Galatians 5:13-14 states: “You my brothers and sisters were called to be free. But don’t use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping the command: Love your neighbor as yourself.”
It doesn’t seem that long ago when I couldn’t wait to turn 21 so that I could “do whatever I wanted.” Mostly what I longed to do was misbehave and it felt like being legally an adult somehow allowed me that privilege with impunity. I quickly learned that legal age also conferred upon me the full weight of the consequences of my misbehavior.
In the shadows of our annual Independence Day celebrations, I am reflecting again about the weight of personal freedom and how we interpret our “privilege” in this country in terms of rationalizing our attitudes with the excuse that “it’s a free country.” True, nothing in the U.S. Constitution legislates how we think, and we even have the right to say whatever we want, regardless of how mean-spirited our remarks.
But Paul reminds us that freedom ought not be used to indulge our basest desires, but rather as the unfettered opportunity to love our neighbor — that person who might worship differently from us or celebrate cultural events that are not part of our cultural history — the same way we love and respect and honor ourselves.
We should choose to use our freedom to learn to know someone whose customs are different from our own. When we exercise our freedom to dismiss learning about these differences as unworthy of our time, we all lose ground for continued civil discourse.
And besides injuring the present moment, we teach our children and grandchildren to practice this same cruel abuse as though it somehow is a noble sign of freedom.
Let us each determine that our celebration of our national freedom this year will signal the beginning of an intentional year of learning about our neighbors and looking for ways to hold them in the same esteem we hold ourselves. Our primary focus ought not to be what will make this country great, but rather what will reflect the true values of citizens of the Kingdom of God that has come near us in Christ Jesus.
The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park is the associate rector at Grace Episcopal Church in Gainesville. She can be reached at email@example.com.