Choice, Freedom, and Faithfulness

I used to be a libertarian. But I am not anymore.

That will likely come as a disappointment to those who know me from the days when I wrote for I stand by all that I wrote during those couple of years — I am still very critical of the state, of war, and of modern notions of “the common good,” especially as they are expressed politically in the mass, liberal, democratic state. I needed to write them, and those things needed to be said.

But I never really bought into libertarian utopia, the notion of a completely voluntary society. Or a society structured on the basis of contracts. I liked the idea, mostly because I came to see the problem of liberal society (in all its flavors and articulations) as the forced inclusion of people, the inability or unwillingness to take “no” as an answer from people who do not wish — or are not allowed — to belong.

Liberalism’s answer to its problems is always more liberalism. If some people are excluded from the liberal society (usually by force, in addition to culture and custom, and by the liberal society itself), the answer is their forced inclusion or their forced assimilation. Liberalism can accept no alternatives to itself. It can allow for no dissent, no difference, and no non-conformity.

I appreciate the soaring rhetoric and the vast accomplishments of the civil rights movement, for example, and have come to the conclusion there was likely no alternative to that movement. But my heart isn’t with it. Not because I am some kind of crypto-Confederate pining away for a lost cause, though the end result of the American Civil War — that no one can ever say no to the United States of America for any reason — is a result I would hope would trouble thoughtful people, at least ever so slightly.

Rather, my sympathies and my heart really belong with the separatists and secessionists (like The Nation of Islam), with those who want to say “no” and mean it. “You won’t let us be part of your country. Fine. We’re going to start our own.” (To figure out why this makes sense to me, you need to read my book, The Love That Matters: Meeting Jesus in the Midst of Terror and Death. Go. Read it.) I realize and appreciate this is a deeply unrealistic position to hold. I truly do. But the heart wants what it wants. In my case, the head has both disciplined and restrained the heart … most of the time. But the head cannot make the heart love something the heart cannot even understand. And I honestly do not understand why anyone would think more liberalism — or more America — would be the answer to the problems of liberalism and America.

But I’m not writing this piece to have this debate. I was talking about why I’m not a libertarian anymore.

And it was the Gospel that destroyed my libertarianism.

I have striven, much of my life, to be the author of my own life. To write my own story, construct my own meaning, to — borrowing from Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in Planned Parenthood v. Casey — define my own concept of existence, of meaning, and the mystery and purpose of my life. And I sought this because the world I found myself seemed to have such a violently low opinion of me, my life, and my purpose. I wanted to have control, to choose who and what I was, and what my life meant. And reject — effectively say “no” — to those around me whose opinions of me manifest themselves as contempt, rejection, and violence.

Libertarianism made sense because I had been in a world in which I had no choices — leaving was an impossibility, as was attempting to change the way power was structured and used — and it claimed to give me a choice. I could choose. I could say “no” to power, to authority, to the majority, to the involuntary community, and mean it. This was — it still is — an amazingly attractive notion for me.

But as I began to encounter the God of scripture, the God who called Abraham out of Ur and Haran to “the land that I will show you,” the God who met Jacob at the crossing of the wadi Jabbok and fought him all night, the God who pronounced Jesus “my beloved Son, with who I am well pleased,” the God who met me on the morning of September 11, 2001, and told me “My love is all that matters,” I came to appreciate something — what we choose doesn’t matter.

In particular, I came to understand and appreciate that we cannot choose our neighbors. We cannot choose the people we are given to love and care for. The real epiphany for me came a few years as I was contemplating the story of the “Good Samaritan” in Luke 10:

25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” 27 And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back. ’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37 ESV)

“Who is my neighbor?” The lawyer (νομικός) isn’t so much interested here in knowing who he has to care about, but rather, who he doesn’t have to care about. Who he can choose not to deal with, or show any concern for. And we do not know why the priest and the Levite ignored the man left for dead by the side of the road (I tend not to trust whatever reasons we concoct, and if they had been important, Jesus would have given them), but we do have a Samaritan — one of remnant left over from the annihilated northern kingdom — who helps. He binds up and takes the wounded man to a place where he can be cared for and treated. And he bears the costs of that care.

“Go, and do likewise,” Jesus tell the lawyer.

An odd phrase, that. It means two things, I think. First, I believe Jesus is telling the lawyer — and us — to do what the Samaritan did. That is, know that your neighbor is the person in front of you, the person you encounter, and while it is in your power to choose not to meet that neighbor in your midst, you should trust God and meet that person and help them in their need. In short, we should all be “the Good Samaritan.”

