Veterans Day Talk 2018
Monday this week marks the commemoration of our veterans who have served our country and have given of themselves in some capacity to keep us safe, to guard us, and to ultimately to keep watch over our social liberty as a sovereign nation. When our country was founded, it was assumed that a social order, regardless of party politics or democratic structure, was a contract, an agreement held among members of that society. (Our students read about this in Jean Jacques Rousseau and others.) In that political contract men and women agree to give up certain rights in order to receive other benefits, such as protection, common goods, and the opportunity to economically thrive and live a flourishing life.
In our country today, it’s been said that we still value the ability to govern ourselves in order to protect life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But it originally was understood that those values were not at odds. It was understood that life was actually a precious gift, that liberty was not just a choice to do whatever one wants whenever one wants to do it, and that the pursuit of happiness was not for one’s own individual pleasure but was for the sake of others as well. As we all ought to know, our pursuit of happiness, even the experience of pleasure or pain, affects the lives of others for good or ill.
This Veterans Day let us contemplate the subject of “Liberty.” Liberty is obviously something we value care about in our society. I don’t think you would find NPR openly denouncing liberty. Who doesn’t love liberty? Who doesn’t want to live in a country that doesn’t value freedom? Who doesn’t want freedom? But I think we are profoundly confused and misguided about the nature of freedom. Most people define freedom as nothing but sheer choice. For most people, freedom simply means the act of choosing. Liberty, therefore, is the right to choose for oneself what one wants. But if we reflect on that for a moment, we’ll see that choice is not enough. If freedom is divorced from the object of that choice (and its attendant consequences) then what are we to do with the addict who continually chooses opioids? Is she free? What are we to do with the man who continually chooses to look at pornography? Is he free? What are we to do with those who choose the lesser good or those who choose to do evil? No. Freedom is not found in exercising choice alone. Freedom is found in the ends of our choices. Our choices simply make us more or less free. Freedom, liberty, is a gift. Our freedom, our liberty, exists not simply to make a choice, but so that we may make the right choice, not simply that we might choose but so that we might choose what is good.
And that teaching has always been part of a traditional and biblical understanding of the world. This is called wisdom. And here at St Abrahams we do not teach just facts and data and surveys and studies. Rather, we teach wisdom. If a society does not have wisdom, if it has no vision of the good and the true and the beautiful, then that society is doomed. This is what the Scriptures tell us. If everyone does what is right in their own eyes, then things get really really bad. No matter how private we think they are, our choices always affect other people. And if we think freedom is just about choice, then we end up with the society that we have now. We end up with a society that thanks freedom is not attached to responsibility. We end up with a society that is selfish, but thinks it does not have to give anything in order to get anything. But this is not how it works. This is not how the social contract works.
Remember our society is based on a contract. And when our country was founded, it was understood that the contract we form with the members of our society was not a contract amongst the living only, but as Edmund Burke says, it is a contract amongst those dead, those living, and those yet to be born. That means that when we consider making changes to the institutions of good that support our society, we need to consider carefully how it affects our children and how it might destroy the gifts we have received from previous generations.
Today people take for granted the fact that we have a military, the fact that we are safe, the fact that we have people who are willing to sacrifice themselves. People take for granted the fact that there is a cost to freedom. But that’s not what the Bible teaches. That’s not what classical wisdom teaches. And that’s not what we at St. Abraham’s teach. At St Abrahams we teach that freedom, that liberty, it’s not a claim one makes on the world, but a byproduct of doing what is right. At St Abrahams we teach that virtue is its own reward. And at St Abrahams we teach that it is honorable to give of oneself to serve one’s country.
In light of this, we honor those men and women who have served our country and are in positions of public service in our communities.