Contemporary Battle Lines: Liberty versus Liberation
These two ideas spell the difference in today’s conflicts over individual and family and church and business liberty — and social justice, "wokeness," Black Lives Matter, and cancel culture.
Dear friends and supporters:
Because I’ve been on the road, this letter will be shorter than normal, but the topic is significant.
We live in a time that values release from oppression seemingly above alleviation from most other hardships. The idea that oppression and, therefore, oppressors are everywhere, is, well, everywhere.
Oppression is a fact of our fallen world. The Bible itself teachers that salvation is liberty from oppression. God liberated ancient Israel from Egypt. God liberates his people from slavery to the world, the flesh, and the devil. Liberty and its related term liberation are biblical themes.
For the purposes of this e-letter, I’d like to distinguish between liberty and liberation. This basic taxonomy was first articulated by Isaiah Berlin in his minor classic essay, “Two Concepts of Liberty.” He spoke of negative liberty and positive liberty. I’ll designate them liberty versus liberation, respectively.
Liberty: Emancipation From
Liberty is emancipation from – especially emancipation from political coercion, or the power of the state. Liberty means that, within the broad confines of God’s moral law, we can do as we please. Liberty is designed for a self-governing people. They need very few external restraints because they’ve developed internal restraints. They are self-disciplined.
This liberty is the meaning the Bible envisions. It was equally the concept of the U. S. Founders. Liberty was liberty from the extralegal coercions of British royalty. Religious liberty is liberty from a national church aligned with a state that confiscates tax money and persecutes religious dissenters. Political liberty is liberty from taxation without representation. We are liberated from a coercive state. Liberty from.
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Liberation: Emancipation To
Liberation is different. We are not truly free from oppression unless we are emancipated to a particular kind of life. It’s not sufficient to be free from coercion to live as we wish. We must be free to fulfill our life’s dreams, goals, and ambitions. Getting rid of an oppressive state can’t do that for us. We need more. Our greatest oppressors are not the state, therefore, but our culture and its institutions.
For example, our culture has expectations to which we must conform if we’re to be accepted and approved. We need to hold a job. We must treat others with respect. We are obliged to pay our bills. But if these cultural expectations conflict with our dreams and aspirations, we’ll feel frustrated. We are oppressed.
But the real culprits are institutions like the family and church and business. We’re born into a family that requires us to curb our desires and sacrifice for other family members. My own desires are not central to my family.
And then there’s the church. It teaches that there’s a Triune, sovereign God to whom we’re responsible. He lays down his truth the Bible. The church establishes the boundaries of belief, or orthodoxy. You and I don’t get to decide. The church says premarital and extramarital sex and homosexuality are sinful. Ditto with covetousness and self-centeredness. If you have an unwanted pregnancy, you may not have an abortion.
Add to this your employer. You have to be at work on time. You work for your employer’s goals, and especially the customer’s. If your business exists to provide cheeseburgers or Chevy Impalas or software, you’re required to serve if you’re going to get paid. Your employer might hamper your dreams and ambitions. You feel stifled.
If I feel that “true self,” the self on the inside, is transgendered, I must be liberated to alter my gender. If I’m homosexual, I must be liberated to marry, like heterosexuals. If I lack ambition, I must be liberated from people who try to motivate me. I’m entitled to a “safe space.” If teachers or other students express viewpoints that offend me, they must be silenced. It is my liberation that is important, not their right to free speech, which is much less important.
To be truly liberated, I require not just legal freedom but also approval. If other people — if my family or church and the wider society — disapprove of my beliefs or actions, I cannot be truly free. To be truly free, I must be my true, “authentic” self. This notion of the true self, as opposed to the artificial self that I must put on like a mask just to get along within my oppressive culture, is an idea that crops up all the time among the liberationists. I must be liberated to be my authentic self.
If we’re to be truly free, we must be liberated from these cultural oppressors. And how will we be liberated? There must be an institution strong enough to weaken or abolish these oppressors. That institution is the state, or politics. The state is powerful enough to enfeeble the family and church, for example, institutions that prevent me from expressing and being my true self. The state can enact a new law system whose goal is not absence of coercion, but an environment that allows radical human autonomy. Not liberty from, but liberty to.
“Wokeness” culture is liberationist. Colorblindness isn’t enough. “People of color” must be celebrated — even given reparations — for the color of their skin. It’s not sufficient that they be treated fairly and equally under the law. That’s liberty from. They long for liberation to.
Black Lives Matter is equally liberationist. It’s committed not to enhancing black lives but liberating all races and people from family and church and other traditional cultural authority:
We are self-reflexive and do the work required to dismantle cisgender privilege and uplift Black trans folk, especially Black trans women who continue to be disproportionately impacted by trans-antagonistic violence.
We build a space that affirms Black women and is free from sexism, misogyny, and environments in which men are centered.
