Freedom and community in tension

We value both freedom and community, but there is tension created by the two. Freedom, by its nature, implies space between one and others — sometimes physical, sometimes in other ways. Community, by its nature, implies a closing of space, a connection between people.

How do we balance the two? How do we promote both freedom and community?

Freedom is hard-wired into our American experience, and that wiring is even harder in Texas, where the individual reigns over the community, especially among the more traditional Texans. (I’m a fourth generation native Texan, so I know about this.)

Scripture talks both about freedom and community, if not always in those terms, but it’s an underlying piece to all that’s being said. There is personal responsibility and community connectedness. In fact, one could argue that the connectedness is more central to the themes of Scripture than is individual freedom.

There is a movement toward community today among both Christians and non-Christians. It’s as if our broader culture has become aware of the inherent flaws in hyper-individualism, including the difficulty of forming a cohesive society. I’m one of those pulled toward community, especially because of what I read in Scripture.

As we move toward community, we need to understand its relation to personal freedom. First, I think it would be good to understand the power of freedom. We know the historical and intellectual roots of our nation’s freedom as our founders shaped it, but that doesn’t always get at the real power of freedom, and thus the pull against community.

I think of the movie, “Braveheart,” which is all about freedom and William Wallace’s final, lingering cry, “Freedom,” as he dies lingers long in your memory after the film has ended.

There also is a dialogue in James Michener’s novel, Texas, that captures some of the emotional power of freedom without the blue and guts of “Braveheart.” It’s rather long, but at the end you feel it. It is a conversation between Ludwig Allerkamp and Otto Macnab. Allerkamp is a man who left Germany for freedom in Texas. Macnab is a young man, the epitome of frontier Texas, who wants to marry Allerkamp’s daughter, Franziska. Macnab’s father was Scots-Irish, and his mother was German.

“The two men followed a rough road out of town, and as the stars appeared, always brighter as if to encourage them, each knew a great joy: Allerkamp realizing that his child had come safe to harbor with a trustworthy German; Macnab accepting the miracle that this strange courtship had come to such splendid fruition.

“At eight the moon appeared, waning, but still strong enough to lighten the way, so that the happy travelers rode through the best of Texas in the best of conditions. In the tall branches of one tree a brood of turkeys conversed briefly as they passed, as if they were gossiping about the strange events of this long day, and a coyote moved furtively along with them for a short distance, then cut sharply to the west in search of prey.

“They moved through gently rolling hills, with trees sparsely distributed marking the watered valleys. Live oak, post oak, ash and hickory showed their rounded forms against the sky, with cedars standing darker in the background. ‘It’s not like a proper German forest,’ Allerkamp said, ‘but it will do.’

“ ‘What’s different?’ Otto asked, and the surveyor, who had mastered all the nuances of his new land, explained: ‘There we had real trees. One after another, all joined together. Here each tree stands apart … jealous of its allotted space.’ After reflecting on this for some minutes, he snapped his fingers and said: ‘Maybe that’s the difference, son. In Germany we were like the trees, all forced to live together wherever the Margrave said. In Texas each of us stands stubbornly apart, each man on his own land.’ As they made their way toward the Pedernales, Allerkamp continued his reflections: ‘Not a day passes, son, but that I think of Germany—the wine, the singing, the walks in the forest, the peasant food I knew so well, the good talk with Metzdorf at his shop. I long for those things so desperately, my heart could break.’ He turned in his saddle to face Otto: ‘You know what I don’t long for? The tyranny. The false preaching of the churchmen. The horrible day when the Margrave told my son Theo he couldn’t marry.’

“The passionate remembrance of that day which had so altered his life brought tears to his eyes, and after a moment of silence he offered Otto remarkable advice: ‘When we get to our home, if suddenly I should cry out “Macnab, you can’t have her. You can’t marry,” kick my backside, grab her, and go where you will—but find freedom.’ He was trembling; he allowed his horse to move away from Otto’s; then from the darkness that rose up between them he said: ‘Freedom is everything. Freedom is the salt of life that makes hard work palatable. Freedom is the only basis for a home, and marriage, and children.’

“In some dim way Otto had already discovered the truth of what Allerkamp was saying. He had sensed it when his father railed so bitterly against the ineptitude of Colonel Fannin: ‘Dammit, son. If a group of men are fighting for their freedom, they ought to do certain things, instantly, without thinking.’ He had perceived it also when his detachment started marching head-on into the Mexican lines at San Jacinto. No sensible men would perform such an extraordinary act unless impelled by a lust for freedom, a determination to be free. And he glimpsed the universal truth of this when he saw the new Allerkamp farm along the Pedernales, for no family would have the courage to move so far from settled areas unless it longed for the freedom which space assured.” (pp.528-529 in 1985 Random House edition)

Allerkamp’s comment, “In Texas each of us stands stubbornly apart, each man on his own land,” may hearken to a rural past, but there is a new sense in which it is still true.

I literally live on land that is my own– acres of land — and this enables me to stubbornly stand apart. It is a refuge of sorts, but God did not create me or any of us to stand apart, to stand alone. He created us for relationship and called us into His family, His body. We celebrate our freedom, especially our spiritual freedom and then our American freedoms, but we realize freedom is only part of our world. Community is a part, as well, a very important part.

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