Losing liberty?

The Jewish festival of Passover – the feast of freedom – begins this week. I’d like to share this article with you – it was published in The Friend on 12th February 2016.


And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. John 8.32

A simple lifestyle freely chosen is a source of strength. Advices and Queries 41

My lifestyle choices – especially cycling and being vegan – are partly an assertion of my freedom, self-sufficiency and individuality. It helps that they are also cheap and low-carbon. But for many people sustainable living suggests constraint. It challenges precious freedoms – to drive, fly, eat meat, run the central heating at full blast. It cuts against the spirit of our age, which values individual freedom ‘in the pursuit of happiness’. In the culture of consumerism, happiness is mostly pursued through buying stuff, and through personal comfort and travel.

Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has written about the inevitable tension in community between freedom and security. We give up freedoms in order to belong, and to meet the requirements of fairness and social harmony.  Even in the most libertarian societies, personal freedom may be constrained where it harms others, although that is a difficult negotiation, and the rich and powerful come off best. In the French Republican slogan, liberté and egalité are only reconciled by fraternité – by caring about each other and about society.

It is increasingly obvious that climate change is causing harm. It will wreck billions of human lives as well as destroying species and ecosystems. At some point our freedom to burn fossil fuels must be constrained. If the Paris climate agreement is to have any meaning, that moment must come soon. Could it be a joyous moment?

Quakerism can appear to be a libertarian religion. Many people find a home with us because of the freedom of belief, and of our interior practice in Meeting for Worship. In our local meetings we want to be inclusive, rather than emphasise the discipline that underpins Quaker faith and practice. Phrases like ‘Gospel Order’ are hard to explain, especially when few seasoned Friends are really sure what they mean. At the first encounter, ‘Right Ordering’ can seem slow and stifling. Familiarity comes gradually, through deeper involvement in business meetings, in Yearly Meeting and national committees.

In western society, freedom comes to be identified with unlimited choice. Nobody tells us what not to do. We can put anything we want in our shopping trolley. But research shows that, even when shoppers think they are making free choices, what they actually put in their shopping trolley conforms closely to the norms of their social group.

There is another kind of freedom that comes from the acceptance of limitations, celebration of our world, loving the age we live in, even as we are led to work for change. It is when we are attuned to our context – to our community, to God – that we have the strongest sense of agency, of being part of a larger agency, and so of freedom. It may be the freedom of going with the flow, or the freedom of opposing the Domination System, supported by our faith.

This kind of freedom – choosing a structure, a discipline to live in – can still look to others like a loss of liberty. But constraint is only a loss of freedom when we do not choose it.

Through consistent spiritual practice, listening and watching, inwardly and outwardly, we may awaken to our own Shadow which may have been controlling us; we may awaken to the Leadings of God, whether revealed in our own hearts, in the ministry of others, or in the world around us. And we may awaken our capacity to follow those leadings. This is true freedom.

4 thoughts on “Losing liberty?”

  1. Throughout my adult life I have valued ‘fraternite’, the sense of always belonging to a community from whom I receive in exchange warmth, love and sustenance. Whatever freedom I have to pursue my own well-being is constrained by the duty I owe to observe the well-being of others; those others may be round the corner or thousands of miles away. They are all part of my community, my world.

  2. Quakerism is a DOING religion rather than one with doctrines and sets of beliefs to which we must sign up. Doing is quite a discipline though, as we are shown the light, acting on it can feel hard. However, in the doing we learn the joys of things we had not expected. For example, practicing equality brings us into real contact with people with whom we would not have expected to make friends, including Tories and bankers! Travelling by train is a particular pleasure as it allows children to play with their parents and grandparents rather than screaming and fighting on the backseat of a car. I am making a personal collection of the benefits that I have found coming from changing old habits….

  3. Thank you for this, Laurie. I agree that this tension between individual liberty and community/corporate discipline is one that needs to be explored and made clearer, both within Quakerdom and in wider society. Among British Quakers, this Yearly Meeting (and preparations for it) are a good opportunity, as well as within our local and less formal encounters.
    It is also my experience that firm boundaries (limited choices etc) give us greater simplicity and more space for inner freedom. Occasionnally those boundaries may need to be breached ( “the Letter killeth but the Spirit giveth Life”) or reset, but only with tested discernment; all part of the Quaker discipline.

  4. Interesting article, and thank you for it Laurie. As you headlined it in the context of Passover, I had expected to find that it might include some reflections on the absence of freedom for many at the present time in Palestine / Israel. But I see that is not your purpose. I wondered if you really meant to write “…oppose the Domination System …” or did you mean “Dominant System”?

    I agree that “In western society, freedom comes to be identified with unlimited choice.” I see this reflected in the comments of people I’ve been speaking to today who want Britain to leave the EU. They seem to have taken on board the idea that belonging to a larger whole necessarily involves the crushing of our national / individual identity. I think there is a long way to go before a better balance evolves in the UK between individuality and loving participation (and where appropriate, subjugating one’s own wishes) in an ethical community. Sorry to sound a pessimistic note.

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