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Freedom by Phil Silk

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PostPosted: Sun Jun 16, 2019 3:54 pm    Post subject: Freedom by Phil Silk Reply with quote

Freedom and Responsibility
By Rev Phil Silk


Here in this house of the spirit, may we be gathered to transcend our cares through communion with life's nobler things; to find restoration for what daily assails the best in us, tempting us to forsake the best, and thus, ourselves; to renew our valor for living a life which needs more courage than we have; to recreate in ourselves, through association with kindred souls, a new resolve to be what we have never been before. To this house of the spirit we come today, to rededicate ourselves to the things that matter most.

As we light the chalice today, let us think about that most wonderful yet often misunderstood concept, 'freedom'. May the flame of freedom burn within us.


How appropriate it is to reconsider one of our favourite values, freedom. “Freedom, Reason and Tolerance”, we proclaim. Our historic toast is to “Civil a Religious Freedom”. We promote unity in diversity and practise freedom of the pulpit combined with freedom of the pew. This week we were celebrating the 75th anniversary of D Day, which led to the liberation of much of Europe. And next weekend we shall be joining in Stoke Pride Day, honouring gender diversity and the freedom to love wherever the heart leads us.

Nonetheless, sometimes it seems to me that people forget that there is no such thing as 'complete freedom.' There are costs and limits. We need more attention to the responsible provision of freedom and the responsible use of it, as well.

Today I shall share the way some other people have dealt with the subject as well as more words of my own.


1. “Go Down Moses”When Israel was in Egypt's land,/Let my people go./Oppressed so hard they could not stand, /Let my people go!/ Go down Moses, /Way down in Egypt's land:/ Tell old pharaoh/To let my people go!
“Thus saith the Lord,” bold Moses said: Let my people go./ If not I'll smite your first-born dead,” /Let my people go!,/ Go down, Moses, /Way down in Egypt's land:/ Tell old pharoah,/To let my people go!

No more bondage shall they toil,/Let my people go./Let the come out with Egypt's spoil,/Let my people go!./ Go down, Moses,/Way down in Egypt's land,/To let my people go!

2. The United Nations Hymn words by William Wolff

From ruins of war and plundered dreams of peace,/We now declare: “All hate and wars must cease!”/This be our aim, Our common bond,/United Nations,/One Brotherhood!

All hearts rejoice in peace and brotherhood,/Lift up your voice and stand as free-men should./ Break loose the chains of fear and tyranny,/Dare to proclaim the truth that set men free!

From all the lands and creed beneath the sun,/Ring out demands,/A world of Peace be won;/ Firm our resolve to hearken to the call –/One World at Peace,/United Nations all!

3. ”Liberation is Costly” by Desmond Tutu

Liberation is costly. Even after the Lord had delivered the Israelites from Egypt, they had to travel through the desert.

They had to bear the responsibilities and difficulties of freedom.
There was starvation and thirst and they kept complaining. They complained that their diet was monotonous. Many of them preferred the days of bondage and the fleshpots of Egypt.

We must remember that liberation is costly. It needs unity. We must hold hands and not be divided. We must be ready.

Some of us will not see the day of liberation physically. But those people will have contributed to the struggle.

Let us be united, let us be filled with hope, let us be those who respect one another.

RESPONSIVE READING “The Free Mind” William Ellery Channing

I call that mind free which masters the senses, and which recognises its own reality and greatness.


I call that mind free which zealously guards its intellectual rights and powers, which does not content itself with a passive hereditary faith;


I call that mind free which is not passively framed by outward circumstances, and is not the creature of accidental impulse:


I call that mind free which protects itself against the usurpations of society, and which does not cower to human opinion.


I call that mind free which resists the bondage of habit, which does not mechanically copy the past, or live on its old virtues.


I call that mind free which sets no bounds to its love, which, wherever they are seen, delights in virtue and sympathises with suffering.


I call that mind free which has cast off all fear but that of wrongdoing, and which no menace or peril can enthrall.


