In my first post, I identified a particular kind of victim, the kind of victim who encloses himself in self-effacing and self-aggrandizing narratives, the kind of victim who makes himself into a victim in ways that may defy external freedoms. In this post, I will explore the paradoxical nature of freedom.
“There it is, I’ve introduced you to the whole of our beautiful secret annex.” -Anne Frank
“It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.” -Leonardo da Vinci
Themes of freedom, powerlessness, and victimhood often saturate shows centered around figures of power. But so too with their actual lives. We all struggle with freedom. But we often choose immaturity over it.
Today’s moral immaturity can be seen most starkly in the stock phrase, “It happened,” as applied to anything from adultery to lying to tax evasion. Every bureaucrat effectively hands over his moral agency with the phrases, “mistakes were made” or, “I did it because I had to.” We live in a “liberated” society, but our language betrays our own sense of powerlessness.
On the other hand, great figures of history have often set themselves in the entirely opposite position, of being physically imprisoned but at the same time exerting a sort of moral freedom. Few figures have embodied this paradoxical situation more distinctly than the autobiographical Anne Frank. The tone of her diary suggests a free consciousness, in sharp contrast to the appallingly confined circumstances of her adolescence. What makes her diary so enduring and so compelling is precisely this paradox. She finds a free and even whimsical voice that flourishes somehow in her physical confinement. Aside from the Jesus presented in the Gospel narratives and the Socrates of the Phaedo and Apology, few historical figures have found a freedom that so strongly defies situation. Indeed, the rest of us are inclined to the opposite, esoteric imprisonment that defies external freedoms.
Oddly, both freedom and victimhood are conditions requiring our consent. In historical accounts of Rosa Parks, she is never cast or remembered simply as a victim. Nor is Martin Luther King Jr., though he allowed himself to be jailed unjustly.
Indeed, popular accounts of racial tensions often paint racists as trapped within their worldviews, as unable to escape deluded mindsets of superiority. One kind of freedom eludes them, the freedom of transcending hierarchical narratives of race and recognizing the equal dignity of others. And so we come to see King and Parks as the truly free agents of history, while racists and segregationalists are trapped within it. Indeed, we often remember those with temporaral power as imprisoned within their own injustices. Those with power, oddly enough, lack both the perspectives and the maturity that would enable them to be free actors.
But even still, we ourselves want to be victims, because casting ourselves as powerless enables us to evade moral culpability. The mature person, the person of agency, the person willing to accept freedom (which, after all, is more accepted than given) is the person who will use the words, “I made mistakes. I did this or that. I lied. I cheated. I acted as commander-in-chief of the military forces which killed the Middle Eastern children. I assisted the company that defrauded our community, or polluted our rivers, or wasted our resources. I broke your heart.” To say “mistakes were made” or “I had to do it” is to separate oneself from one’s actions, to deny agency, and hence to avoid culpability, and hence to avoid the obligation to actually examine and change one’s way of life.
But as soon as you recognize your ability to respond to stimuli, rather than merely react, you recognize the consequent choices: to persist in a kind of hard-heartedness, or to change yourself. Either to maintain your temporal power and security through victimhood to this or that social structure, or to give them up as a free agent of history. Freedom is always a paradoxical situation. The more temporal power you need, the less freedom you have. But the more you give up your need for control, the more power will reside within you.
This handing over of power begins, first of all, with accepting one’s state in life. Anne Frank’s freedom begins from recognizing that her life occurs within a small annex, and that she will remain there for an indefinite period of time. If she spends all of her time complaining, either externally or internally, she will be unable to write a diary with the thoughtfulness to challenge and encourage the generations beyond her. Martin Luther King Jr. writes an address from Birmingham City Jail which, while recognizing the injustice of his present situation, does not wallow in it. Rather, the injustice acts as a springboard for a thoughtful response that begins from accepting his present state in life. Rosa Parks sits on a bus, and then she accepts the temporal consequences of the space she chooses to occupy in the world. And it is precisely in the quiet acceptance of injustice that the eyes of the world come upon her. The first step in transcending one’s situation is to accept it.
These great figures of history all live within the law, within the injustice of human law. And yet they rise above it, by recognizing that freedom is not something bestowed upon us by the state but exercised from within. While they are subject to the law, they also transcend it. But this transcendence, paradoxically, begins with the external acceptance of the law and its consequences. It begins by accepting one’s inability to control external circumstances, and it progresses through the formation of one’s internal dispositions.
If Anne Frank can exercise freedom from the confinement of an attic, and King from a jail cell, and Parks from a bus seat, how much more responsibility do I have to exercise freedom in my own life?
In tomorrow’s post, I will explore freedom and victimhood in the lives of today’s gay Christians.
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