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Freedom Is Not Unhindered Liberty

July 4, 2024

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Independence Day is a celebration marking the founding of our country, but we cannot be tempted to forget that the reality of freedom is what we remember on this day. The colonies desired independence from Britain, and the American Revolution was fought in order to win that independence. They knew that their God-given rights were being violated. They were not truly free. July 4th is a day to remember those who were bold enough to lay down their lives for true independence. It is an opportunity to be grateful for the true meaning of freedom. 

Freedom is too often misunderstood and morphed into something of our own making. St. Thomas Aquinas said that freedom is the ability to choose the good. Something is “good” if it acts aligned to its nature (what it was made for). For example, a dull knife is not a good knife. Human beings are made by God and for God. Union with God is our ultimate end goal and reason for existence. This means that when we choose what leads to our ultimate end, God, we will become happy. Freedom employed towards the good leads to human flourishing. Therefore, exercising our freedom should lead us to act in specific ways—but that does not mean we are not free.

A common concept of freedom, however, is concerned with being able to do whatever you want, whenever you want, as long as it does not hurt anyone else in the process. This can be understood more precisely by the phrase “unhindered liberty.” The common understanding of freedom in America today is that someone is truly free if there are absolutely no restraints on their ability to make choices. No one should be able to tell you what to do or how to live your life. 

Christian freedom is a freedom for others, not freedom of self.

Brief reflection into the logic of such a freedom showcases its unreasonableness. Human beings are not free to do whatever they want. Jumping out of a plane without a parachute is an action someone can choose, but that will be the last decision they make. A husband is free to cheat on his wife. He can live out his “independence” that way, but it will inevitably destroy his marriage. Unbound decision-making within this false type of freedom is paralyzing, not liberating. 

Unhindered liberty was not what the colonists were fighting for. They were seeking to recover the inalienable rights that are proper to human nature. Great Britain was being oppressive and controlling, but the move to revolt was grounded in a recovery of what it means to be free in the context of the Judeo-Christian faith. 

The liberty of Aquinas and the Christian tradition is radically different from the concept of unlimited choice our ears are accustomed to hearing. Christian freedom is a freedom for others, not freedom of self. The freedom of Christ is that of sacrifice and obedience, not selfishness and control. 

Obedience has become more and more of a “dirty word,” but it is a necessary aspect of true freedom. True obedience does not make us more prone to being taken advantage of. It allows us to be more trusting and attentive to the One who desires to lead us to what is good for us. 

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Obedience comes from the Latin word obedire, which means “to listen to” or “to pay attention to.” Obedience involves a willingness to quiet oneself in order to listen to and abide by the truth. In order to be truly free, one must obey the good that he or she was created for. Obedience and independence are not at odds with one another. The colonists were not simply fighting to be able to do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, with whomever they wanted. They were fighting for their God-given right to live as they were meant to live.

This meant that they were willing to live a life of freedom for others. They made choices that were built on sacrifice and love—the highest capacities of the human person. In living out their freedom through these avenues, they built the foundation of a country that is the greatest this world has ever seen. 

On this day of independence, may we cling to the true freedom that our forefathers died for. May we be obedient to the true nature of freedom and live as we were made to live.