PRAYER (UMA p. 14, JR Clarke 2)

We are gathered here from many walks of life, and with varying needs, hopes and desires, to contemplate the larger meaning of life, to search for truth, and to seek to implement truth in our lives, individually and together. We would be quiet inwardly that we may hear better what other people are saying. Thus would we better understand the meaning of our lives and the duties and obligations that we owe to one another and to [life.] Since we have been endowed with the treasure of freedom, we would use it, not in pride and selfishness, but in humility and charity, never permitting the exercise of our freedom to be the occasion for injury to others. We have not been given the spirit of fear, but of power and love and of thoughtfulness: by these may we be opened toward what is true and good in all our concerns. Amen

1 “Human Moral Discourse” (ex) Bishop Richard Holloway

There are two great values in human moral discourse: the value of order and the value of freedom. They frequently conflict, and people tend to characterize themselves by leaning towards one or the other. There are people who prize order highly. They are usually disciplined, sometimes emotionally repressed and not infrequently authoritarian in outlook. These characteristics produce results that are good as well as bad. Stability and regularity are the great virtues of the ordered society. Those who prize the values of freedom, on the other hand, may be less disciplined, more relaxed about things which authoritarians think are fundamental; there may even be a certain laziness in their make-up, but they allow people space to breathe and the opportunity to develop their individuality. An ideal society would achieve a wise balance between order and freedom, stability and creativity. Unfortunately, we tend to divide ourselves into opposing groups. And rather than co-operate to discover a healthy society that balances the complementary virtues, we tend to opt for one side of the dualism. So the religious right campaigns for a return to a type of moral conformity that is anathema to liberals, who believe that people should be left to behave according to their own desires, as long as they are not engaged in activities that exploit the weak and damage society. There is no doubt that each side of this debate has its strengths and weaknesses. It is being mentioned for one reason only, and that is that the religious right, who support the morality of order in preference to the morality of freedom, claim to be more biblical and Christian than liberals whom they love to vilify. In fact, there are many liberal values in scripture. Christ himself overturned the accepted moral order of the day. ... His attitude to moral traditions was revisionist: they were made for humanity, not the other way round. It was no accident that he was constantly surrounded by the sort of people whom the defenders of order and discipline repudiated. 'This man receives sinners and eats with them' was the charge against him that prompted his greatest parables in St Luke's gospel. Many of the charges that are levelled against liberals, who are trying to respond to the complexities of human need in today's world, sound very like the attacks made against Jesus by the moral guardians of his culture, for whom the letter of the law was a weapon that killed rather than an aid that assisted suffering humanity. Authoritarian ethical systems invariably fall into this trap, and they seem to attract people in whom the urge to punish is strong, an invariably suspect emotion. In moral debate it is better to offer our programme not because we believe it has been decreed from on high, but because we think it works best and produces the healthiest society. These claims can be tested and measured.

2. In 2010, the Unitarian College Manchester student magazine, “Stirrings” focused on the theme “Real Freedom”, with articles by trainee Unitarian ministers and alumni.

I have chosen two to share with you today. First, ”What is real freedom?” by Alex Bradley, who has led services here.

Car advertisements show us the freedom of an empty road. No traffic jams, traffic lights, or traffic cameras spoil the enjoyment of that paradise. Supermarkets give us freedom to choose so many different foods, types, brands and flavours. Lifestyle magazines urge us to be different, to make our mark, to express our individuality. Be free to do what you want, read what you want, work where you want, find any partner you want. Live in the house of your dreams; give dinner parties that exhibit your culinary prowess; holiday in the right places; watch the tv shows and read the magazines to give you ideas.

Our culture tells us, express yourself, be yourself, care for yourself.
Is this real freedom?

If our partner loses their job, our economic freedom may be curtailed. They may become depressed, unmotivated, and difficult. If a child of ours has long-term health issues, we may have to look after them well into their adult lives, when we might reasonably have expected to rest contentedly and enjoy a comfortable retirement. A friend falls on hard times and instead of being a fun-loving happy-go-lucky addition to our social gatherings becomes someone who makes seemingly incessant demands on our time and sympathy, an apparently bottomless emotional well into which we throw a few coins of support.

In situations such as these, where is real freedom?

Freedom can be desirable, enjoyable and fun. It can also be daunting, heartbreaking and lonely.

People sacrifice themselves for others in various ways. In doing so they find themselves. They give themselves in the lives they lead. They may be seemingly ordinary nameless people or ones whose names live on: Margaret Barr in lifelong selfless service; James Reeb in prophetic witness at the cost of his life. Real freedom is lived in relation to others: real freedom is found in community.

