With freedom comes responsibility

Photo: Miguel Bruna, Unsplash. Photo: Miguel Bruna, Unsplash.

“As soon as freedom and peace dwell in hearts, a general peace among nations will bless the earth, and the kingdom of God has come to us.”

When Carl Harder, pastor of Königsberg Mennonite Church, wrote this in 1848, it was a relatively new idea for Mennonites to think about their responsibility to society. Typically, they expressed their faith in withdrawal and seclusion.

What responsibility for society do Mennonites have? It is necessary to reflect on this constantly.

For Mennonites in Germany after 1945, responsibility meant recovering convictions about peace. In the 19th century and until 1945, German Mennonites felt a duty to support the state, even in its military actions. Because they were members of the state and enjoyed its benefits, they felt they must do all that the state required, even taking up arms.

Yet there were dissenting voices. John Horsch, an editor at Mennonite Publishing House in Pennsylvania who was born in Germany, admonished in 1920 that the end does not justify the means: One could not do the opposite of love for the sake of love.

What is our responsibility today? I am thinking of answers to this question in three areas: freedom, maturity and diversity.

Against the background of Anabaptist history, freedom is a cherished value. The early Anabaptists pioneered the idea of religious freedom by separating from the established church.
Today, freedom is tossed about on the waves of the debate over COVID-19 measures. Critics of pandemic precautions call for freedom and decry restrictions. Supporters of restrictions demand freedom be deferred in light of health risks. Stigmatization flourishes on both sides. Freedom of expression comes under pressure.

Our culture of heated discourse, in which polemics and stereotypes flourish, does the rest.
Freedom still requires responsibility. If we disregard our duty to care for others, our desire for freedom becomes selfish.

A balance is needed. Let us not accept the erosion of freedom nor neglect our responsibility for others.

The bones found recently of hundreds of Indigenous children in British Columbia and Saskatchewan are a clear warning. Let us uncover the mechanisms that restrict freedom: power, pressure, suppressed consciences and immaturity.

Freedom requires maturity — another essential quality of Anabaptist life. A mature person recognizes our lives are connected with those of others. A mature person is willing to look at issues from different angles, think outside the mainstream and adopt God’s perspective.
Refusing to allow people to make free choices restricts their growth into maturity. A person who freely chooses to put the needs of others first is more mature than one who follows a rule simply because it is required.

Maturity is a prerequisite for diversity. But do we really want diversity? Diversity requires considering other people’s perspectives.

Are we content with simple answers? In our attempts to solve problems, do we simply medicate the symptoms without getting to the root of the problem?

Common sense seems to have been lost in the world of algorithms that calculate and feed our interests. Google, Facebook and other corporations know what we want and spoon-feed us ads and other content that requires wisdom to avoid being misled.

new problems require new answers. Last year, a group led by writer Ferdinand von Schirach laid out new fundamental rights for Europe. Two of them are particularly relevant to the issue of freedom.

Article 2 states that every person has “the right to digital self-determination. . . . The spying on or manipulation of people is prohibited.”

Article 3 calls for granting everyone the right not to be determined by algorithms. In other words, the problem is that computer systems can increasingly be relied upon for automated decision-making that can harm marginalized groups. Algorithms must be “transparent, verifiable and fair. . . . Essential decisions must be made by a human being.”

Freedom, maturity, diversity. Are these principles still relevant for us? Or do we enjoy letting others make decisions for us? The distance between freedom and the rise of authoritarianism can be surprisingly short.

To understand what freedom means, we start with the words of Jesus, “The truth will make you free” (John 8:32), and seek to grow in maturity and diversity.

Astrid von Schlachta

Astrid von Schlachta of Weierhof, Germany, is head of the Mennonite Research Center and lecturer at the University of Regensburg. Read More

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