All Commentary
Tuesday, November 1, 1966

The Law of Liberty

The Reverend Dr. Sollitt is Pastor of the First Baptist Church, Midland, Michigan.

The difference between freedom and servitude is the difference be­tween doing what we ought be­cause we choose to and doing what we must because another chooses for us.

Words of wisdom were spoken by the poet who wrote in Psalm 119: “… and I shall walk at liberty, for I have sought thy precepts.” (Ps. 119:45).

This pathway to liberty seems strange to many people, for we are fond of the illusion that being bound by precepts, commandments, laws, is the opposite of freedom. But freedom is not ab­sence of rules; it is action under a higher law.

The Wright Brothers did not violate the law of gravity when they produced the beginnings of the heavier-than-air flying ma­chine. They simply discovered and used the now familiar laws of aerodynamics. Similarly, lawless­ness is not the route to liberty. Liberty in society depends upon the discovery and practice of those higher laws which produce it. For freedom is not mere whim; it is the opportunity to do as one ought without compulsion.

We have other illusions about liberty, too, among them the idea that liberty somehow means a lack of responsibility for our acts. But, as in the natural world, so in the spiritual, we do not break higher laws; we break ourselves upon them. We are responsible for our acts — and for our inactivity when we ought to act.

We may entertain the illusion that freedom means relief from the responsibility of making de­cisions for ourselves, leaving this to somebody in Washington, or the Commanding Officer, or the union bosses, or the industrial associa­tion management. But God has created man with a free will. He not only may but must make de­cisions for himself. And one of his first decisions ought to be that of the Psalmist, to seek the pre­cepts of God that he may walk in liberty.

Certain forces are at work in the United States to propagate the illusion that liberty means free­dom to demand what you want at the expense of others. I think of this when I remember that today the taxpayer’s bill for welfare amounts to $52.00 for every man, woman, and child in the United States, and Leon Keyserling has recommended that the figure be increased to $103 by 1970 and $124 by 1975. To do less, he said, would be “immoral.”

But after thirty years of public spending on welfare there are still 34,000,000 “impoverished Ameri­cans.” Commenting on this, the editor of the Dallas, Texas, News asks: “Is it moral to keep these millions dependent on a govern­ment handout? Is it moral to rear new generations thinking that someone else will take care of them? Is it moral to ask one man to work and pay taxes so that three others can get relief checks and go fishing?”

We are confused as to the mean­ing of liberty because we are con­fused as to what is moral.

In short, we have entertained the illusion that freedom means the right to push other people around, or to elect public officials who will do it for us. But the right to push people around carries with it the certainty that we ourselves will be pushed around. For it is one of God’s laws, as operative in the spiritual, the economic, and the political realms as in the phys­ical, that “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” The ball hits the bat with the same force that the bat hits the ball. The striking union assures itself when it strikes that it will be met by a similar force of resistance. This is the reason wars escalate. The use of force creates the op­position that more force is re­quired to overcome.

One hundred and ninety years ago our forefathers sought free­dom, not to push anybody around, but freedom to discover and obey the higher law in their own way. The result has been the creation of the greatest nation on earth—the nation whose people have the greatest amount of freedom. America is proof that those who seek the precepts of God’s higher law shall walk at liberty.

Unfortunately, she is also proof that a nation or a people gets it­self into trouble at every point where it tries to amend the all-embracing higher law to favor the majority, or any minority strong enough to enforce its will upon the rest. We are in trouble wherever the coercion of one group by another has been al­lowed, whether the coercion has been racial, economic, social, polit­ical, or religious.

The obvious lesson is that in the freest country in the world in­dividuals and groups can still court servitude by resorting to compulsion to attain selfish ends. For force begets an opposing force and conflict is inevitable. And we become imprisoned in the conflict.

There are two ways to think of freedom.

A common way is to think of it as the right NOT to do anything unless and until you have to. But this is an illusion of liberty. The surest way to destroy your liberty along with that of those about you is to refuse to do what you know you ought until you are forced to do so. The student says to the teacher, “I’ll be good only if you can make me.” The law­breaker says to the policeman, “I’ll obey the law if you can make me.” There is no true liberty to be found in shutting oneself inside a prison of necessity and beating one’s head against a wall of re­sistance to doing what one ought.

True liberty is found only by doing what we ought because we want to and not because we have to. This is the road on which our forefathers started us about two centuries ago — the road from which we have departed time and time again by the imposition of restrictive laws on some and the granting of special privileges to others. Both of these things tend to discourage us from doing what we ought until the law requires it. Then we lose our freedom to do it simply because we want to do the right thing.

So, Americans, if you want to lose still more of your freedoms, just keep on demanding special favors at someone else’s expense, and electing politicians who prom­ise them to you.

Joe Louis, when asked why he had not been more active in the Civil Rights movement, said re­cently, “Some people do it by shooting, some march, some give a lot of money. I do it my way —be­having. All ways help.”

We might not all agree that all ways help, but we must agree that behaving is one of the better ways. In doing this he is helping, not only the Civil Rights movement, but every worthy cause. The former heavyweight champion is doing what he should because he wants to and this is following the law of liberty. Can we learn this way as a people before the Amer­ica for which our forefathers sac­rificed so much has gone the way of the republics of Greece and Rome?

  • The Reverend Dr. Sollitt is Pastor of the First Baptist Church, Midland, Michigan.