If confession is, indeed, good for the soul, then let me begin by making one: I am weary of reading, hearing, and talking about how divided American society is right now.
I’m not denying that divisions exist.
Nevertheless, the world doesn’t need another lamentation over the state of our less-than-collective soul. Instead, I’m more interested in thinking about what needs to happen next in our neighborhoods and communities in order for us to recover – or, perhaps, articulate for the first time – a shared understanding of the common good that truly reflects the spirit of E pluribus unum.
Accordingly, then, let’s begin not with what divides us but, rather, with what unites us: Fear – or, more accurately, a pervasive sense of vulnerability: the feeling that we are one paycheck, one traffic stop, one lab report, or one election cycle away from losing what matters most to us. Worst of all, when this reckoning finally arrives, we worry that we’ll have to deal with it alone. No wonder we feel vulnerable.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Extended families, faith communities, civic organizations, and neighborhoods create webs of security. Ours, however, has always been a culture that places a high priority on individual freedom – and, over the last several decades, pressures from both the left and the right have steadily weakened the ties that bind us together. Freedom from traditional sources of authority and moral truth. Freedom from the responsibility to contribute to what our Constitution calls the general welfare. These are but a few examples.
I’m not suggesting that the expansion of individual freedom has been a bad thing. I am suggesting that it has come at a cost, which we are only beginning to appreciate. A society in which the greatest good is a citizen’s freedom from will cease to function as a society in any real sense of the word and, instead, become a collection of disconnected individuals who, either by design or by default, have as little to do with one another as possible.
I believe we can do better. My own Baptist faith has historically understood freedom as a positive virtue – that is, in terms of freedom for, rather than freedom from. The freedom my spiritual ancestors cherished was a freedom to live the obedient, humble lives for which they believed God had created them. It was a freedom that recognized and respected limits in service of a greater, more profound good. Freedom for is about nurturing our capacity to act in ways that are generous, wise, reverent, and aimed at something more noble than satisfying our appetites and ambitions.
This notion of freedom for isn’t unique to my faith tradition. It is, however, notoriously difficult to promote, and even harder to sustain.
The most basic ideals of our American society – the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, as well as the rule of law and equal justice under that law – are ideals that, to be fully realized, depend upon the willingness of engaged citizens to put their freedom to work for the common good. They are ideals that require us to respect one another and expect the best from our fellow citizens. They are ideals that don’t make sense for a nation of individuals living in isolation.
So, what needs to happen next? How about listening more to voices we’re unfamiliar with or disagree with – and resisting the urge to respond with a rebuttal? Committing our time and energy to a group that’s dedicated to making Charlotte a better place to live – and inviting our friends to join us? Finding ways to cultivate the positive virtue of freedom for in our own lives – and demanding the same from those we elect?
“We have a spiritual and moral problem in America,” said Eldridge Cleaver, the former Black Panther, near the end of his life. “Our problem is not economic or political. It is that we do not care about each other.” Let me repeat: It doesn’t have to be this way. We are, after all, free to choose a better path.
Canipe is senior pastor at Providence Baptist Church.