A friend of mine once bought some beach-front property and set out to build the largest house he could. He didn’t need the space, but was determined to eke out every single square inch allowed, because, he said, “it’s my right to do so.”
He alienated neighbors, destroyed ancient animal trails, lost many friends, and built an unnecessarily extravagant home just to prove he could. As a veteran, he said, “This is the freedom I fought for.”
We give a lot of attention to our freedom and the price paid by many to maintain it, but I grow concerned that we increasingly ignore the responsibility freedom brings. Freedom from tyranny, oppression and government interference has too often turned into freedom to misbehave, to be careless with neighbors and to pursue pleasure at any cost.
“But I have my rights” is the cry of obnoxious neighbors. “Freedom of speech” is the defense of the bellicose bully. “Get over it” is the response to requests for more socially acceptable behavior.
In his book “Religious No More,” author Mark D. Baker writes, “Freedom is not an autonomous independence that means a person can do as he or she wants…Freedom does not diminish our responsibility to each other.”
In other words, freedom is not an excuse for everyone to do whatever is right in their own eyes. Freedom has a twin sister known as responsibility. Or, in more familial terms, neighborliness.
Freedom gives us choices, and neighborliness asks that we choose responsibly, considering what is best for the community beyond ourselves.
Freedom without a sense of neighborliness isn’t healthy. Freedom shouldn’t mean we can destroy the Earth just because “I have private property rights.” Freedom shouldn’t mean corporations can treat employees as medieval serfs, just because they have the right to maximize investor profits.
I was given a lecture when I was handed my first driver’s license: “Driving a car gives you a lot of freedom. But it’s also a huge responsibility. One false move can hurt a lot of people. So enjoy the freedom, but drive responsibly.”
Freedom is not a license to drive like a maniac, to spout off insulting comments toward online neighbors, or to pollute the neighborhood with your choice in bad music. Others share this space around us. With freedom comes responsibility toward them.
Paul wrote this to a cluster of small churches in Asia Minor: “You were called to be free…so become servants to one another in love.” This is the idea of neighborliness. We are free; free to be good neighbors, free to look out for each other, free to give a helping hand to one another.
Freedom is not about doing whatever I want whenever I want, while ignoring the consequences. Freedom asks that we be respectful and responsible toward our neighbors, our descendants and our planet. Without that responsibility, too many will get hurt and freedom will be lost.
Dan Whitmarsh is pastor at Lakebay Community Church. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org