Real freedom is about choice, and sometimes it is found through the narrow gate. It is found in the true self and it is found in self-denial. Jesus spoke of the Kingdom as a great feast for all. He also said those seeking to save their lives would lose them, and those who lost their lives would find them.
Here is the spiritual paradox that all the great faiths have taught. Here I believe is real freedom.

The second selection is a poem by Nicky Jenkins, whose work has appeared in “The Inquirer.”

Our forebears strove for freedom to worship as they wished
And today we have that gift.
And yet how free are we?
In many ways bound
By our ties to our work,
our family
our possessions.
We would be free
But can we stand the consequences?
The being alone
The lack of structure
The unpredictability
We want to be free and yet still safe.
Can we have both?
Can there be a balance between freedom and belonging?
Freedom must be a journey, a daily struggle with ourselves
A movement from our lesser selves towards our best
A freeing of our spirits from
Self-protection and judgement,
From fear and lack of trust
Freedom is
A joyful, brave, vulnerability to love.

COMMENTARY: Freedom and Responsibility

Sing: “Oh Freedom, Oh freedom, Oh Freedom over me”.
Sing: “We shall overcome, we shall overcome”.
FREEDOM! What a compelling, universal concern! What an abused, misunderstood one, too!

When I was a mid-twentieth century youngster all those years ago in New England, I was very conscious of the role of freedom in our culture. The Jews escaping from Egypt; Jesus losing his life and his followers, too, under Rome. Then Christianity taking over the Roman empire, then other areas; Protestants taking their freedom and using it against others; Unitarians gradually getting theirs; the Americans throwing off the yoke of Britain; slaves finally getting emancipated; and so on.

Then when I was 15, I went to a summer conference for Unitarian youth and had my mind expanded by Rev Harry Sommerfield, who showed me that freedom is not just freedom FROM tyranny, oppression, restrictions and obstacles; freedom is also freedom FOR, freedom to DO things, freedom of opportunity. It is easier to unite in throwing off shackles than it is to use the freedom gained constructively.

Since that time my understanding of the complexities of the concept of freedom have continued to grow. It is a huge subject. But the needs for freedom, both FROM and FOR, for others and for myself, have not diminished, as you well know.

You may recall that we shared a service on the theme “All are Architects of Fate”, in which I proclaimed my faith in the freedom and responsibility of individuals to make decisions. Whatever our genetics, environment and character, I believe we all have at least some free will. I shall build on that belief today.

In today's service so far, I have shared some aspects of and approaches to freedom. Now I wish to develop a few more ideas around the theme of responsible freedom. Perhaps you will share some of your views later.
When children get tired of hearing ”Don't forget to brush your teeth”; “No, you can't have another sweetie”; “Why weren't you home right after school?”; and “Get to bed right now!”, they are apt to think “I can hardly wait until I grow up; then I can do what I want.” Remember those days? Not all childhood days are spent in envy of adulthood, but it is common to dream of unrestricted freedom. Even adults do that. But it is not uncommon for us to find at other times that we agree with the poet who wrote: “I am the captain of my soul/I rule it with stern joy/And yet I think I had more fun/When I was a cabin boy.” The title of his work was “A death!” It is a rallying cry of people around the world. It stirs our souls. But what is it, really? I think freedom can best be defined as the ability and opportunity to determine our own behaviour; freedom FROM and freedom TO.

We are free when we are biologically, intellectually, spiritually and environmentally able to do something. There are always limits- and costs, too. I am not free to be another Albert Schweitzer because I do not have the equipment, let alone the opportunity, to be a brilliant musician, doctor, humanitarian and theologian. Leonardo Da Vinci could have been an astronaut: he had the brains and the drive; but not the opportunity. We often overlook these aspects of freedom, ability and opportunity.
The freedom we are most familiar with is the “Don't fence me in” kind. “Give me land, lots of land, under starry skies above...” Or “That government is best which governs least.” But is it? Is it possible, let alone desirable, to be completely free from limitations imposed upon us by civil law, ecclesiastical law, social custom, parental responsibility, conscience? We are not just individuals, we are members of society, so I say “No”. There will always be restraints on our freedom. In a democracy we can shape some of them, but life will always put limits on us. The search for freedom will and should continue, but we need to recognise the limits, changing some, but never all. We want and need freedom from hunger, illness, ignorance, loneliness, poverty, oppression. We want and need to be free to develop our abilities. Anarchy is not freedom, it is chaos. Our freedom depends on others, on the responsible sharing of freedoms.

