Participation During a Time of Crisis

How do we live with our deepest differences, especially when those differences are religious and ideological, and very especially when those differences concern matters of our common public life? In short, how do we create a global public square and make the world safer for diversity?[1]

There can be little doubt that the Enlightenment concept of individual freedom is one of the key building blocks of our society. In fact, it is a given that is so widely accepted as to be beyond discussion. Of course, we have taken that idea way beyond Kant’s original “freedom to use reason” to a much broader “right to choose,” that is, to express our desires in almost any area of human life or endeavor. For that reason the focus of our discussion of the matter has shifted away from justifying freedom to elaborating and protecting the many ways in which that freedom can be expressed in everyday life. But, there is the rub. If we are to function as a society, we will not only have to be allowed to freely engage in the exchange of goods and services (commerce) that we feel entitled to, we will have to do so in a common space occupied by many others claiming a similar set of entitlements. Given the likelihood that my exercise of freedom will conflict with the freedoms of others, we will have to establish social structures, legal and political, that balance the needs and rights of the individual against the freedoms of every other individual. For that to work, a group of people choosing to form one society would have to collectively agree on concrete ways to maximize individual freedom and at the same time prevent the exercise of that freedom from limiting the freedom of others. That may mean that while we seek the good of each individual, under certain circumstances we may have to limit that freedom in order to achieve a greater good, that is, the good of the entire group. So, our primary objective is to guarantee the rights of the individual and only limit that freedom when its exercise violates the rights of or endangers one’s fellow citizens.

As good as all this sounds its implementation is a very messy business. If we could limit our discussion to exchanges between two individuals, it would or, at least, should be easy to determine the structure of our interaction, determine potential areas of infringement, and agree on voluntary adjustments. I suppose this is what is happening in almost any relationship or partnership such as a marriage. But, even the one-on-one context often proves difficult and third parties, such as, parents, priests, lawyers, judges, and courts are often needed to establish and even impose the needed limitations.

Yet, the effects of an individual’s actions are rarely limited to just one other person. Individual behavior often has an impact on a much larger group. So, we are also required to evaluate and regulate a balance between what is good for the individual as opposed to what is good for the group, which is what usually gives the term “the greater good” its meaning. Moreover, the scale of this collective interaction can, at times, encompass even the majority of a vast population which is being affected by the actions of a small minority forcing us to adjudicate between their respective needs and rights.

This societal balancing act, this limiting of individual (minority) freedoms for the greater good (majority) is something we Americans can and do accept as one of the requirements of an orderly, civilized life. For example, we are willing to accept certain limits when operating our automobiles. I am thinking here of speed-limits, required insurance, not driving while impaired, wearing seatbelts, and the like. We might argue that as individuals we have the right not to limit those particular freedoms. Indeed, every time a new limitation of this nature is deemed necessary a small minority inevitably voices opposition, as was the case when seat-belt laws were first introduced. Nevertheless, the basic argument that individual rights can be limited in aid of the greater good, in this case public safety, is something that most members of civilized society eventually come to accept.

This is particularly true when a people collectively face some grave threat or danger, such as the current pandemic. In this case, we are being asked to curtail basic individual rights by generally limiting our ability to freely exchange goods and services and even our freedom of movement and social interaction in order to achieve a greater good, overcoming the pathogen and limiting the number of deaths it causes. Among other things, we have been asked to wear face masks in order to help prevent the spread of the disease. As might be expected there are a few individuals who resist but the vast majority of our fellow citizens have accepted the idea as a necessary, temporary limitation of individual freedom in service of the greater good. Do I have the freedom not to wear a mask? Certainly! But, no one in their right “civic mind” would insist on that to the detriment of an entire population.