We practice empathy. We engage comrades with the intent to learn about and connect with their contexts.
We make our spaces family-friendly and enable parents to fully participate with their children. We dismantle the patriarchal practice that requires mothers to work “double shifts” so that they can mother in private even as they participate in public justice work.
We disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement by supporting each other as extended families and “villages” that collectively care for one another, especially our children, to the degree that mothers, parents, and children are comfortable.
We foster a queer‐affirming network. When we gather, we do so with the intention of freeing ourselves from the tight grip of heteronormative thinking, or rather, the belief that all in the world are heterosexual (unless s/he or they disclose otherwise).
Both “Wokeness” and BLM practice cancel culture: shouting down and marginalizing any traditional verbal threat to their liberationist crusade.
Their liberation is the very antithesis of liberty. While liberty is liberty from political coercion, liberationists are eager to enlist political coercion to liberate the world from cultural authorities like the family and church. This is why they tend to support affirmative action, judicial activism, and reparations. They want to use the power of the sword to liberate people from non-coercive traditional authority.
These are the chief battle lines of our conflict. We conservative Christians stand for liberty, the absence of political coercion.
The Social Justice and “wokeness” warriors and Black Lives Matter, in radical contrast, desire to abolish that very liberty in the mad rush for human liberation, the full exercise of autonomy, and the destruction of Christianity, which is at the root of Western civilization.
There is no compromise between these two social visions. You can have liberty, or you can have liberation.
You cannot have both.
What Loving Your Neighbor Isn’t
It is a significant and potentially dangerous mistake to assume that loving one’s neighbor must “balance out” economic and other individual liberty. Behind this assumption is generally the premise that if we stress individual and economic liberty, we are not properly loving our neighbor, and a responsibility of the state is to ensure that our neighbor is properly loved, at least economically loved.
But the responsibility of the state is to enforce justice appropriate to its sphere, not to love neighbors (Rom. 13). When the state intrudes into the neighbor-love business, this generally reduces to confiscating hard-earned money in order to reengineer society in a Leftward direction — and, of course, to finance bureaucrats’ jobs.
In the Bible, the antithesis to individual liberty is not care for the common good. In fact, the best way to ensure the common good is to preserve individual, including economic, liberty.
Is the Culture War Necessary?
For Christians, the culture war is not an unpleasant necessity, but a high and holy calling
The Progressive Credo
The foundational assumption of “progressivism” is that the measure of linear history is the measure of moral improvement. Later is always better. The notion that Western civilization could’ve taken a severe moral detour anywhere from 50 to 200 years ago such that today is morally inferior to decades ago is simply unthinkable to “progressivism.”
But this is precisely what a Christian worldview demands. We do not judge ethics by history, but history by ethics — biblical ethics.
The cure is a return, not to the past, but to biblical ethics. Modernity is to be privileged no more than premodernity is.
The only thing to be privileged is God’s revelation.
Make Christianity Great Again
Christianity’s greatness has diminished, that is, Christianity historically and culturally considered in the West. By contrast, the greatness of the Christian Faith objectively understood has not lessened: the Lord Jesus Christ and his word and the Cross and resurrection, for example, are just as great today as they ever were. But the Faith at is practiced in the West and particularly as it influences what we nowadays call “public” life, is at a low ebb. This diminution has occurred before historically both in the West as well as in the rest of the world, and it has been recovered. A contribution toward that recovery in our own time is the chief objective of this book.
Get the e-book here.
The current Western heat wave has temperatures soaring well into the 100s at our home. Because Pacific Gas and Electric is employing “rolling [electrical] blackouts,” Sharon and I are heading into the High Sierras where we can get some relief. Most importantly, my sleep apnea requires a c-pap machine that runs on electricity. Please pray that we get some relief.
Next week I hope to address “Total Revolution,” the goal of the newest New Left in family, education, art, science, entertainment, politics, law — and the church.
Yours for victory,
More great stuff:
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List of Coronavirus-related posts and podcasts:
“What the COVID-19 Drama Has Revealed About Our Institutional Character”
COVID-19 and Legality: An Interview with Jeffery J. Ventrella
COVID-19 and Economics: An Interview with David L. Bahnsen
COVID-19 and Theology: An Interview with Brian G. Mattson
“COVID-19 and Our Crisis of Liberty”
“Thinking Christianly During Covid”
“COVID-19, Politics, Church, and Culture”
(Dr. Ardel Caneday and I address vital questions. This was a succinct, wide-ranging conversation discussing everything from the interpretation of Romans 13, radical 2-kingdom theology, the nature of the church, whether the church should cancel public worship,￼ whether the civil magistrate is bound to God’s law, the Founders’ view of human nature, the diabolical basis of coronavirus fear, and much more. The password is: 1j$@^=S#)
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