The Problem of Valuing Freedom More than Love

Love, not freedom, is the highest Christian virtue.

We are set free in order to love. We are not supposed to be chiefly in love with freedom.

Love is expressed in the twin commandments to love God and love your neighbor as yourself. (Over time, I’ve joined with those theologians who claim that these commandments include loving our common home, the earth, and other living creatures.)

A Unitarian pastor once told me the congregations he’s known included many persons who pushed off from another tradition, but they had not all embraced something else. They felt oppressed by their former religious home and left. But leaving can become a way of being.

For the U.S., the colonies confederated sufficiently (with A LOT of foreign aid) in pushing off from England. What is it we embraced since then, besides when we were attacked, felt threatened, or coveted more land, oil, or commercial opportunities? “Freedom,” we Americans and millions of American Christians cry with “Braveheart’s” William Wallace. But once we gained our freedom, what have we embraced?

Freedom as a rallying cry is a seriously dysfunctional or even ironic call in terms of forming a congregation, community, or society. There are deeply embedded, highly conflicting cultural patterns evident in unblendable stories and values within the American experience. These forces generated by cultural patterns function like pressing powerful magnets together: they will never touch, and the pressure in the spaces closest to each other could crush anything in its way (as anyone who tries to create tables for deliberation in those spaces knows and feels).

Freedom as the highest virtue can lead to disintegration.

A folk song called, Love in human relationships is an expression of mutual regard, of caring for the life of the other with at least as much care as one has for oneself. We love because God is love and we are made in God’s image. All of us. And yes, some persons, cultural expressions, and social systems are so seriously twisted and deformed by loving the wrong objects that the image of God is very, very hard for the even most loving person to see.

Yes, love needs freedom. Without freedom, love could become a tool for oppression.

Loving freedom and making it the highest virtue deforms and obscures the image of God in us. Loving freedom as the highest virtue, especially freedom that is not yoked to neighbor-love or true self-love, creates all manner of pain in human life and on the planet.

Freedom to drink excessively. Freedom to drill anywhere. Freedom to take what I want. Freedom to invade. Freedom to pay what I want for labor. Freedom to say anything to anyone. Freedom to carry a gun—ANY kind of gun—everywhere. Freedom to drive without seat belts and to ignore speed limits, stop signs, and turn signals. Freedom to throw my garbage out the window of my car (use that as a metaphor for where human beings have deposited our trash from the height of great mountains to the deepest parts of the ocean). Freedom to buy and sell without regard to social consequences.

Freedom to handle a pandemic the way I want to, regardless of how my decision affects anyone and anything else.

“We are free” is one claim. “We are free to love” is quite another.

No, freedom and love are not incompatible virtues, but there is a hierarchy. If freedom is the highest virtue, a community-understanding of human life is untenable, which means human life becomes untenable since—Christian teaching, again—God’s creation is one big relationship.

If love is the highest virtue, then relationships have their proper basis and freedom its fitting constraint.

Dr. Gary Peluso-Verdend is president emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary and is the executive director of the seminary’s Center for Religion in Public Life. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. Learn more about the Center’s work here and about Gary here.

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