I am finishing Greene’s The Power and the Glory. It says a lot about the actions of God made manifest in a common and broken man. On this it speaks forcefully of an agent of grace and an operative of liberty in a place where grace and liberty has ceased to exist.
Up against this man stands another. He is rigid and unformed and holds onto an unjust legal code. The irony is that he is not broken, because he is not disconnected from his code of ethics, no matter how unjust the code is. He plays by the rules and the rules leave no room for grace. (In reading Greene, one gets the sense that anyone who does not fail at playing by the rules can never be an agent of grace.)
In a bizarre way, the unformed man sees himself as on the cause of liberty freeing the minds of people from what he thinks is a poverty causing restrictive religion. He cannot see those who he seeks to uphold as wanting their Church. So much is he in line with the cause of the state, he is willing to sacrifice the people whom he seeks to liberate.
I am sure when I finish the book, I will have more to think about….the nature of martyrdom and the working of God in the lives of sacrificed people. For now though, the book is reminding me of the current political milieu here in America and especially the age old question as to what is the price of liberty.
The health care issue has thrust the nature of liberty back into the limelight. It is easy to see it as a pitched battle between well meaning, but caustic people who want a better society given over to the liberty of individuals and churches that want to maintain their moral stance without being forced to pay for and adhere to those things that violate their institutional liberty.
The problem with the healthcare debate is that religious institutions have taken the wrong approach. They have adopted the word liberty, which is more about the individual than intuitions or the state. They would be better served talking about how they should not be forced to abandon their collective morality and that any individual who seeks their employ exercises their liberty by accepting their terms or going elsewhere. (And if the courts would back them up, I am sure it is an approach that would be tried.)
Healthcare is just one place where the question of liberty is being raised. I’ve just returned from Ohio and the drive back through rural America, revealed many Gadsen flags flying outside of the homes of tea party sympathizers. Here the argument for liberty is more properly placed, at least in the American context. Here we see the forces of traditional American liberty brought up against the ever increasing of governance. Here too we can start to ask ourselves if regulation has gone too far or if it may in fact be preserving the cause of liberty by making it possible for freedoms to be preserved by those who are not the smartest, strongest, and most cunning. In short, does rule and regulation negate Ayn Rand’s rabid libertarianism by promoting a greater good for a greater number. (More on that at another time.)
In Greene’s book there was the little thought of character called the gringo. He has a parallel life to the protagonist, but he represents the very thing Greene despises. He is essentially American liberty run amok informed by the harsh geography and servant only to himself. He is what happens when liberty goes so far as to abolish law. One can ponder if the Reformation in divorcing the spiritual and civil realms did not lead to the Enlightenment which abolished the spiritual realm and left only the secular setting up a precedent that even that realm, under the guise of liberty, could be abolished as well.
Enter America. Founded as the shining city on a hill, we are forever dwelling in the lovely tension of law and liberty. Greene would become very leery of us in this regard, not because the dream of such great liberty is not noble, but rather he feels it is undoable. And though I do not agree, if we are to be true to our nation, we too must honestly ask the question as to if so great a liberty is ever possible. We must ask if liberty has a price and if at some point the price becomes too high.
I find myself in a different place than the author of The Power and the Glory, the man who essentially came to call America an ugly and bullying nation bent on destroying the more empathetic socialists who had even more in the way of regulation than the Church Greene defended that held sway in Mexico before its anti-clerical reforms. And though I would not agree with Greene’s politics, his questions are worthwhile. Whether we are to point to Protestants, Americans, corporations, or any other group for which liberty becomes a buzzword, we must always ask ourselves when should liberty, if ever, be tempered.
So I am driving past homes with Gadsen flags. I am conflicted. I have in my convictions been about the protection of others often at expense to myself and laws that support this even as I am the proud son of a family that were in the new world before there was an United States and who have for generations fought to preserve American values that so strongly value rugged independence. I am the product of liberated people who threw of the yoke of churches and monarchies and yet I can see when these things were sacrificed that it did not mean that all people would share in the great luxury of freedom.
And I am brought to the place believing even democratic lands need the strength of law and restraint if their rightful liberty is to be preserved and that God, having ordained liberty for our people, does not grant to us the right to impose this on others, even if others would be better off with these values. (We must stop being democracy’s soldiers and be its missionaries instead.) More importantly I have come to realize that there is no perfect liberty. Carried to its extremes we become like the old west gunslinger. We can look at Greene’s gringo (not to mention the likes of the French revolution) to see this. Unlike Greene, I would never argue for a worldview of American ugliness, but neither would I think our own nation deserves a free pass when it comes to the judgment of God. That judgment does indeed endorse our liberty, but it does not allow us to go beyond it bringing us to a place where rampant liberty becomes as damaging as having no liberty at all.
Note: Pictured above is a 19th century representation of Lady Liberty.