That is the preaching from power and privilege, to the relatively comfortable, the preaching that takes Jesus’ words to Paul that he speaks in Acts 20:35, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” For much of the time, truly, this is us.

But Jesus doesn’t exactly specify exactly what it is we are to do likewise. So, I think one thing he’s saying is — trust God that if you are the one beaten and left for dead on the side of the road, the one who truly helps you — and how you hoped that someone would reach out to help as the Levite and the priest walked by! — may be the last person you expect.

The complete stranger. The outcast. The foreigner. The enemy.

More times than I can count have Jennifer and I been on the receiving end of such amazing grace, kindness and compassion from people who had no reason to care for us except that we were right in front of them. In need.

And I began to see this throughout the Bible. Our choices matter little in the story of scripture. God does almost all of the choosing that matters — calling Abraham, redeeming Israel (again and again and again), coming incarnate and bidding us to follow. Israel and the church are a people defined not by what we choose, but by the fact that we are chosen by God. We are called, in the waters of baptism, brought to a table where we are regularly reminded with and in bread and wine who and what our God is, and what that God has done — and continues to do — in our midst.

Slowly, I began to consider the importance of choice. We have, as moderns, and especially as Americans, made choice an idol. I know I did. It is the core of the American understanding freedom, this power to choose, and in many ways, it is central to a modernity which understands the human will as unbounded by “external” influences. A will utterly and completely free to choose whatever it desires.

We don’t choose our neighbors. For much of human history, we didn’t choose our spouses. Or the times and number of our children. Or our vocations. Right now, we do not choose to be born, mostly we do not choose when we die, and although modernity promises to liberate us from all sorts of constraints and ascribed conditions, modernity has made sure that most human beings cannot choose their citizenship — and cannot choose not to be citizens of anywhere. (Honestly, I’d like that option, to not be a citizen of anywhere.)

And we do not choose God.

I’m no longer certain of the value of choice. Nor am I all that certain anymore of the value of freedom. (Freedom as promised by modernity is an illusion, and we will destroy ourselves trying to make it a reality.) Culturally, Americans are quite conflicted about freedom and choosing. They celebrate it, but the range of acceptable choices within American freedom is actually quite constrained. Make the wrong choice or choices, and you will be ostracized or expelled, made to live on a margin you likely would not have chosen. Because the community, the many, can also choose “no.” Only they get to mean it in ways the individual or the few cannot.

Most of the things that have mattered most to me have chosen me. I have not chosen them. I don’t think this is evidence of “poor decision making” on my part, as ELCA Metro Chicago Bishop Wayne Miller told me (one learns to choose well, I think, to make those “right” choices American freedom so demands, in a nurturing and supportive community, and when exactly have I had that?), but rather, it is how God has been at work in my life. Some people do, in fact, wander rather aimlessly through life. And some are even blessed in that. (Abraham, anyone? Jesus, who had a respectable career with a mortgage, health plan, and pension had no place to lay his head?) If I am somewhat stymied as to where to go or what to do next, it’s because I’ve concluded that being faithful to the call of God in my life means letting God choose.

Indeed, if we are going to take this call to be the people of God seriously, to be the body of Christ in the world, then a large part of what we have to abandon is this notion that freedom and choice are the ends of human existence or even good means. I’m deeply suspicious of religious conservatives mobilizing to defend “religious freedom,” largely because it strikes me as an attempt for us to choose both who our neighbors are and how we will meet them. Certainly we have that power, but Jesus would not have spent so much of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew telling his disciples (and the gathered crowds) that living under occupation requires a faithful self-surrender to enemies and to each other, not an assertion of rights.

Because that self-surrender, rather than assertion of right (or the condemnation of sin), is the place where the Love of God most faithfully resides. And is shown to enemies. And neighbors.

* * *

I’m honestly still uncertain how any of this should manifest itself politically. Mostly because I no longer really care how America is governed. In many ways, I will still be reflexively libertarian — the state is a rapacious monster and those who wish to use it may claim good but won’t care about the evils they wreck upon others. In my ideal society, the people would care for each other communally and collectively, but I am deeply suspicious that the scientific and impersonal bureaucracy of the modern state really is that kind of care.

It’s also too important to me that we as church learn how to untangle America from our understanding of what it means to be God’s faithful people. Because the church in America has an America problem, and as long as we have that problem, we will never be entirely sure what we are faithful to or what we are being faithful for.

