Good Trumps Free

Posted on December 6, 2011

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This could be one of those grammar discussions, like how punctuation matters (“Let’s eat Grandma!” or “Let’s eat, Grandma!”) but it’s not. This isn’t an offer of something for nothing, unless you count the fact that you don’t have to pay me to read what I think.

I had to write it that way because it’s politically incorrect to say “righteousness.” I wanted to title this “Righteousness Trumps Freedom.” The word has such a ring of self-righteousness to it that it’s pretty much become useless in daily parlance. Sad, because it’s a really good word. Most human beings on the planet believe in a code of conduct and philosophically in right and wrong. If there is any wrong, then there is right. If there is evil in the world, then there is righteousness. It’s a good word.

It’s righteous to care for ailing parents with compassion. It’s righteous to be kind to children and teach them with patience when they make mistakes. It’s righteous to vote and volunteer and give people we don’t know presents for Christmas. It’s righteous to treat our employees with fairness and to deal honestly with everyone. Righteousness isn’t just religious; it’s a code of conduct that is human, what many historians call “civil religion.” It’s about doing what is “right.”

A huge part of western civil religion is the concept of freedom. As an American (citizen of the US), it’s ingrained in my consciousness as deeply as it is my nation’s. In our civil religion, to deprive someone of their freedom is tantamount to depriving them of their will to live. Our birth as a country is based on the founders’ growing belief that the primary purpose of social contracts (the agreements to form governments) is the protection of individual freedom. It was a radical idea. I like it.

But I’ve decided recently that freedom, as beautiful (and righteous) as it is, is not as important as righteousness.

To make that kind of leap, to choose one over the other, one has to nest one of those principles in a larger reality, a cosmology that one accepts. I accept that my consciousness continues far beyond this life and that I am here in a laboratory, determining how I will behave on my own and given an opportunity to learn in great freedom. The ultimate freedom, to choose my actions independent of the environment I’ve been given, is already mine. Righteousness, or not, is my true choice.

Because my choice (in my cosmology) is the most important thing, the choices of my peers or my community or my government recede. My government can remove many of my choices by forcing taxes on me, but it cannot remove my choice to use my remaining money to try to do good. What rises with me is my choice, not my government. My community may choose to take my freedom to drive a car, but that has little effect on my ultimate choices to teach my children or care for my parents. My relationships rise with me, but the car doesn’t. Another nation may invade mine and remove many of the freedoms I hold dear, but it cannot stop me from giving strangers presents at Christmas. Because, you got it, my nationality does not rise with me.

Some of the most righteous people, those who have transcended normal relationships with one another, like Viktor Frankl unfairly imprisoned or Joseph Smith hounded by mobs until he was killed, did all that they did in an environment absent apparent freedom. Their true freedom was in the choice. Their transcendence was in making the choice to be righteous in spite of a constricted environment.

It’s no secret that I’m political, because I think freedom is a wonderful gift, for which generations studied, sacrificed, fought, and died, and I think that makes it my responsibility to preserve it wherever I find it. But in the end, I think righteousness is worth more. If your environment is a bit constricted, perhaps it is the tool to multiply your righteousness.

Righteousness is more important than freedom. We may be reminded of that when our external freedoms are lost. The real freedom remains. Choose consciously, and don’t worry about your freedom. You’ve got it.

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