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The Rev. Dr. Thomas Lane Butts The Rev. Dr. Thomas Lane Butts

The Rev. Dr. Thomas Lane Butts is minister emeritus of First United Methodist Church in Monroeville, AL.

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Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: The Love and Limits of Liberty

February 16, 2012

One of the most universal desires of the human heart is the wish to be free. Revolutions are fomented by that desire. Wars are fought to gain, retain and protect freedom. The revolutions in Egypt and Libya, and the bloody struggle of the people in Syria, are contemporary examples of the longing of the human heart to be free from tyranny. Millions have died for the sake of freedom. A casual acquaintance with the history of the United States will verify this fact. We did not become a free nation by sitting on the sidelines of events that brought this country into existance, but we could lose that beloved status by sitting on the sidelines.

Change that comes from any struggle for freedom is never easy, and the evolutionary process is by its very nature slow. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once remarked that "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice". The "bend" is often difficult to see. However, when we look at history by the century rather than by the year or by the decade, we are more likely to see how it "bends". Most of us are inclined to judge history by the remembered events of our own lifetimes. This limited view of history can be, and often is, a source of discouragement, and even despair. An understanding of the movement of human history through the deep recesses of the past can be helpful. Some knowledge of what the world was like before we arrived on the scene can save us from the pessimism that so often slips up on the backside of those of us who have some difficulty imagining that anything worthy of mention took place before we were born, or that anything of value may happen after we are gone. Those who know no history of the past often accept as fact what is actually wrong history and never understand the connectedness and meaning of the present as it passes into history.

Whatever view we take of history and the human desire for freedom, it sooner or later becomes obvious that freedom is not absolute. None of us are as free as we usually think we are. Freedom is limited by physical, mental and emotional boundaries, and by such commitments as marriage and obligations to children, parents, and friends. Our obligation as a citizen in a functioning society also diminishes our personal freedom. Commonly accepted laws and moral principles of society prevent us from doing "as we please". There are times in which we do not like the "government", but none of us want to live with no government. In the modern, complicated society in which we live the role of government must by necessity be more than that described by my father: "to guard the coast and carry the mail". Any reasonable person will be willing to relinquish some degree of personal freedom in exchange for an orderly society with an independent judicial system, an infrastructure for common use, and the security of a police force and an army to protect us from tyranny within and from enemies from without. But the politicians we elect and the policies they create can become oppressive unless they are limited to serving the people and the causes for which they were established.

In a speech in 1790 on the Right of Election, John P. Curran said, "It is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become prey to the active. The condition upon which God doth give liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt". This principle is commonly stated as, "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty". And, so it is!!

The preservation of freedom in our social order is the responsibility of every citizen. Government unguarded by informed and articulate voters tends to erode into an eventual tyranny. It is a warning sign when elected officials begin to consider themselves more privileged than those who elected them, and begin to vote for, or otherwise take for themselves, benefits and powers not intended for them by their voting constituents. Since I am not a political columnist, I will not be specific about examples of such political tyranny. But there are notable examples to be seen by those who have eyes to see.

Is there an encouraging word? Yes, because there is a readily available remedy. Vote. Ask questions. Vote. Be confrontational. Vote. Surely attentiveness and personal vigilance is a reasonable price for your freedom and the future of your children. If the tail is wagging the dog, "we the people" can put the dog back in charge.

Repeat after me: "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." Do you believe that is an encouraging word? I do!


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