Sustaining Freedom: A Review of Os Guinness’ A Free People’s Suicide

A good book begins with a good story. Although not on the first page of Os Guinness’ A Free People’s Suicide, early on we hear of Captain Levi Preston, a Revolutionary War vet in his nineties, being interviewed in 1843. What made you go to the Concord Fight on April 19, 1775? Preston looked blankly back at his interviewer as if mystified that anyone would need such a question answered. After tossing aside all the scholarly answers, he replied, “Young man, what we meant in going for those Redcoats was this: We had always been free, and we meant to be free always. They didn’t mean we should.”

What is freedom as Americans have experienced throughout our history, and what does it take to perpetuate it? Especially in election years, the media vibrates with saber rattling on both sides of the political aisle amplified by press and pundit alike. But Os Guinness asks bigger questions than that. He weighs heavily on a trendy word of our time – sustainability. Whether talking about food sources or fuel supplies, we ask “do we have to keep propping this thing up or can it run itself?”

Why should Os Guinness care and who is he anyway? A descendant of the Irish Guinness brewing family, He was raised in China by missionary parents where he witnessed the Communist takeover in 1949. He earned a doctorate from Oxford University and worked at both the Woodrow Wilson Center and the Brookings Institution. Before that, however, Os worked in the early days of something called L’Abri, the Christian worldview center in Switzerland founded by Frances Schaeffer. There he couples his keen intellect with a living faith, a potent synthesis making him a serious force on the spiritual landscape of contemporary Christianity. Anything with his name on it deserves more than a casual look. His book, “The Call”, should be read by anyone remotely interested in spiritual things of any stripe. Guinness brings three pluses to anything he writes, agree with him or not. First, he makes the reader think; reading this book will have us doing mental push ups and wind sprints – no fluff here. Second, Os Guinness is a biography and quote freak. I don’t mean “Chicken Soup for the Soul” stories and sound byte quotes from gushy Christian bios. He’s dug into the lives of the heavyweights of history and philosophy as well as the obscure, yet significant, whom only God know about (like Levi Preston). And third, Guiness’ years overseas in China and education in England bring an outside view and voice to the conversation on an America he loves.

Does freedom just go on indefinitely? Guinness answers “no”; freedom is neither automatic nor self-maintaining. And very few people currently enjoying American freedom seriously think about that. How do free people remain free? Breaking down the whole into its parts, he discusses in chapter two the notion that freedom moves through three stages – winning freedom, ordering freedom and sustaining freedom. As free people move through these stages, they begin to quietly take their freedom for granted and relax both effort and understanding as to the genesis and nature of the freedom they enjoy. Getting to the third stage, that of sustaining, people become most fogged in as the effort becomes the most rigorous. Quoting Thomas Paine, he says, “Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it.”

Guinness dissects and displays the contrasts between inner and external, negative and positive freedoms. “Inner” freedom leaves people free regardless of societal, political, economic or religious externals. Not limited to Christianity, thought systems like Buddhism and Stoicism say the same thing. But what overarching principals, beliefs or truths can lay a foundation for such freedom when we live in times when everyone’s point of view cries for a hearing, when everyone’s view should be accepted regardless of consequences or contradictions? What is truth? How can we know? Can freedom live without defining truth? Guinness not only says “no” but that to assume that it can indulges in dangerous self-deception. A second major point, can freedom continue for those who find themselves unable to practice that which is moral or good? The biblical Book of Judges in the Old Testament echoes with the theme “every man did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 17:6, 21:25) The history outlined there reeks of chaos and some of the most repulsive violence in print. Freedom is never everyone doing what they want without restraint. Quoting T.S. Eliot that it is folly to dream of “systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.”, Guinness tangles with the brave new realists of both secular humanists and pure secularists. Checks and balances don’t work in democratic systems where all the players checking and being checked are self-driven and corrupt.

The last two chapters, “An Empire Worthy of Free People” and “The Eagle and the Sun”, should be required reading in every school, public and private, every university (and not just by the students) and by elected and appointed officials at every level of government. No spoilers here, you’ll just have to read it. Suffice to say, Guinness isn’t one of these “whack on America” types who bombs and strafes leaving nothing standing and no solutions. But the solutions he describes eclipse voting day of the next election and reach into the grassroots and hometowns of America. “We have met the enemy and he is us,” said Pogo the possum in the most intelligent and hip comic strip ever (making Doonesbury look like Barney). Os Guinness says that, as well as the enemy, the solution is us too. Freedom requires faith, not just head stuff, but faith lived the way faith requires toward all whether they embrace that faith or not. Followers of Jesus should take both heed and the lead.