By Steven Norris

     Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas said in 1952, The right to be left alone is the beginning of freedom.” In his book,The Good Life, the late Harvard preacher, Peter Gomes, said about Justice Douglas’ comment, “It is hard to tell whether he was simply summing up the American conventional wisdom on the subject or he was a prophet of the societal trends that would, for better or worse, define the second half of the twentieth century, that age that would from time-to-time fancy itself as the American century.’”

     I cannot begin to count the number of times that I have seen misguided attempts at carpe diem played out through an insistence on throwing off rules. The only thing standing in the way was the oppressive hand of the man” (also known as traditional mores, religious moral codes, or societal expectations).     Ultimately, our collective goal has become the ‘freedom’ to do whatever we want — to choose our path and to place ourselves at the center of our universe. We have adopted Jon Bon Jovis lyrics as our theme song: “It’s my life. It’s now or never. But I ain’t gonna live forever. I just want to live while I’m alive. My heart is like an open highway. Like Frankie said, ‘I did it my way.’ I just want to live while I’m alive. It’s my life.”

     In the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), the younger son echoes this same desire for freedom. The son wants to unload his responsibilities and obligations. He wants to liquidate his inheritance, preferring cold hard cash to the obligations of land, employees, and running a business.

     Those who pursue such a life find that this “freedom” is really little more than a new form of slavery — slavery to the whims of pleasure, desire, greed, or pride. Instead of opening up new ways to embrace life and possibility, this “freedom” confines its victims to a narrow and constrained existence.     In contrast, my friend Kyle Childress once observed that, “Traditionally, freedom has not been understood as a goal or purpose in itself. Our goal is not to be free. Freedom has been understood as a condition by which worthy goals can be pursued. Our goal is to be free for something. So we must pay attention to the goal of freedom and ask such questions as, whose freedom and which freedom and freedom from what and freedom for what.”

     The scriptures insist that Christians have been set free from slavery to sin in order to be fully devoted to God, “in whose service is perfect freedom” (Book of Common Prayer). True freedom, thus defined, has to do with responsibility, commitments, and discipline. To be truly free is to find our identity in service to the God who fashioned us.
     Rather than being “left alone,” maybe freedom is really about being caught up in the plan and purpose of a God who calls us beyond ourselves and into a life of communion.