Freedom we like; responsibility we shy away from or feel stoical about. Responsibility is a duty and a burden. When we consider someone responsible for something, we assume either they did it, that they will do it, or that they should have done it. We consider them accountable for their acts, as though they had complete control of their behaviour, or at least had the freedom to wield the major influence in the situation. Throughout the ages people have argued over how much control we have of our own behaviour. You are familiar with the 'free will versus determinism' debate. Not only do we have to ponder right and wrong, but how much responsibility we actually have. Are we responsible when under the influence of alcohol, drugs, stress, passion, orders? We cannot settle these issues today. Each situation must be evaluated on its own, I think. I shall return to this topic another time.

Meanwhile, perhaps we can get a little nearer by considering my three affirmations: First, responsibility requires freedom. Secondly, to have freedom you need to take responsibility. And finally, people should seek a healthy balance between the two, responsible freedom; not one without the other.

The first proposition is: if you have responsibility, you need the freedom to act. In the absolute sense, if you have no freedom, then you cannot have any responsibility, either. That follows by definition. But it also follows that in practice, when we give someone responsibility, we must also give them enough freedom to live up to the responsibility. If we call in a doctor, we give them the responsibility of bringing all their skills to bear on our situation. If we tell them they cannot use injections or x-rays or surgery, or don't take our medicine properly, then we cannot blame the doctor if we do not get well. (We may not anyway, but that is a different matter.) We cannot expect people to be fully responsible when we prevent them from using their abilities or interfere with their work. This applies to the UN, for example. If we make use of their policing or court and make them subject to being invited by the warring parties or not being protected by them and making their decisions optional, how can we say the UN is failing? Even children need increasing chances to choose. How else can they learn responsible freedom? We all need responsibilities along with freedoms.
Another point is that when we delegate responsibilities, we should not expect perfection. Not only do we need full use of our knowledge and skills, but we also need to be free to learn, to experiment and to make mistakes. When we send a legislator to Parliament, let us not consider them irresponsible just because they do not follow every campaign pledge, for example. There must be room for adjusting to the changing world. We have heard of “smother love”, which prevents children(only?) from taking risks for fear of danger or failure. Sometimes there is real danger; we do not want children to drown. But there is a difference between keeping a 10-year old out of the water and making them aware of knowing how to take care of themselves. There is no simple solution to the problem of protecting people without preventing them from growing. But we can be sure that the freedom to make mistakes is part of becoming responsible at all ages.

A third aspect of freedom associated with responsibility is best suggested by an example. If our children share in the work around the garden, we will get more co-operation and will be encouraging more responsible behaviour if we allow them to share in the decision-making (as with adults in all their groupings), such as in what order to do the chores or what crops and plants to plant. Notice I did not say let the children run the family. I said, if they share in the work, they should share in the freedom, too, insofar as they are able. Parents choose which choices to share, and when.

The individual and society both need to be responsible and our responsibilities should be commensurate with our freedoms. We cannot be very responsible if we are not very free. The trouble is, we can be relatively free and relatively irresponsible, which brings me to my second proposition.
The second thesis is: ”With freedom, get responsibility.” If freedom is irresponsibly used, it will be curtailed, if it does not disappear altogether. We may be free, but our actions have consequences, and we are not free to escape them, at least not completely. The person who is a spendthrift soon has the creditors calling. The person who is continually anti-social is soon not free to go many places: he becomes unwanted or, worse, is locked up. We are free to drive a car, if we have a licence, but we are required to drive responsibly or face fines, withdrawal of the licence, jail, or even our own death. If we follow the rules, we stay in the game.

Moreover, by limiting some freedoms, we gain others. I am not free now to play the piano, which I would love to do, because I gave up lessons in order to exercise other freedoms, to take a paper round and play baseball. When we save money, we are later free to meet emergencies and to achieve long-term goals, which would be prevented by short-term spending. We are free to use earth's resources, but if we do overdo it - and it seems we have been - then the planet and mankind will suffer. Edmund Burke once said we have a right to be restrained. I can see his point. My and our freedoms need to be limited so that in the long term our freedom will be at least preserved if not increased.

