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Saturday, September 29, 2018

"Last Call for Liberty" (Os Guinness)

TITLE: Last Call for Liberty: How America's Genius for Freedom Has Become Its Greatest Threat
AUTHOR: Os Guinness
PUBLISHER: Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2018, (336 pages).

What is the root cause of America's problems? What is true liberty? How free is America? In fact, according to respected theologian and cultural observer, Os Guinness, the problem is not the world nor the world against America. It is America herself becoming her "most bitter enemies." They are their own threat to freedom. Donald Trump is not the problem. He has simply turned over the carpet that had covered the problems of the past America had swept under. From political tussles to socio-economic divisions, it is becoming a society where everyone think they are right and others are wrong. Finding the root cause will help us address the greatest threat to America. This is essentially the search for freedom. What then is the key to freedom? Os Guinness shows the way with a series of questions with the single purpose of helping American minds to figure out the "character and condition of freedom." He raises questions like:
  • What do Americans mean by liberty?
  • Freedom means different things to different people, so what kind of Freedom does America aspire to become?
  • What is the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist?
  • How do we allow the conflicting views to exist without breaking up the nation? 
  • What is America fighting for?
  • What is the difference between the French Revolution and American fight for freedom?

Looking at the monuments in America can give us a clue about America's aspirations. Think of the "Statue of Liberty," the "Land of the Free," "Freedom Trail," "Liberty Bell Center," etc. With so many cultural pointers to liberty, Guinness gives us ten fundamental questions to address this basic theme. One chapter is allocated for each question, making the book an easy reference book for anyone seeking clarity on any of the questions.
  1. Do You Know Where Your Freedom Came From?
  2. Are There Enough Americans Who Care About Freedom?
  3. What Do You Mean by Freedom?
  4. Have You Faced Up to the Central Paradox of Freedom?
  5. How Do You Plan to Sustain Freedom?
  6. How Will You Make the World Safe for Diversity?
  7. How Do You Justify Your Vision of a Free and Open Society?
  8. Where Do You Ground Your Faith in Human Freedom?
  9. Are You Vigilant About the Institutions Crucial to Freedom: Republicanism or Democracy?
  10. Are You Vigilant About the Ideas Crucial to Freedom: Which Revolution Do They Serve?
The first question alone stumped many people when asked. Instead of seeking out answers from the 18th Century, Guinness takes us further back to the Jewish ancient history; the exodus from slavery to freedom. That is the source of modern American liberty. He distinguishes government as those based on founding rather than types of government. The four different types of founding are: Organic societies that are tribal or family; hierarchical; contractual; and covenantal. Modern American liberty is based on the latter. In the second question, Guinness probes behind the reasons for modern American perspectives of freedom and takes a dig at the way America has trumpeted itself as "torchbearers" of freedom to the world. On the oft self-congratulatory, arrogant, and self-promoting forms of descriptions, Guinness sees beneath them a mesh of inward looking inclinations that are based on individualism, consumerism, and narcissism. Taken in this context, freedom essentially means what is in there for me without any interest in how it impacts others. In response, Guinness asserts that true freedom is one of the human will; of commitment; of human responsibility; of having freedom not as an end in itself, but as a means to a greater goal. We learn about the positive (freedom for) and negative (freedom from) forms of freedom. Freedom comes with a cost. The greatest paradox is that the greatest enemy of freedom is freedom itself. He warns us that freedom is just one generation away from being lost. For freedom to flourish, we need order and self-restraint. The one who is most free is not the one who controls others but oneself. Responsibility is a huge thing in true freedom. In order to sustain freedom, checks and balances are not enough. We need separation of powers. We need to move from negative to positive forms of freedom. We need freedom to be anchored on fundamental faith. For faith in itself is a voluntary act of freedom of expression. The sixth question is about freedom and diversity, something that is increasingly relevant in our society. Secular or religious, we need space for all to have their own expressions of faith. That means secular authorities should allow the freedom of religious expressions in public spheres, along with the freedom for atheists and secularists to parade their own views openly. Instead of pandering to the erroneous statement of "secular societies," we need to re-state that we are a "free society."

