lived a selfless life, a selflessness that took him to the foot of the cross, and the freest of choices – to lay down his life for us. His selflessness and his freedom were one and the same in him.
As for us, the truest freedom amounts to a life transformed by this selfless and fully free Christ. By taking in Christ, we are given the capacity to freely live, living in a free-flowing way on the basis of his selflessness and compassion.
The opposite of a free life, according to the Christian faith, is a life lived on the basis of selfishness. A life filled with choices and ways moved by selfishness, is a life that is not free at all.
Paul in his letters to the churches of Rome and Galatia focuses a great deal on this enslavement to selfishness. Most Bible translation term this, slavery to the flesh.
The Bible says, we lack godly freedom because of our enslavement to selfishness.
But thanks be to God, the selflessness of Christ frees us from such enslavement to selfishness.
Through Christ, we overcome freedom’s opposite – enslavement to selfishness.
And what does a life freed by Christ, what does a life free from the slavery of selfishness look like. Paul points to fruits of the Spirit as the answer. If someone is truly free spiritually speaking, they exhibit these attributes: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. If one is truly free, one is loving, joyful, peaceful and nonviolent, forbearing and tolerant, kind, goodhearted, faith-oriented, gentle and humble, and self-controlled.
So what it the effect of all this, as we come to a close? Well, when it comes to public health or anything else in our collective lives, a choice or decision based primarily on self-interest is not the mark of a free person. Freedom and selfishness are not in the same camp, according to the Christian understanding.
The freest thing we can do as Christians is act out of this sacred knowledge – that we don’t exist alone but live connected to God and interconnected with the world around us The freest thing we can do is to act out of this sacred insight – that our freedoms are tied together and are sourced in God’s freedom, and God’s freedom is always based in selfless love. The freest thing we can do is to free ourselves from selfishness in service to God and to others.
As we come to a close, we ask what would Jesus do?
Its clear where Jesus stood. The story most often told in the gospels, told some 6 times, is Jesus feeding the thousands. You know the story. Jesus’ disciples just want to get on with things and leave the scene after working all day helping Jesus heal and teach. Despite his disciples and his own weariness, Jesus says, no, no, we are all about sacrificing our personal comfort, we are all about getting past our desire to do what we want to do. Jesus says, yes it’s hard, but let’s feed them!
Then there is that Ol Rugged Cross, the heart of the Jesus story. Remember the story? Jesus sacrificed his individual life for the collective good of all. Remember the story? Christ selflessly giving all away for the sake of all, giving away his freedom in an ultimate way, all to free us. Remember the story? Jesus endured the pain and the persecution out of love for the world, even portions of the world nailing him to the cross.
We are called to be like Christ! The very word Christian means just that – Christ-like. To use that name means to assert that selflessness and sacrifice are core to who we are and to carry our own crosses.
As for masks, show your freedom in God and wear your masks out of a free-flowing love for others! It’s what Jesus would do.