Tomorrow is the Fourth of July, the day on which in 1776 we declared our independence from Great Britain. Of course, declaring independence and attaining it are two different things. Our independence was attained some seven years later in 1783 with the Treaty of Paris. We fought a war with Great Britain to have that independence at the cost of the blood of 25,000 patriots. Of course, as a result of that war and of that sacrifice, we neither drive on the left side of the road nor sing God Save the Queen today!
Here are my thoughts as we approach Independence Day this year.
In November, 1751, the Provincial Assembly of the Colony of Pennsylvania ordered a bell for its new State House. The order directed that the new bell should have a biblical verse inscribed around it. The quotation to be inscribed was the tenth verse of the twenty-fifth chapter of Leviticus in the Hebrew Scriptures, which reads: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land, and unto the inhabitants thereof.”
Surely it was appropriate that this bell, with its challenging inscription, should be the one that proclaimed the signing of the Declaration of Independence twenty-five years later.
Of course, that old “Liberty Bell,” as we now call it, has long since outlived its usefulness as a bell. But old and cracked as it is, it is still preserved by our nation with great care among the hallowed treasures that we associate with the birth of this great nation. And even though the bell is no longer useful as a bell, that inscription still fervently stirs our imaginations: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land, and unto the inhabitants thereof.”
For we are the descendants of the people to whom liberty was proclaimed, and we are the people who have enjoyed its blessings over these almost 240 years. But I suspect that not many of us have really considered what a dangerous motto was inscribed on that bell, and the somber implications of that motto. Not many of us pause to appreciate what a rare and illusive commodity freedom is in the history of the human family, and how presumptuous it was to use those words on that bell. For those who ordered the bell in 1751, those who rang it in 1776, and those of us who celebrate freedom in 2014 actually do injustice to the meaning of Scripture. We have yanked that inscription out of context and have made it mean something that the Word of God does not mean in that place.
Let me explain.
The person who reads Leviticus knows that this book contains some of the most stringent laws and regulations that have ever been placed on a people. Every facet of life was controlled by the Levitical law. However, as an occasional relief in the midst of all of these demanding laws, there was provided a jubilee year. In that jubilee year, slaves were freed, and land, which had been taken away because of indebtedness, was returned to the original owner. It was about this jubilee year that the words were written: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land, and unto the inhabitants thereof.”
And when did that jubilee year come? Once every fifty years! The average person could expect one year of comparative freedom in an entire lifetime! The words of Scripture point out what a dangerous commodity freedom is. The Israelites were only entrusted with it two years out of every century.
C. K. Chesterton wrote in 1918: “The world will never be made safe for democracy, because democracy is a dangerous business.” Democracy? This commodity that we take so much for granted as an inalienable right of every human being is dangerous? That is preposterous!
And yet, in the last several years, we have come to know just what Chesterton meant. We look around and suddenly we find that it is a very lonely place for our particular brand of freedom. Our motto: e pluribus unum, meaning “one out of many,” suddenly takes on new meaning. The motto originally meant that we were one nation, fashioned out of many diverse colonies, nationalities, ethnic groups, and creeds. It no longer means only that. “One out of many” has also come to mean that we are the only one out of all the many nations that has our particular and peculiar form of government.
Often, we find ourselves supporting supposedly democratic governments, only to realize that after some coup d’etat, we are really supporting nothing more than militaristic dictatorships and totalitarian states. With astonishment, we discover that this free land is extremely lonely as a political entity in the world. Yes, Chesterton was right: Democracy is a dangerous business!
There are other signs of the dangers of democratic freedom. George Washington said in his Farewell Address to the Nation: “The foundation of the republic is morality, and it is foolish to suppose that we can have morality without a religious impetus.” We have always naively assumed that there is some kind of national, secular ethic that supports that morality; that morality is buried right in the fabric of the nation somehow, just as securely as the gold in Fort Knox. But the scandals of the past decades convince us that this so-called national ethic is certainly operating in a very erratic way. To illustrate, simply recall
• the TV quiz show frauds of the 1960s;
• recall the scandal of employee theft;
• recall the recurrent cheating scandals among brighter students at better universities, including the military academies at West Point and Annapolis;
• recall the “big lie” philosophy on the part of presidents and cabinet members that embroiled this nation in the wars in Vietnam and Iraq;
• recall the Machiavellian ethic that produced the strain, the stain, and the shame of Watergate, Iran/Contragate, White Watergate, Monicagate, and all the other “gates;”
• recall the escalating violence on the streets of every major city; and
• recall the new drugs available on those same streets that are more powerful and, therefore, more deadly than either crack cocaine or heroin.
The litany seems endless. We look around in bewilderment and ask: Where did our morals go? When did we lose our moral moorings?
Listen to these words: “America today is running on the momentum of a godly ancestry, and when that momentum runs down, God help America.” Do you know who said those words? I assure you that it was not Billy Graham or some other preacher-type. No, those words were spoken by none other than the late General-of-the-Army Omar Bradley, one of the great military leaders of our country! He is saying that if morality goes, so goes the nation! We are finished. Freedom rests on the precarious foundation of national ethics and morality.
What is wrong? Is not freedom a good thing? Does not just about every religion promise freedom as a great and glorious gift? Did not Jesus say: “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”? Yes, freedom is a good and glorious gift. But there is a catch in freedom.
The “catch” is that freedom does not and cannot live alone. Freedom is born a twin, a Siamese twin, if you will. Freedom and responsibility are the twins. One cannot live without the other. If one dies, they both die. Try to separate them and they both perish. Freedom means “to be released from something.” Responsibility means “to be mastered by something.” It is disastrous for an individual or a nation or a society to try to have one without the other. Freedom has only one value, and that is to provide the climate in which to exercise responsibility. Freedom and responsibility are the two sides of the same coin. As Elbert Hubbard once remarked, “Responsibility is the price of freedom.”
There is one final thing that needs to be said about freedom. Our ancestors knew that freedom is never safe in the world as long as one person lives under tyranny. The Declaration of Independence was not written only for thirteen colonies. It was written for the world. Read it sometime and see for yourself. The great American experiment was no selfish enterprise. It was an example for the whole world. We will never be truly free, however, until all people enjoy the same freedom.
And yet, we know that we must always be on our guard. For me, one of the prophets of our time is Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. He writes these words to Americans: “You have forgotten the meaning of freedom. When you acquired freedom in the eighteenth century, it was a sacred notion that you have forgotten. Time has eroded your notion of freedom. You kept the word, but fabricated another notion: ‘Freedom without obligation and responsibility.’ ”
Those are strong words, but they are strong words from a person who understands tyranny. Solzhenitsyn was sent to Siberia for making a political joke. Here is a person who recognizes that freedom is not free. It must be earned by vigilance and sacrifice. Ronald Reagan once said: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”
I wonder how many of us today would be willing to pay such a high price for freedom. Freedom is not free! We have freedom when we are willing to pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor to gain it, and when we recognize the awesome responsibilities of being free in a free land. Then, and only then, dare we “proclaim liberty throughout all the land, and to the inhabitants thereof.”