In America, freedom is emphasized over pretty much everything. Freedom of speech. Freedom of religion. Freedom of the press. Free to carry a rifle with the unlocked infinite ammo cheat. But what if the kind of freedom most Americans talk about isn’t really what freedom is supposed to be? What if autonomous freedom – libertarian freedom (in the philosophical sense) – isn’t all that great?
Well, I don’t think it is.
I’ve noticed this type of thinking when it comes to the issue of wearing masks. I recently talked about this on episode 21 of Apostates Anonymous. You’ve probably witnessed what I discussed either in person or on social media. The argument goes like this: It’s my right as an American to not wear this mask. This is a free country. I have the freedom to choose not to cover my face.
To that I say: Bullshit!
Now, before anyone gets up in arms about where I stand on the issue, allow me to nuance my statement. Some folks shouldn’t wear a mask. Some people have real, medical diagnoses that prevent them from safely covering their face. Further, some people have been physically traumatized and wearing a mask causes PTSD. Fair enough. There are always outliers and I respect that. However, for the rest of us, we are not free to simply choose not to wear a mask when we could be infecting countless people. If you think otherwise, ask yourself this:
Are you free to drink a fifth of whiskey before getting into your car and driving across town?
Are you free to pull your penis out in Costco as you shop for milk?
If the answer to these two questions is “no” – and please, tell me that’s the case – then you are not free to do whatever the hell you want, regardless of consequences.
So, here’s where the rubber meets the road: Freedom is not found in simply making choices, in choosing one thing over the other. Freedom is not choosing between wearing a mask and not wearing a mask. Freedom is found in doing what is good. To put it in dense, philosophical language, philosopher David Bentley Hart puts it like this:
“On any cogent account, free will is a power inherently purposive, teleological, primordially oriented toward the good, and shaped by that transcendental appetite to the degree that a soul can recognize the good for what it is. No one can freely will the evil as evil; one can take the evil for the good, but that does not alter the prior transcendental orientation that wakens all desire. To see the good truly is to desire it insatiably; not to desire it is not to have known it, and so never to have been free to choose it.”
Or, as Karl Barth once put it:
“Disobedience is not a choice, but the incapacity of the man who is no longer or not yet able to choose in real freedom.”
In other words, and like I just said, freedom is not found in choosing one thing among others, it is seeing good and evil for what they truly are, and only being able to choose the good. Is this a contradiction? Only to the post-Enlightenment mind. Here’s where the Bible can lend some aid.
In John 8:31-35, Jesus says the following:
Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”
Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever.”
Contrary to the modern notion of the autonomous human, where freedom is found in the complete and utter spontaneity of what we call “the self,” here Jesus talks about a will that is made free. That is to say, our will and its relation to freedom is not fixed; it is, first and foremost, enslaved to the systems our religions and cultures place it under (i.e., the principalities and powers, the Law, the flesh, and so on). But then, through Christ, it is delivered from such a state.
This, of course, doesn’t mean Christ sets people free against their will. Remember, a truly free will is oriented toward the good. Jesus just helps get us there. He reorients us, if you will.
So, what does this have to do with masks? Easy. When we are oriented toward what is good, we will make choices, not just for our egoic selves, but with compassion and empathy for others as the main driving force. When we go out to purchase groceries, we will mask up. Not because we are thinking, first and foremost, about our “American freedoms,” but because it’s simply what is good for others. It’s good for us, too, but our main concern should be the health, wellness, and safety of those around us, particularly the most vulnerable among us.
At the end of the day, isn’t this what it means to be an American? Maybe not, but it should be. If we want to elevate freedom, then let’s elevate the kind of freedom that puts goodness and compassion above all else. Because if that’s what we mean by being free, then count me in. Let freedom ring, and all that raw, raw, American sensationalism 😉
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