“No One is the Boss of Me!” Is Not a Sufficient Understanding of Freedom

“Hey, it’s a free country.” What does that mean?

I am a member of the United Methodist Church. Baptized as an infant. Confirmed in sixth grade. Ordained as clergy in 1979 and 1983. Since the beginning of the Methodist movement, freedom has been an issue.

In England, John Wesley claimed extraordinary authority to send preachers where he chose and to itinerate through the parishes, with or without permission of the bishops of his church, the Church of England. In the newly-free United States, American Methodists made Francis Asbury a bishop, despite the ire of their “dear old daddy” Wesley (and the satirical hymn composed by Charles Wesley) who said his opponents might call him a fool but never a bishop.

The first split in the new church came just after its founding. Some men left, calling themselves “Republican Methodists,” alleging that Bishop Asbury acted like an old world monarch, moving them around like a king playing chess, and there should be at least as much “liberty” in the church as in the society. Richard Allen led a withdrawal of Black members from the fledgling denomination following general treatment as second-class people, Asbury’s refusal to ordain Black clergy to itinerate, and the lack of freedom to appoint or call a preacher of their choosing.

Another split came in the 1820s and 30s when there were pushes for lay representation in decisions (the denomination was largely clergy-run until the end of the 19th century) and for clergy to have some say in who their supervisors would be. The North-South split in 1844 was about several matters but included bitter controversy regarding who can tell a bishop what to do.

These controversies, among others, illustrate the inherent tension when equality of freedom is promised or expected. If all persons are not equally free, if some are more free than others, there has to be a compelling reason to accept uneven freedom.

Now, that tension and circumstance would be worthy of discussion.

In today’s public discourse, I wish we were able to do a deep dive into what we mean by “freedom.” The pandemic presented us with oodles of opportunities to make that dive. Everything around masking and vaccine requirements, how we frame and value public health, how my actions affect those around us wherever we are, whether or not protecting the most vulnerable is worth any sacrifice by others, voluntary vs. legislative restrictions on conducting business and making a living. All these matters were rich opportunities for public debate.

Yes, we’ve had some of that debate. But the events which dominate the news are angry citizens shooting or punching store clerks, parents threatening violence against school personnel, and legislators telling everyone which party they represent by whether or not they mask. What I see is lot of “you can’t tell me what to do.”

The governor of my state, in his State of the State address delivered Monday, paired “freedom” and “personal responsibility” in characterizing the kind of state Oklahoma is. He disparaged the “blue” states for all their legislative limitations and mandates and championed our “red” state for the freedom to do business and live here without interference (and, o, the exceptions to the “without interference” are legion if you don’t fit the conventions).

But “personal responsibility” should mean one takes responsibility for the consequences of one’s actions, for what one owes to others. Minimally, what one owes to others is the same freedom one claims for oneself; and that owing then puts a limit on one’s own freedom. But we’re not having that discussion.

“You’re not the boss of me. This is a free country. You can’t tell me what to do.” When such statements are thrown down like trump cards, as the definitive conversation-stopping answer to which there is no response, it is awfully hard to hold together a church or a nation.

I offer this closing as a reminder of the much deeper dive into what freedom means. The following is a part of the famous scene in The Brothers Karamazov. In this section of the novel, the characters play with the idea that Jesus has returned to earth, is recognized and celebrated by the people, but the Catholic Church’s Grand Inquisitor is angry. He arrests Jesus, imprisons him, and lectures him. Human beings (I won’t change the male language in the quote), he lectures, do not want real freedom, cannot handle real freedom which entails the burden of making moral choices and accepting responsibility and consequences for the decisions one makes.

I want the Inquisitor to be wrong.

I repeat to Thee, man has no greater anxiety in life than to find some one to whom he can make over that gift of freedom with which the unfortunate creature is born. … Hast Thou … forgotten that to man rest and even death are preferable to a free choice between the knowledge of Good and Evil? Nothing seems more seductive in his eyes than freedom of conscience, and nothing proves more painful. … Thou hast burdened man’s soul with anxieties hitherto unknown to him. Thirsting for human love freely given, seeking to enable man, seduced and charmed by Thee, to follow Thy path of his own free-will, instead of the old and wise law which held him in subjection, Thou hast given him the right henceforth to choose and freely decide what is good and bad for him, guided but by Thine image in his heart. But hast Thou never dreamt of the probability, nay, of the certainty, of that same man one day rejected finally, and controverting even Thine image and Thy truth, once he would find himself laden with such a terrible burden as freedom of choice? That a time would surely come when men would exclaim that Truth and Light cannot be in Thee, for no one could have left them in a greater perplexity and mental suffering than Thou has done, lading them with so many cares and insoluble problems. Thus, it is Thyself who hast laid the foundation for the destruction of Thine own kingdom and no one but Thou is to be blamed for it.

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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