To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.
When Southern states began agitating in 1861 to leave the Union and form the Confederate States of America, not everyone was enthusiastic.
Every county in the state of Tennessee, for example, was required to vote separately on this crucial issue. In Scott County, located in the northeastern part of the state, the secession movement was trounced at the polls. The final tally was 541 votes to remain in the United States, 19 votes to join the new rebel nation.
Because the rest of Tennessee chose secession, state lawmakers expected the folks in Scott County would eventually wake up, smell the grits and coffee, and align with Dixie. But they never did. Nor did they throw in their lot with the North. Instead, they chose to become a brand-new nation – the Free and Independent State of Scott.
State officials were not amused.
They gathered a small army to march on the people who had the gall to secede from the secessionists. Fortunately, cooler tempers prevailed and the militia turned around and went back to Nashville.
Scott County wasn’t alone. Union sympathizers in northern Alabama formed both the Republic of Winston and an anti-war enclave called Nickajack. To this day, visitors can see the “Dual Destiny” statue standing before the Winston County courthouse. It portrays a young soldier wearing a half-Union / half-Confederate uniform.
The Free and Independent State of Scott, meanwhile, didn’t disappear when the Confederacy was defeated. In 1986, some 120 years following the end of the Civil War, Governor Lamar Alexander signed a resolution officially readmitting Scott County to the state of Tennessee.
“Freedom” and “independence” are near and dear to the hearts of Americans.
That even extends to fast food.
Burger King launched their “Have it Your Way” campaign in 1974. No one should have to settle for the one-size-fits-all limitations of the hamburgers at their rival McDonald’s. Burger King commercials currently wrap up with the jingle, “At BK, have it your way. You rule!” In other words, you’re the real king.
Which sounds perfect.
After all, I just might want to establish the Free and Independent State of Glenn – an autocracy where no one has the power to tell me what to do. I get to be president, CEO, and chief justice of my own Supreme Court.
Here’s how the eminent Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor describes modern Western culture: “Let each person do their own thing, and…one shouldn’t criticize the others’ values, because they have a right to live their own life as you do. The [only] sin which is not tolerated is intolerance.”
Someone on the street might put it simpler still: “Everyone is free to do whatever they want, as long as they don’t hurt anyone.”
But there’s a problem here.
What does it mean to “hurt” someone? Who even has the authority to answer such a question? There’s no cultural consensus. If freedom means abandoning everything that constrains us – no rules that have to be followed, no moral absolutes that must be honored, no gods before whom we have to bow – then we have no basis to decide what is best for human beings. Who can say what is hurtful and what is a blessing?
And because there are no ultimate moral boundaries, we have no referee to cry “foul” when someone feels their “rights” have been violated.
Which means, unfortunately, that the shrillest advocates for their own preferences often end up prevailing in the public square.
Pastor and author Tim Keller, who left us earlier this month, was struck by the fact that secularists tend to identify Christianity as the great enemy of human happiness – for the simple reason that Christianity is assumed to be the great enemy of human freedom. If freedom is the one thing we can’t live without, then we can’t have followers of Jesus spoiling the game by imposing their outdated rules.
But as Keller pointed out, “Real freedom is the strategic loss of some freedoms in order to gain others.”
Think about it. Do you want to experience the freedom of performing as a violinist in a symphony? Then you will have to surrender thousands of hours of non-musical activity in order to practice. Wannabe athletes must give up the freedom of sleeping in every morning. Couples must give up many of the freedoms they used to cherish – heading off to visit friends or see a movie any time they want – in order to responsibly care for young children. Do you want to enjoy the freedom of being a healthy senior adult? Then you’ll want to decline the freedom to smoke and to eat two desserts at every meal.
All those examples make sense.
But things get a lot pricklier when we consider moral and spiritual freedoms.
If we really inhabit a universe without moral absolutes, then you can cross any sexual line you want. After all, you make the rules in the Free and Independent State of You. But if you want the freedom to live without the complications and heartbreak of leaving behind multiple debris fields of broken promises and broken relationships, it makes sense not to elevate sexual freedom above every other relational value.
We’re blessed to live in a culture that doesn’t force us to embrace a single set of philosophical ideas.
You’re free, in other words, to conclude that all religion is hogwash. You can believe that the cosmos is a quantum fluctuation or a creator’s masterpiece. You can see the world through the Eastern eyes of pantheism, the Abrahamic eyes of theism, the Darwinist eyes of materialism, or the National Inquirer’s latest claims about space aliens. Or you don’t have to believe anything at all.
But you’re also free to take up the Bible’s invitation to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). It’s true that you’d have to give up your freedom to be cynical about all truth-claims. But that’s the price of finding out for yourself if Jesus was actually on to something when he said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).
The Way of Jesus, rightly understood, is a way of freedom. It’s not about crushing our liberty, but opening doors we didn’t even know existed.
Most important of all: God’s love is always persuasive, never coercive.
We don’t have to give up our true selves in order to follow Jesus. But we do have to abandon our freedom to stand on the sidelines of life and refuse to follow the clues.
In the end, the choice really does belong to you:
You can be the king or queen of the Free and Independent State of You, or you can find out if citizenship in God’s kingdom will truly set you free.
To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.