On Thursday, June 21, in New York there will be a General Assembly at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York to discuss the notion of freedom. Although I am unable to attend, these are my preliminary considerations:
by Dave Kovacs
Since we are taking the political notion of religious freedom into a wider context of the religious notion of political freedom, I am going to first say what I take freedom to mean within the context of our Catholic tradition. Then I am going to say something about how the role of the state and political institutions play into freedom. After that, if I can tie those two strands together, I will stop writing and consider my endeavor successful.
Our spiritual ancestors celebrate their freedom at Passover. We read similar passages from the Old Testament during Lent and again at the Easter Vigil: We read of an enslaved people forced to work for low wages. And we hear of their plight when the management insisted they begin doing more work for less pay. This should already sound familiar. But let me be so bold as to highlight some other echoes from our salvation history.
The Book of Exodus also tells us that the enslaved Israelites grumbled but did nothing. As their conditions worsened, they seemed content. Even the ineloquent Moses, confronted by God, was afraid that he could not bring the people to rise up and depart from the injustices of their oppression. But even when the people were willing to be slaves, God desired better for them.
God chose one man, the unlikely criminal from a privileged class, to lead the people from bondage and into liberation. The man, Moses, was incredulous. He was cynical. In his comfort he thought, “But I am one man with little talent! They will not believe me, nor hear my voice!”
But in the divine plan defeat was not an option. The greed of the oppressors had to be overthrown. The people had to be free.
Moses and his brother made an appeal before the politicians. But Pharoah would not listen. Finally, as we know the story: Moses, with God’s help, took the people out of the corrupt system and into freedom. The rulers unleashed chariots and charioteers, but behold, the spirit which animated the freedom of the oppressed was stronger than any army, and we read that God clogged the wheels of the chariots. The very sea meant to prevent the workers from escaping became the enemy of the rulers; the armies were overrun by their own greed.
These stories, which are at the heart of the Jewish liturgy to this day, are recalled again and again in the New Testament. Just as the Jewish people were freed from slavery through water, so we are freed from vice and pride by Baptism. Just as the Jewish people were destined to receive a liberation beyond worldly imagination, today the Spirit calls us to a liberation beyond the corporate and secular imagination.
But our freedom does not require us to abolish the state or abandon society. Rather, it is in the midst of our society and with the aid of human law that we can come to bring people to true freedom.
This is not statism.
Allow me to cite St. Thomas Aquinas’s first article in Q. 95 of the Prima Secundae found in the Summa Theologiae. What, he asks, is the purpose of human laws? And he cites the authority of the Latin Father Isidore in finding three tasks for human law: To curb human audacity, to protect the innocent from the wicked, and to use the threat of force to stop greedy people from harming others.
Is this not what the Occupy movement is about? Do we not seek to curb the most audacious human behaviors, the audacity of those who would send our soldiers to war unnecessarily, that would hold up the violence of the death penalty because it’s politically expedient, the audacity of those who would accept large bribes from the very criminals they claim to stand against? Has the Occupy movement not shown that the audacity of the bailouts, the audacity of austerity, and the audacity of inequality must no longer reign? Have we not stood against the audacity of polluters and the audacity of retirement pension looters?
The Occupy movement represents the first significant movement in a generation to protect the innocent from the wicked. As high school students innocently sign for the student loans that they believe will improve their lives, we stand to protect them from bankers who see student loans as another chance to enslave them. As innocent parents try to raise healthy children, we stand to protect them from marketers who see young faces as profitably potential addicts. As innocent families struggle to make ends meet, we stand to protect them from the forces of foreclosures. We have been and must continue to be, as Jesus was, the voice for the innocent in a world of wickedness.
And we must be willing to use the instruments of law to prevent the wicked from harming others. We must be willing to end wars which kill thousands of people overseas. We must be willing to stand with the workers as their basic rights to collective bargaining for fair wages and decent working conditions are threatened. We must be willing to stand with the sick when the insurance companies seek to harm them by denial of coverage. We must be willing to stand with the teachers when the politicians layoff in the name of tax-cuts. We must be willing to stand with every person who is threatened by the harm of an inherently unjust system.
This is an inherently unjust system because it thrives on greed and human competition without boundaries. The myth of capitalism is that the vice of greed will make society better; in truth, the vice of greed can make only a vicious person and a vicious society. It makes few free and makes many slaves. It makes us slaves to avarice.
And so we must change the system. We must change the minds of the people. And to do this we must rely on something greater than any of us. Like Moses fearful that he could not change the hearts of the oppressed, we must rely on the staff that the Lord has entrusted to us. This staff will part the waters of oppression and apathy.
This staff is the Spirit which continues to inspire all people toward freedom and genuine liberation. This is the staff of spiritual enlightenment. And just as Moses had to be held up, we must hold each other up. We must never give up in this mission, for it is a divine mission, and it is a mission in which we will learn to hold each other up on the left and on the right. We will hold each other up, every one of us, and together we will lead each other to freedom: To economic freedom, to political freedom, to social freedom, and to spiritual liberation. May we never fail to realize that our institutions are only good so long as they help us move toward these freedoms. May we never stop organizing for better and more virtuous institutions capable of this holy quest. May we never stop loving one another with the love God has for us as he hearkens us out of slavery and into freedom.