At this point, I am reminded of a little story I have probably shared before. It is about two men exercising their freedom to walk down the same street toward each other.A judge was on his way when a stranger approached him while waving his arms around. As they passed, an arm hit the judge on the nose. The judge arrested him. But the stranger protested that he had the right to swing his arms about. The judge replied,” You do indeed have the freedom to swing your arms, but that freedom stops at the end of my nose.” I love that story!

It may be that we are so beguiled by the ads and tv programmes which promise more and more free goods that we have forgotten that nothing is really free. Everything has its price. Anyone can get cheated by the many scams seducing us online, on the phone, on paper or even at the door.
We have to pay for the liberties we have inherited, too. “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom”, warned Thomas Jefferson centuries ago. Someone else put it this way:” We have to earn our heritage anew each generation.” Again, we have been warned that the best defence of liberty is to practise it. We have to share freedom to keep it. In WWII Pastor Dietricht Bonhoeffer said when the Nazis came for the Jews, he was silent. When they came for the Catholics, he was silent. And when they came for him, there was no one left to protest. We need to use our freedom responsibly.

Another reason we need responsibility along with freedom is that undirected freedom is wasted at best. Freedom should be FOR something. What do you want to be free FOR? What do you want to DO with your freedom? Freedom is not an end in itself, as the French Revolution and the troubles experienced by former colonies-and civil wars-show. Freedom needs discipline. The more self-discipline, the less external discipline will be needed. The responsible free person will know where they are going, for what their freedom will be used - more learning, not just free time; helping others, not just buying things for yourself; for artistic creation, not just for something to do; for real recreation, not just to be away from work; for being as well as doing.

It seems from our discussion so far that people need both freedom and responsibility, which brings us to my third proposition.

My third claim is that everyone should seek a healthy blend of freedom and responsibility. To be more specific, as a rule of thumb, when we get or give another freedom we should get or give another responsibility. Likewise, the reverse is also true: when we get or give a new responsibility, we should get or give a new freedom. When the children are old enough to go to the store alone, they should be old enough to play at a friend's house. When they are asked to do the dishes, it is perhaps time they could stay up a little later. And if they want to borrow the family car, they should expect to do more around the house, or to keep the car clean. If we apply this to the church, when people join, they take on new responsibilities-and freedoms. Applied to society, when we impose duties, here should be benefits; one example might be a tax credit to businesses for handling government money through the payroll. You get the idea...

In every situation in our lives we are involved in balancing freedoms and responsibilities, or else giving them both up to fatalism. Either we have the power to significantly choose between courses of action or give in to the 'What can I do about it' syndrome. If we assume some freedom of choice, then we choose to be responsible for ourselves and others. If we assume 'What will be will be', by design or accident, then we reject the freedom to alter the course of events and we refuse to take responsibility for our lives. Even in these cases, society will hold us responsible for our behaviour. In order for society to exist, it must assume individual freedom and enforce responsibility, correctly or otherwise.

Which reminds me, there seems to be a trend in our society for officials of many kinds to deny responsibility for things. They should have learned form President Harry Truman, who said “The buck stops here”. I do not say all should resign if things go wrong, but I do believe in accountability. Live and learn. But do improve!

Groups as well as individuals have rights/freedoms and responsibilities, as well as individuals. Again, a healthy balance is needed between the needs of the groups and of the members. Duties, but voluntary association- not compulsory.

We have yet to find the best proportion of individual and group freedoms and responsibilities. No one size fits all, anyway as situations and people vary. At least in a free society, we can continually negotiate, seeking better and better ways of living together. Unity in diversity is not just a good slogan; it is a way of life. We have much to learn, we humans.
But of this much we can be sure: freedom, however defined and brought about, will continue to fire the hearts and minds of many if not all of the family of man. We dream of freedom and experiences of will forever motivate us to seek the abundant life for all, including ourselves. Along with freedom, trailing inevitably if not gloriously, will come responsibility. For however thrilling and dynamic freedom may be, without responsibility it will destroy itself. If you have one, you must have the other. Three cheers for Freedom-and responsibility.


Since what we choose is what we are,
And what we love we yet shall be,
Let us love thoughtful, concerned, courageous, responsible freedom
That we may choose and be our best selves
Now and forever more.
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