April 23, 2010
The Statue of Liberty stands on a small island off the shore of Lower Manhattan. She has been there since her arrival in the United States in 1885, a gift from the people of France. She is an East Coast thing and there are some—not many but some—who think she needs a mate.
The Statue of Responsibility Foundation is raising money to bookend the continental United States with a second statue on an island in the harbor of an as yet undetermined West Coast city. The Statue of Liberty's missing mate is called the "Statue of Responsibility." And no, I'm not making this up.
According to the Statue of Responsibility website:
The Statue of Liberty has served as a symbol of liberty, both in America and throughout the world. Its counterpart, the Statue of Responsibility, will likewise serve as a symbol—a visible representation and call to responsibility—both in America and abroad. These two principles—liberty and responsibility—when linked together, will help engender and secure freedom for the present generation, and for generations yet unborn, wherever a thirst for freedom exists. Only by balancing Liberty with Responsibility can Freedom be sustained.
The foundation has trademarked "Liberty + Responsibility = Our Freedom" in an attempt to show the importance of this principle and the need for a West Coast statue to match Lady Liberty.
While I'm not sure a $300 million statue in San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Seattle is the solution, it is true that liberty—a word that is actually a synonym for freedom—has devolved in our world into little more than license, the endless quest to do exactly as I please.
After all, hasn't the great American dream become the ability to do whatever I like, whenever I like, with whomever I like? It's a day off from work, a long vacation, early retirement, friends "with privileges," and plenty of money to sustain my chosen lifestyle. Liberty as it is used today eschews responsibility as liberty's antithesis. Justin Moyer, who wrote about the Statue of Responsibility for the Washington Post, commented:
Responsibility is what stern parents lecture their kids about after they break curfew, get loaded and crash the family car. Responsibility is watching "Born Into Brothels" when you really want to watch "Dude, Where's My Car?" If liberty's a candy bar, responsibility is broccoli. Who builds a statue with such dreary symbolic baggage?
Perhaps the Chinese would.
In "The Key to Our Civilization," published in the Spectator (UK),George Cardinal Pell, the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Australia, writes:
Paradoxically, modern China can help us understand Western life today. Not because China must achieve economic supremacy… but because this radically different culture is now searching for the secrets of Western vitality to provide a code for decency and social cohesion compatible with sustainable economic development.
Pell points out that the Chinese have long wondered why economic development took place in the West ages before it happened in China. They are also asking themselves how to temper economic development and the freedom it brings with a sense of morality and responsibility, something their citizens, for the most part, seem to lack.
They have concluded that the West's great secret of success is Christianity. Pell cites Zhao Xiao, a Chinese economist, who wrote:
These days Chinese people do not believe in anything. They don't believe in God, they don't believe in the devil, they don't believe in providence, they don't believe in the Last Judgment, to say nothing about heaven. A person who believes in nothing can only believe in himself. And self-belief implies that anything is possible — what do lies, cheating, harm and swindling matter?
Pell reminds us of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn's analysis of what brought about the horrors of the twentieth century: "Men have forgotten God." And without God, there is no sense of responsibility because there is no ultimate source of justice in the universe. We are free to do whatever we can get away with, atrocities included. Hitler and Stalin enjoy the same oblivion as Mother Teresa and Maximilian Kolb.
As many people have pointed out, it is not Christianity that is a crutch, but atheism. Believing that when you die, you're just dead is far more comforting than believing that after death that we will be summoned to answer to a just and holy God for the good or evil we have done in this life.
For theists, an increasingly popular and flaccid form of Christianity works just as well to avoid any sense of responsibility. When we believe in a God who is unlimited forgiveness and acceptance with not so much as a whiff of judgment, the net result is as comforting as what the atheist believes. We can do as we please with no fear of judgment.
As theologian Michael Horton has pointed out, contemporary Evangelicals, following hard on the heels of theological liberals, "seem to have reduced sin to dysfunction. In this context, Jesus is not the savior from the curse of the law, but a life coach who leads us to a better self, better marriages, and happier kids."
But sin isn't dysfunction; it is rebellion against a Sovereign to whom we owe allegiance and obedience. While he sets us at liberty through the Gospel, he also holds us responsible for how we use our liberty. As a result, the Bible instructs us to "Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom…" (James 2:12a). Verses like this serve as a foil to the easy-believism and loose understanding of justification by faith that Dietrich Bonheoffer called "cheap grace," which is no grace at all.
Rather than being morbid, it is good to be reminded that Judgment Day will come. Hearing Jesus say, "Well done thou good and faithful servant," presupposes that - like the servant with five talents and the servant with three talents - our service has been good and faithful. There was, you remember, a third servant whose service was neither. Instead of "good and faithful," he is called a "wicked, lazy servant." (See Matthew 25:14-30.)
Responsibility is not a bookend to liberty, but an inseparable part of liberty. That is because liberty rightly understood—as it is rightly understood in the Bible and by the American Founders—is not exclusively freedom from—especially not freedom from responsibility. True liberty is freedom to—freedom to live as fully human according to the model of Jesus who responsibly obeyed the Father and carried out his will. It is also freedom to live as a responsible citizen of a liberal democracy and to use our liberty for the common good.
Liberty gutted of responsibility is not liberty at all. Instead, it spells the end of true Christianity and true freedom. If we need a three hundred foot tower to remind us, so be it.
Jim Tonkowich is a Senior Fellow at the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation and a scholar at the Institute on Religion & Democracy. He holds a degree in philosophy from Bates College and both a Master of Divinity and a Doctor of Ministry from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. More of his work can be found at jimtonkowich.com.