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We need to re-think what freedom means to us.

And we need to do it now.

Americans love freedom. Our country was born of the colonies’ desire to be free from a government that denied them a voice in their own affairs. America fought a horrific civil war and two world wars under in order to bring to the world freedom from slavery,  fascism, imperialism and militarism.

One would think that with all the talk about love of freedom, with all the lives given to causes that aimed to liberate us from the tyranny of foreign power, we wouldn’t seem so hell-bent on using such a precious gift in ways that are almost certain to deny those same freedoms to future generations.

Over recent months, we have grown increasingly numb as we watch men shoot and murder hundreds of innocent men, women, and children as their victims gathered to worship, attend school, or simply listen to music. Despite constant calls for some forms of increased control on the distribution of firearms, it is now possible that no meaningful action will take place.

All too often, we continue to discount the value of life by believing that the best way to deal with an unplanned pregnancy or catastrophic illness is to exercise the freedom to end the life we hadn’t planned for.

We cherish the notion that free market forces can somehow deliver reasonable level of social services and healthcare to the underprivileged – while an estimated 45,000 persons die each year due to lack of insured health care.

And we conflate a constitutional right to bear arms with the belief that convenient access to military-style weaponry is the only option to protect against government overreach, all while the number of citizen-fueled massacres continues to rise.

All told, it isn’t hard to see that it seems as though our freedom is killing us.

 

Freedoms run amok.

There was a time when we believed that freedom meant the ability to pursue aspirations, to make dreams real, and to follow the spiritual paths that draw us to the Truth that calls us all.

Now, it seems that many of us use our freedoms to to win immediate gratification of personal wants, even when those desires have damming effects on others.

Consider what has happened to Planned Parenthood and the National Rifle Association.

Both started out as organizations that are much different than the operations we see today. Both had an original objective of education and some type of public service.  Planned Parenthood focused on providing women with basic reproductive health care and education at a time when no one else seemed concerned about the high maternal mortality rate of immigrant women. The National Rifle Association was originally founded in the late 19th century to help improve the abysmal shooting accuracy of American soldiers, and later became an educational organization teaching firearm safety to American gun owners.

Today, both groups use our love affair with personal freedom to facilitate operations based on unrestricted, unrestrained, even convenient ‘transactions’ that result in the loss of lives. Both hide behind a fig leaf of liberty  — the freedom to have control over one’s own body, and the freedom to bear arms. For both organizations, their client’s freedoms are paramount. Neither accepts responsibility for the loss of lives which they facilitated.

I will not demonize all the members of Planned Parenthood or the NRA. These are large operations and I think there are probably some in both groups who truly believe that they are providing services that help people. Besides, we do enough demonizing these days.

But I will say that neither of these groups is the national treasurer they make themselves out to be today. Neither deserves to have their ‘business model’ enshrined as manifestations of what our nation’s founding fathers had hoped for. And uncompromising supporters of either group need to be reminded of the dangers of worshipping ideologies which cloud common sense understandings of right and wrong.

Yet even while we watch this ongoing discounting of human life, there are still beacons of human experience that show us that life affirming choices can still be made.

 

An unplanned general.

We must stop thinking that the only choice available to mothers experiencing an unplanned pregnancy is to extinguish a life.  Consider the journey of Army Surgeon General Nadja West as reported by CNN.

General West’s biological mother couldn’t raise her, but she was adopted by a military family that had 11 other children, led by a mom who was a granddaughter of slaves.

Nadja eventually enrolled at West Point in what was only the third class that accepted women in that setting;  the mission of the last all-male senior class was to “run all the women out before they graduated”, she added.

Nadja West did graduate from West Point, served tours of duty in operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, all the time enduring the challenges of being a black female medical officer, eventually becoming the first three star African American woman general in the Army.

And who is among those that Gen. West thanks for her good fortune?

“My mom decided that she couldn’t take care of me or didn’t want to take care of me…I’m just very thankful that she decided to give me a chance at life because you could have had other options.”

Hooah.

 

A freedom carefully reconsidered.

A number of states are currently wrestling with the issue of legalized physician assisted suicide. Most states’ leaders are rightfully trying to identify the right mix of respect for the desires of the patient with oversight from medical professionals who would, after careful consideration,  give the patient the freedom to end his or her suffering by ending his or her life.

This is not an issue with an easy answer. But I have a gnawing suspicion that our sense of compassion would eventually encourage policies that give us the freedom to end all suffering, while diluting the efforts to find cures to its cause.

At what point will the elderly start considering suicide to avoid the burden a serious illness would place on family members? Will our threshold for unbearable suffering continually slide downwards? Doctors in the Netherlands allow patients to commit suicide should they lose their sight; other European nations have broadened ‘suffering’ to include struggles with mental illness.

Will cash-strapped health care centers be forced to run a cost-benefit analysis on the options of treatment vs. a dignified (and accelerated) passing for indigent patients? Where would that lead?

We can never know how many of those who chose suicide would be able to look back to regret their decisions – how many people would be like Jeanette Hall.