Believers, who are also members of this society, will certainly recognize that these arguments apply, with equal force to each of them. But, for Christians the whole question might be a bit more complicated since we actually inhabit two distinct kingdoms each with its own set of presuppositions and norms. In some cases, the teachings of the Kingdom of God will strengthen and enhance the arguments made in the civil realm. We, who have been taught to put others’ needs above our own should have no difficulty limiting our own personal freedoms (wearing masks) for the sake of others, the greater good. We could say that no believer in their “right heart” could possibly insist on doing something that would hurt another person, even if they had some supposed right to do so. Believers would be, at least in that case, the very finest of American citizens.

This leads us to another consequence of living in two different kingdoms, namely, that the reasons or motivation for our actions are based on an entirely different foundation. The starting point, the basic building block of life in the Kingdom of God is not the Enlightenment principle of individual freedom and a preoccupation with the self. Our relationships with others, what we in the Church call communion, is to be based rather on the foundational concept of self-emptying (kenotic) love. It is this principle that regulates every interpersonal relationship within the Kingdom of God. We can begin with the three persons of the Holy Trinity where kenotic communion is the very mode of divine existence. Of course, each divine person freely posits its own being and is self-aware. But, that individuality is not a self-serving existence, but rather the self-emptying freedom of each person in service to the other persons, overcoming distinctions, and sharing so completely that it is possible to speak of a single, unified divine person, three persons in communion (John 14:11). This self-emptying love is the model for all our encounters with individuals, both believer and a non-believer.

As a matter of everyday practice, this involves what we might call self-transcendence, that is, aspiring to a state of being in which self-love has been overcome. It is this path of self-transcendence that enables the believer to be fully present to God and thus to experience divine presence. Moreover, the same dynamic will be at work in the believer’s encounters with other human beings. If there are no desires that hold us, we will be naturally, spontaneously free to focus our intellect on the needs of the other. As St. Paul writes to the Philippians (2:3-4), “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others as better than himself. Let each one of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.”

Because kenotic love expressed as self-transcendence and not individualism is the basis of life in the Kingdom of God, it also becomes apparent that the whole concept of individual rights becomes moot or irrelevant. Love is not a right. God is not obligated to love me any more than I can demand that my fellow believers love me. It is rather a voluntarily given gift, a responsibility, an honor conferred and not a right taken. Likewise, I am not entitled to have my prayers answered, or to derive wisdom from Scripture, or strength from worship. These are not rights, but rather privileges we are allowed to participate in. As such, they are not things we can demand. We are not entitled to them and cannot claim them as rights. In addition, worship is a service that we render to God and not some kind of commodity that we consume. As if illustrating the inappropriateness of rights talk, I suspect that the very same individuals who claim worship as a right and resist the imposition of any limitations in spite of the pandemic are the same ones that, in times absent any such crisis, claim the right to skip the services if they so choose. So, while Christian teaching enhances some of the civil arguments limiting freedom for the greater good, this idea of self-emptying love gives the believer an unimaginably more compelling reason to accept those limitations. In this case, there is no conflict between the teaching of the civil and the ecclesial realms.

Of course, there are a few cases where there does indeed appear to be some tension. Take, for example, the limitation of our right to conduct Church services in our usual manner. Because of the pandemic, that has either been forbidden or severely limited by controlling how many of the faithful can gather in the Church at one time. Some have taken offence at this and argued that we have a right to worship. Indeed, it is a privilege afforded believers in this country and we are inclined to insist on retaining that freedom. However, I submit that the current pandemic should temper our insistence on freedom, since the ideas of a greater good and the practice of self-emptying love clearly involved. Nevertheless, others will say that because our society has agreed on the separation of state and Church, the state is in no position to tell us we cannot gather for worship. We, they say, have a right to conduct our religious services. However, a closer look at that arrangement shows that the state is not establishing a particular set of religious rights that we are required to exercise, but simply saying that the Church has, all things being equal, the freedom to conduct its affairs in keeping with its own teachings and without interference from the state. So, if worship is not a right, and if self-transcendence is to guide our response to the present heath-crisis, then no believer could possibly insist on “worship as usual” if that would endanger others, both inside and outside the Church.




[1] Os Guinness, The global public square: religious freedom and the making of a world safe for diversity (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2013), 13.

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