2 thoughts on “Choice, Freedom, and Faithfulness

  1. As Christians, our first and only calling is to serve God, and ideologies and beliefs in American Exceptionalism are not part of that. The Gospel has flourished during the worst murderous days of the Roman arenas, the gulags, the attempts by Mao to wipe out Christianity in China, Ceaucescu turning Bibles into toilet paper, the maniac Kim in North Korea, and now ISIS.

    Unfortunately, it is not Democrats or gay marriage or Political Correctness or abortion on demand that is killing the Gospel. Now, I have no doubt that many Democrats would love to see churches taxed into oblivion and I know a lot of leftists who hate the Gospel, hate the Bible, and hate people who believe. But they are just as powerless against the power of God as was Josef Stalin and Adolph Hitler, although they were able to wreak havoc against individual Christians.

    No, what undermines the Gospel are the “isms” we worship and then try to make them the center of Christianity. Two Sundays from now, the day before Memorial Day, churches will have services that will center around military veterans (and sometimes police officers, too). The Cross will be overshadowed by the American flag, and the sermon will center on God’s special relationship with the United States of America. The whole thing will be apostasy, and most likely no one in any of the congregations will understand that they are engaged in a full-frontal assault against everything they claim to believe about God, Jesus, and the Scriptures.

    Politically speaking, I am a libertarian but I do not believe that the chief end of man is to glorify “freedom” and enjoy it forever. Just as people like Jim Wallis have corrupted the Gospel by essentially claiming its essence is the Welfare State, libertarians can corrupt the Gospel by claiming it must be subservient to liberty or that its essence is, as you put it, choice. Apostasy is apostasy.

  2. After reading this, especially your fascinating illumination of the meaning of the parable of the Samaritan, I have been reflecting on how I ended up in a somewhat similar place from a very different beginning. It was the gospel that destroyed my authoritarianism.

    I grew up being liked by teachers. I was fascinated by both the past (loved the sword-and-sandal movies and also the Ivanhoe-Vikings-Robin-Hood-Crusaders genre) and the future (the world of tomorrow, brought to us by Walt Disney and DuPont Chemicals). I hoped to be lifted out of the boredom of small-town life by the kings of the earth, who by then included the mandarins of scientific and technical research, who had built the bomb, which projected the power, which secured the safety of the house that George built. I had not yet experienced bullying by authority (or if I did, I was oblivious to it). I was familiar with “bullying from below” – from redneck kids with low expectations.

    As a young adult, I suddenly lost my golden-child status (thank God). I began increasingly to associate with people on the margins, and – even when making a pretty good income – to live on the margins. This is partly due to the influence of my wife, who is blessedly so very different from me in many ways but harmonious in ways that count. But also I began to realize that I had always been on the margins. I had often been saying “No” to people who had a low opinion of me; it wasn’t such a big deal for me because I was good at making them nonpersons in my mind. I was the son of a single working mother – and as I learned much later, a technically unwed mother, since my father turned out to be a bigamist, who went on to “marry” a third time ten years later. I am thankful that he had no direct part in my life. [My father had the excuse of a severe head injury when he was 22; his father was a very bad man, who as far as I know had no excuse at all.] I may have been a smart kid, but I was also a very weird kid. Sometimes weirdness came up in my life in rather dark ways. I could have gone very far into the dark. I shudder when I recall the times I drove or walked through the streets of L.A. on weekend nights in the 70’s looking for trouble – scenes of which I later noted an unfunny resemblance to some episodes of Joss Whedon’s series ‘Angel’, and the movie ‘Boogie Nights’. And again I thank my anti-establishment hippie-mom wife that my life ended up as securely and ironically ‘bourgeois’ as it did. But of course I thank God above all, who guided me somehow through this tangle of potential disasters, as well as a few realized but manageable disasters. Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee.

    I have also stopped caring very much about how America is governed. I used to admire the myth of the “almost-chosen people”, the City on a Hill, and Lincoln’s joining of the will of God to the fate of America. But if you read the 2nd Inaugural, in spite of the famous “malice towards none” lines, Lincoln is actually quite pessimistic. He has presided over four years of the worst mutual slaughter the US will (hopefully) ever know, and he proclaims that we (North and South both) deserved every bit of it. Unlike his successors, he knew that God determines what will become of us and our country. And there is no reason to think it will be pleasant or will gratify our egos. Who are we to complain, since “the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” [Psalm 19] Whether we understand them or not. Whether we like them or not.

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