Guinness has many interesting perspectives about modern society and their struggles with the problems of today. One of the major things is diversity. Even in an increasingly pluralistic society, there remains a widening gulf between the left and the right; the conservative and the liberal; and various divisions of all kinds. How do we enable true freedom of beliefs? In order to get a clearer way forward, we need to get at the roots of the problem. Calling it the Radical Rs, he points out that the "Reducers" have radically shrunk the space for freedom of religion. They also shrink "freedom of religion" into "freedom of worship." The "Removers" had moved toward "freedom from religion" instead of maintaining the rightful "freedom of religion." The "Rebranders" argue against the freedom of religion by attacking it as a power play. Such people turn the "freedom of religion" advocates into some kind of bigot party. They then attempt to turn society against religious people by saying they are attacking the rights of minority groups. They forget that religious freedom is actually more of a shield rather than a sword. The "Reimaginers" dream of a new world just like John Lennon's song, Imagine, which is about a world where one can be happy without any common authority or domain. This also reduces religion into some inconvenient corner of society in favour of this utopia. He makes a powerful observation about the state of the cultural wars with the 4Rs continuing to shrink or subvert the basic freedom of religion.

My Thoughts
First, we must acknowledge the great divide in our societies today. Whether it is pro-something or anti-something, any strong assertion will create an equal and opposite reaction. In other words, one extremity will create a polar opposite extremity. Recognizing such a divided state is crucial to determining a need for reconciliation and re-engagement. For diversity to exist, we must make room for different worldviews to co-exist. Granted that truth is to be upheld at all times, we can adopt a stand of seeing the different worldviews as efforts to reveal and to understand truth. No one effort is perfect. This acknowledgment should spearhead a greater emphasis on creating a "civil public square" led by a political framework that underscores the rights and freedoms of every citizen. This framework must assert the "three Rs of freedom of thought and conscience: rights, responsibilities, and respect." Guinness is spot on with regard to the 3Rs in contrast to the 1R (namely, rights) that most of society seem to focus upon nowadays. The sooner we recognize the problem with our short-sighted view of the problem, the better it will be for recovery and renewal.

Second, freedom is about returning to the basics of covenanting. It is not about contractual agreements. Neither is it about a marriage of ideas of convenience. Covenant entails commitment and conviction. This avoids the extremes of chaos and control. The former is too liberal and allows society to descend into splintering groups that disunites and disenfranchises society at large. The latter instills a totalitarian regime and mindset that insists on conformity more than diversity. With a covenant, we go back frequently to our fundamental laws and liberties enshrined in our nation's constitutions. Chaos turn freedom into licentiousness. Control limits freedom strictly according to one set of interpretation. Learning to navigate between these two extremes will expand the scope of community space and diversity. This is just the starting point as details will still need to be fleshed out with regard to what covenanting means for each society. It is hoped that the central agreement toward this covenant would bind people together in regular dialogues and constructive conversational moments.

Third, there are many powerful insights with regard to the American culture and political climate. The author's chief concern is about preventing America from falling further apart. By focusing on the theme of freedom, Guinness has touched a raw nerve and central concern among many Americans. Freedom or liberty is something often talked about but rarely understood in the way that Guinness has done. That is why this book is a gift for America and the world to learn from. By understanding the American context, perhaps the rest of the world will be better able to design their own versions of freedom in their respective contexts.

For those of us who are concerned about the growing divisions in our cultures, pick up this book. With every page glistening with insights, I am sure that the patient and thoughtful reader will be able to grasp not only the great need for America but also the deep passion of the author.

Os Guinness is an English author and social critic, born to missionary parents to China. He is also the great-great-great-grandson of Arthur Guinness, from the famous Irish brewing company.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of InterVarsity Press and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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