Another word for nothing left to lose

Posted: July 26, 2021 in Uncategorized

It was from Janis Joplin and her Me and Bobby McGee that I first heard them, the words that “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” I always pondered those evocative lyrics, not exactly knowing what they meant. But in this historical moment, they make more sense than ever.

The word freedom is used in the Me and Bobby McGee sense in many quarters today. For those who truly have nothing left to lose it has become a sort of battle cry. It is combined with echoes of patriotic sentiment, as in, don’t tread on me, don’t overreach, because this snake strikes. It is also cynical, representing a giving up on anything that means anything beyond the individual. But most of all it appeals to a most natural inclination among humans, selfishness. I wish I could say that this is the selfishness endemic to the irreligious, because that would be a tempting leap. If only, the sanctified might say, these irreligious souls would just come on over to the religious household then they would get all altruistic and such. If that were only the case. We’ll return to that in a minute.

But first, on the purely political level, a goodly number of Americans have reduced the core tenants of democracy to a kind unfettered freedom of the self, that I can do anything I want, anytime, for any reason. Just so I get what I want. And nobody tells me what to do. You could say this is extreme libertarianism, but it is much more than that. It has reduced the lofty vision of E Pluribus Unum (Out of many, one) to Out of the Many, only One Matters. Every right is about me, very selectively chosen without reference to the rights of lack of rights of others.

You find this in current political speech relating to the pandemic and the balance between individual rights and the common good. At town halls and city council meetings, in the midst of deliberating on how to best secure the most good for the most people you hear a voice crying the wilderness of the back of the room: “Freedom!” What that town crier of the council meeting is referring to, we surmise, is that each person should have freedom to choose for him or herself. If we should have seat belts, traffic signals, litter laws, hours the park is open, warnings on cigarette packages – all those that represent overreach, Big Brother laying the heavy hand of imposition on the poor citizen, even it it is in the citizen’s best interest. If we are free, truly free, we should be able to choose from a menu of options – yes this one, no, not that one. If masks have been shown to contain spread of the virus, it is not the good of the many that is important, but rather whether I think it is an inconvenience I don’t want to bear. Or worse, that government is ramming this down my nostrils. Even if the vaccine and the vaccination of a sufficient number of citizens will contain the virus and in the end overcome it, I don’t want to if it violates my freedom to choose, even if it is ultimately in my own interest and the interest of my family members.

This cult of unbalanced freedom is egged on by politicos who have something to gain from the rage of the masses. Ironically, it is most often people running for government office who help populist movements piss on the intentions or performance of the government, whatever level of government that happens to be. In the end, our freedom becomes more important than any other thing, including matters of life and death.

Of course, these are the same persons, the same freedom-at-any-cost people, who squawk the loudest about closing the society down for protection. They shout and scream and spit because they can’t eat without a mask at a restaurant. Ironically, these are the same ones who most often refuse to be vaccinated, the one thing that would keep the economy open, what they want the most.

In this cult of absolutist freedom, the good of the many is irrelevant and my comfort or preferences or unimpeded movement is the most important thing at any given moment.

Lest some are tempted to self-righteousness too quickly, many in religious communities are not much better. They have stolen and then mangled the original meaning of spiritual freedom and liberation from bondage from the scriptures and tradition. It has been turned into a kind of libertine endorsement of selfishness: “If Christ has made us free, we are free indeed!” And that is taken to mean that the servanthood of Christ is not really about loving neighbor as self, but rather claiming a kind of position of privilege. Gee, I’m so special that I deserve just exactly what I want. In these circles you never hear that the most faithful thing, the way I can love my neighbor the best, is to get vaccinated and make sure we all get vaccinated. Instead of that ethical response, we generally hear yet another rhetorical volley about freedom.

I remember the very first time, preceding the 2016 election, that I heard the cry of “Freedom!” from the back of a church board meeting. I can hardly remember what the actual issue at hand was, but the misguided soul just couldn’t contain himself and shouted out the affirmation like he was reciting lines from Braveheart. All he got was glances from people who had no idea what his acclamation was about, including the stare of his most embarrassed wife.

It is sufficient to say that that a broad selfishness has overtaken many quarters of the church and twisted it away from anything that resembles a Christian thought or Christian way. Basically, the freedom claimed is a freedom in which we are supposedly free to abuse anyone for any reason because we are free to do so. Just as long as we say Jesus saved me from my sins. One could only hope.

The thing about a virus of selfishness is that it leaves people absolutely convinced in the moral veracity of their cause. Freedom in and of itself becomes the ultimate cause, not freedom to do or be something holy, good, or loving. Just free to be free. Which is almost the opposite of any definition of the Christian life from Jesus right through to the Apostle Paul, who famously counseled Christians to use their freedom not for vice, but for good.

The next time you hear someone spouting off about freedom in either the political or religious realms, ask yourself what kind of freedom they are describing. Whatever they say, the fact remains that Abe Lincoln wouldn’t say that people were free to hold slaves just because it advantaged them; it’s not moral to affirm my freedom when it takes someone else’s freedom away. And spiritual luminaries from Gandhi to Mother Teresa to Howard Thurman would never have said that the essence of spiritual life is being free to do anything one wants just because. No, that is a pitiful, anemic, pathetic view of something that should be profound.

When Martin Luther King, Jr. preached the hope that we would all be free at last, free at last, it was a freedom for every person who was shackled by the bonds of hatred and shackled by the bonds they used to shackle others. His life, the lives of many, have not been poured out on the altar of freedom with no cost to themselves. The ultimate price is often paid for the common good, a reality that requires a robust notion of freedom that is much more than the reduced form to which it has shrunk.

The meaning of freedom must become much more than nothing left to lose. Rising above cynicism and selfishness is the first and hardest transformation to make. Then lifting our conversation and preoccupations to a higher level will require much more than political tinkering or religious glittering generalities. It will require moral language, something sturdy and reflective, a way of speaking that begins with one courageous voice but doesn’t end there, because the sound of the real freedom of justice, love and peace is contagious, spreading among souls who know it when they hear it, souls who have become increasingly discontented with the impoverished language of freedom that has masqueraded as the real thing for far too long.

  1. Gloria says:

    This is probably not the time or place for this argument, but it foments the abortion issue. Do those who yell “freedom” for their personal right not to vaccinate, wear masks, or socially distance, do they also believe that every women has the right to make a personal decision concerning abortion?
    I bet not . . .

  2. Paul Hartman says:

    Thanks for this! Would that it could appear in every newspaper and broadcast on every medium including Fox News. And thank you for Baker’s Dozen. I loved those poems. Paul Hartman

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