Both sides on America’s political divide love to talk about freedom. There are constitutional concerns such as the right to bear arms or to marry a partner of the same-sex. There is the fear of being killed Islamic terrorist or racist policemen. We sing in our national anthem that we are, “The land of the free,” and in a hymn of our Civil War, “let us die to make men free.” In my morning spiritual readings, I have found that there is a greater freedom that we ought to be striving for and that is being woefully ignored in today’s political climate.
In the writings attributed to St. Anthony the Great: Regard as free not those whose status makes the outwardly free, but those who are free in their character and conduct. For we should not call men in authority truly free when they are wicked or dissolute, since they are slaves to worldly passions. Freedom and happiness of soul consist in genuine purity and detachment from transitory things. (Philokalia vol. 1, On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life #18). Rather than dwell on the words of America’s founding fathers, it would serve us Christians well to measure our level of freedom based on the teaching of this desert father.
True freedom is in our character and conduct. Character is how we think, speak, and act when people aren’t around to see us. Anyone can work at having a good reputation; putting on a front of good moral behavior in public while willingly keeping a wicked private life. But, we serve a God who knows our innermost parts. He knows when we sell ourselves to indulging in self-indulgence, greed, hate, arrogance, and other sinful ways in our thoughts. He knows the difference between a man who seeks to be transformed by the renewing of his mind toward His will (Romans 12:2) and those who are like whitewashed tombs that look good on the outside, but are full of decay and rot (Matthew 23:27-28). Even if one is able to fool some of the people some of the time and perhaps all of the people all of the time, no one can fool God.
True freedom consist of purity and detachment from transitory things. Our Lord taught that we are not corrupted by the things outside of us, but by the things inside of us (Matthew 15:10-20) and that we should clean the filth inside of us so that our outsides would also be clean (Matt. 23:25). But, we surround ourselves with various advertisements and entertainments which stimulate our passions of anger, greed, and sensuality. There is nothing wrong with wanting a good job, home, and a secure life for self and family. But, when this “American Dream” takes precedence over seeking the kingdom of God and His righteousness (Matt. 6:33), these earthly goals are corrupted by our non-transformed inward passions. With his spiritual priorities and pursuits in order, a man in the worst poverty with the lowest paying job lives in a greater sense of peace than the elite and wealthy who may have a good reputation with a sinful character.
What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and yet lose his soul (Matt. 16:26)? This is the lesson that those who so vehemently argue from the left and right forget in the pursuit of freedom in this country in this political climate. Having a sociopolitical point of view can be of value as both conservatism and liberalism are as necessary for a nation as a left and right-wing are needed for a bird to fly. But, if we are not first and more so concerned with the pursuit of freedom of our souls, there can never be peace in mind for us as individuals nor as a nation. Neither of the major political parties, third parties, well-financed lobbyist, nor street demonstrators can give us freedom of the soul. This is a gift given by God by those who diligently and humbly seek Him.