Sjolander Road Fellowship




Declaring the God of Unconditional Love

the tension between unity, freedom, and equality

8/9/14

 

In my opinion our national history is defined by a longstanding search for an understanding of what three words mean to us as a society: unity, freedom, and equality. Our very national title, the United States of America, invokes the word unity and invites some definition of that union. The Declaration of Independence, the crowning ethical description of the basis for founding that union, opens with an emphatic statement about the divinely endowed rights of equality and liberty. It would be hard to deny that these three words are the essence of what we claim to be as a nation.

 

Words such as these, that through long usage have become almost trite, can easily lose their meaning in the course of long repetition. After a time we can no longer detect where stated principles and actions are misaligned. Perhaps we need to consider whether our general understanding of these three principles are actually compatible.

 

Each of these words carries an inherent challenge. Unity for instance asks us how we can establish and maintain a meaningful union. What defines unity? How do we know when we are united in a way that works for our collective good. I use the word collective of necessity because union refers to a collective, the assembly of separate parts into a whole.

 

It is often suggested that national unity can only exist to the extent that everyone conforms to certain accepted cultural norms- same language, historical perspective, economic commitment, governmental theory, etc. Thus a union is defined as a grouping of people like me. Those not like me can only be included in the union if they conform. This picture of union has been the basis for defining many, many nation states down through history, so it seems very natural to most.

 

But are unity and conformity so intertwined that they become almost synonymous? Must unity wash all meaningful elements of individuality out of those unified? How can we honor individualism and still claim a national union? These are seemingly essential questions worthy of continuous debate.

 

The word freedom is perhaps even tougher to come to grips with. In the absolute sense freedom means anarchy, the complete absence of external restraint. Not many propose that in the name of freedom, so what ever the word means it is something less than freedom in the broadest sense. If freedom is not to be absolute, then we must operate on a continuum between completely free and completely controlled externally. Where do we operate on that sliding scale? That is the question. If freedom is to be limited by rules and enforcement, who makes the rules, how do we select rule makers, and how do we force compliance? All these questions arise over and over in our national life as we try to determine what freedom really means to us.

 

Finally, I come to a consideration of our understanding of equality as a national virtue. We often hear equality clarified or qualified as meaning equal opportunity for all and not equal outcome for all. This reflects the general assumption that an equal outcome cannot be achieved for people of different capabilities and motivation.

 

However, I don't see how we could ever claim equality of opportunity for people of different backgrounds and life circumstances. Since economic advantage passes from one generation to the next and affects life outcomes in countless, undeniable ways, some are destined for success as a matter of birth, while others struggle at a disadvantage all their lives. There is no readily identifiable way to claim real equality of opportunity. It remains a theoretical goal with no practical application. All of us probably admit to reluctance to give up any part of our personal advantage in order to advance the cause of equality, no matter how it is defined. Equality is a nice sounding principle, but in the final analysis there is little real commitment to it. We are not sure what equality means and not really convinced that we want to see it demonstrated.

 

A further complication is the evident fact that our national mindset views competition as a supreme virtue. Competition generates winners and losers, creating an inherent inequality.

 

So does any of this tension surrounding the three words- unity, freedom, and equality serve as a national indictment? Not necessarily. As long as we continue to search for true meaning and attempt to grow as a more ethical people, this tension propels us forward. If we deny any tension, assuming all is settled beyond a doubt, then we might be subject to consequences of the kind implied by the principle of sowing and reaping- Whatsoever a man (nation) soweth, that shall he (it) also reap.