The struggle for freedom and fairness in governance has a long and turbulent history. In the past the passion for liberty set citizens against totalitarian authority, and the goal was understood to be protection against the self-serving motivations of governments. By liberty was meant limits on the power of government to impose its’ will on the community.
Later, people came to believe it unnecessary that government should be independent and opposed in its’ interests to themselves. Consequently, a new demand for short-term elected leaders became predominant.
This idea was assumed at first to mean that elected officials should identify with the people and the interests of the nation. It followed that such a nation would not need to be protected from itself. Supposedly a democracy would not exercise tyranny over itself.
However, as Americans well know, the notion that citizens have no reason to limit their power over themselves only seems reasonable to those who have no experience with popular government.
After two hundred years of experience we know that “self-government” can be fragile and complicated. “The will of the people” often turns out to be the will of the most actively dominant portion of the citizenry, usually the majority, but quite possibly those with overbearing economic or financial firepower.
The American founders took great pains to control any possible abuses of power. As we saw in Chapter Four: Freedom and Order, the Constitutional Convention of 1787 recognized the importance of limiting such dangers throughout an uncertain future.
Liberty came to mean the freedom of each to live our lives as we see fit, so long as we do not impose ourselves on the well-being of others.
As an ideal, this is not so simple in practice. It was controversial then and it is controversial now. And, as I have suggested, the changes and challenges of the ensuing years have given us much to ponder.
Finding ourselves facing the dangers, complexities, and tensions of the present turning point, I believe the American people would do well to step back and reassess the values, principles, and general attitudes with which we can best regain our poise and seek a shared vision and purpose.
In short, I propose that the first steps to freedom will be those that lead to problem-solving and cooperation – if we are to avert catastrophe. And, I believe that this can be done most effectively when addressing felt-needs in our local communities. We will learn by doing, and act we must.
The first steps are challenging, but straight forward:
1) To engage as neighbors, which means learning to listen and to truly understand one another, and then to rise above our differences to resolve problems and address local needs.
2) To recognize the diversity of knowledge, skills, and experience we have available to do what needs to be done; our survival might depend on it.
3) To identify the extent to which we share values, and to build a level of trust that ensures we have neighbors we can depend on when the going gets tough.
4) To commit ourselves seriously to the ultimate purpose of seeking a vision of the future we can hold in common – a future we can all respect and believe in.
In focusing on first things first, we must learn the ways of community that Americans once practiced so well in the vibrant civil society of our past.
Such is the purpose of this little book. The pages that follow are devoted to finding our way through the difficulties and perplexity of this most difficult endeavor.
As we begin to take these first steps, I think we will find it helpful to reflect on the meaning of freedom in our personal lives. For it is deep in our own souls that we must first build confidence in our personal ability to prevail over fear and loss.
There is no greater strength to be found than knowledge of the freedom we control within ourselves. Indeed, it is through this primal freedom that we gain the capacity to respond to life’s tests with grace.
Next week: The resilience of inner freedom
Dear readers: I wish to thank all those who kept me in your thoughts and prayers during the past two weeks. My surgery went well and I am recovering rapidly. I keep finding more ways to appreciate you, and I look forward very much to continuing our conversation. (Please see the Facebook page, where there is active reader engagement.)