We often hear the expression that freedom is not free. You supposedly have to earn it, fight for it, and be ever alert to its possible loss. Assumed, unnamed adversaries are supposedly always intent on subjugating us and taking our freedom away. Embracing these thoughts and acting upon them is the essence of pragmatic patriotism in the minds of many. If you are not duly fretful and concerned about losing your freedom, then you are naïve, unpatriotic, and perhaps cowardly.
In this mindset, the soldier has become a sacred figure in our culture. In fact, he is often identified as a national savior with a role akin to that of Christ..
Of course, reverence and respect for the soldier is a long standing tradition in most cultures. In addition, attaching a divine mandate to acts of warfare and seeing religious significance in these acts is also common. Our preoccupation with armed conflict as an expression of righteousness and the divine will is therefore perfectly ordinary.
Freedom is one of those words that we use routinely without much thought about what it means. Freedom, in the absolute sense, is the absence of all restraints. In our vernacular, freedom is never that free. We consider ourselves a nation of laws, so restraint is built into the systems our armed forces supposedly protect and defend. To the extent that we speak of defending freedom, we imply the maintenance of an existing condition or order. Is the current status of affairs an accurate description of the state of freedom? Is that what must be preserved by the blood of patriotic Americans?
In our religious tradition we encounter a warrior philosophy which promotes the idea of a necessary struggle against countless outside enemies. This preoccupation with the need or even divine calling to vigilance and conflict with external forces of evil predisposes us to the idea that all goodness is born out of some form of on-going warfare. Consequently, freedom as a recognized “good” must logically necessitate an endless fight. Thus, freedom can never be free of the need to oppose and defeat.
Certainly, Jesus spoke often of freedom, a freedom which involved embracing the Truth? Does that Truth include the idea that freedom is not free, meaning that you must fight outside forces in order to be free? Was the freedom of Jesus to be gained by conflict with others?
Yes, dying for the benefit of others was heralded by Jesus as the ultimate act of love. However, I doubt that death in armed conflicts between nations is usually reflective of what Jesus meant. Nations engage in warfare to protect self interest, which then is easily redefined as self preservation. Occasionally warfare may, in fact, be unavoidable; but that necessity does not make it noble. War is an exercise in ruthlessness, doing what we would normally abhor.
Unquestionably, some involved in armed conflict perform noble, self sacrificial individual acts; but for the vast majority of participants the effect of their involvement is a dehumanizing mindset which demonizes other human beings, justifies a host of ignoble thoughts and actions, and often permanently scars lives physically and emotionally. There seems little in the essential behavior of war which draws on the example of Jesus.
I think the statement that freedom is not free is true enough but, perhaps, not in the normal sense. Jesus invited mankind to embrace a form of freedom which appears risky. Our individual freedom is to be achieved in conjunction with the freedom of all others. In order to be truly free, we are required to let the others be free also. That is a dramatically different picture of freedom than that promoted by our normal thinking. We do not gain and insure our freedom by restricting the freedom of others. The old expression, “live and let live,” carries the essential truth. To live free, let live free.