As reported in the Daily Signal, she was diagnosed with colon cancer at the age of 55. Her mother had succumbed to dementia; she had lost her brother to suicide. After hearing about what radiation therapy would do to her, she urged her doctor to provide her with the tools to end her life. For weeks she demanded that her doctor give her the prescription that would allow her to avoid a life she no longer wanted…  until her doctor suggested that she may want to wait until she had the chance to see her son graduate from his studies to be a state trooper.

Fifteen years later, she is cured of her cancer, enjoying life with her son, and telling her story to whoever is interested in listening about the experience of a woman who came close to ending a life too soon.

 

Everybody does not need a gun.

A couple of years ago, an NRA news commentator published a video which rhetorically suggested that America gun policy should be re-structured under the presumption that “guns make people’s lives better”. The video painted a picture in which American gun policy encourages, even rewards gun ownership, discussing the benefits of placing gun safety (and firearm ‘competency’) programs on par with reading and writing as compulsory subjects all students would be required to take. The gist of the video is that since America has policies to guarantee access to employment and education, it would make sense that we guarantee the provision of the second amendment through a policy encouraging ownership of firearms. (I decline to provide the link to the video in my references; searching Youtube ‘NRA News’ may lead you to it).

On the face of it, the logic of such an argument sort of makes sense. That is until one asks what would really be the point of every American carrying a gun – to prove that we accept that every trip to the big-box store parking lot can turn into the gunfight at the OK- Corral?   What about those second amendment words, ‘well regulated’? Just because a rhetorical argument is logical doesn’t mean it makes sense in light of the human condition.

Guitarist Caleb Keeter was thinking about gun rights the night of October 1.

Keeter, a long-time proponent of gun rights, had finished performing in Las Vegas a few hours before Stephen Paddock started spraying the concert venue with automatic weapons fire, killing nearly 60 people and wounding more than 500.

Fellow musicians in his band had ready access to legally owned firearms – but there was no way to know how the police would react to armed musicians standing in the midst of  concert-goers who were being mowed down by gunfire. And it is unlikely the musicians would have been able to do anything about a man shooting from a high-rise hotel room stocked with 23 firearms, including AR-15 assault rifles.

When it was all over, Keeter tweeted, “I cannot express how wrong I was… [the issue of gun control] is completely out of hand.”

 

Freedom’s purpose.   

This article started by questioning how we think of freedom, but in fact, our problems aren’t caused by the freedoms granted by our state, but rather by our values which guide personal behaviors that exploit the freedoms we’ve been granted.

We all have the right to make decisions about our own personal health, and we have rights given to us by the state that we are free to exercise. But the decisions of how to exercise those rights must take into account a moral compass that points to a direction other than a self-serving interest. ‘My needs here and now’ must be tempered by our interest to leave our society a better place for those to follow.

For people of faith, we understand that scripture does not grant us the freedom of indifference to the lives of others. As a Catholic, I am called to serve my community in a way that reflects the gospel message which leaves the issues of life and death to God while calling on us to act with caring, not killing.

Equally importantly, it is time for us, as citizens, to demand a shift in the values espoused by our political parties.

As a centrist who leans progressive, I lend my support to the Democrats for Life wing of the Democratic party. It is time for the party of my working-class parents to stand for the human dignity of persons of all ages (including the yet-to-be-born), races, and gender identities, and choose to turn away from positions which seek to avoid human suffering by exploiting the freedom to end human life.

For my friends who are right (leaning), it is time move beyond pro-birth only positions. I pray that my conservative friends will see the that not all problems faced by struggling families will be solved by free-market forces, and I hope my buddies in the GOP will understand that unfettered access to devices that prepare us to kill others is not freedom, but a reflection of either fear or mistrust.  Neither attitude helps build community, and neither should be celebrated.

****

Pope John Paul II said that “Freedom  is not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.”

Those words were never more meaningful than today. How often, in today’s hyper media, do we hear the words ‘my rights’? Compare that to the number of times we hear ‘our needs’. Nearly 250 years ago, we earned freedoms that allowed us to build a new community that sought to bring down the barriers of class and power.

Today, we often find ourselves using our freedoms to end or threaten the lives of those around us.

It is not likely that this is what our founding fathers had hoped for. Likewise, such self-centered uses of freedom have no place in the Catholic tradition.

_____

References:

Feature report on Army Surgeon General http://www.cnn.com/2017/06/16/politics/nadja-west-badass-women-of-washington/index.html

Daily signal store on Jeanette Hall and assisted suicide:  http://dailysignal.com/2015/05/18/assisted-suicide-how-one-woman-chose-to-die-then-survived/

On changing the threshold of ‘suffering’: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2448611/Blind-Dutch-woman-euthanised-loss-sight.html

On the relationship between insurance and mortality rates:   https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2775760/

On Caleb Keeter and gun rights: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/las-vegas-festival-performer-says-shooting-changed-his-mind-on-gun-control_us_59d273d1e4b06791bb12313d

 

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