Liberty, Equality, and What?

Historically, the French answered, “Fraternity.”  More recently, William Kristol from Harvard University suggested the possibility of “Honor.”  What should it be?  This question is more than simply historical trivia.  In our current politics, those in favor of liberty are often pitted against those in favor of equality.  It is the libertarians against the egalitarians, and currently the egalitarians seem to be winning.  But must these ideals be opposed?  Part of the solution is found in correctly answering the question above.  To understand the solution, consider the following dilemma.

Suppose we tried to make everyone in America both free and equal.  First, we must face the problem of definitions.  On the one hand, are we striving for positive liberty, when a person is empowered to do what he wishes, or are we settling for negative liberty, when a person faces no constraints in doing what he wishes?  Similarly, regarding the concept of equality, historian J. R. Pole discerned six separate definitions used in American history, including equality before the law, equality of opportunity, equality of power, equality of esteem, equality of the sexes, and equality of religion.  Thus we have at least two definitions of liberty and six definitions of equality, leading to a matrix of twelve combinations.  Which one will we use?

On the surface, the solution may appear simple.  We will opt for negative liberty, for not even God Himself operates on the principle of an equal amount of positive liberty, since He bestows His gifts in varying degrees according to His own sovereign grace.  Therefore, let every man be equally free from constraint!  Not so fast.  As libertarian Jan Narveson pointed out in one of his essays by way of argument, money not only empowers some, but the lack of money also hinders others.  In this way, we might say that economic poverty really does constrain a man against his will.  Think about it in the extreme.  If a man is starving to death and dies, his liberty is definitely curtailed.  Therefore, even on the basis of negative liberty, it would seem that economic equality may be necessary for equal liberty.

Interestingly, the Bible does favor some form of economic equality among Christians, but not the form that the radical egalitarians and communists of our day would recognize.  Interestingly, a scholarly article appeared recently that mistakenly cited “Corinthians 8:14-15” as a communistic sentiment.  Besides the fact that the reference was botched (it should have read “2 Corinthians 8:14-15”), more importantly, Paul’s point was missed.  Yes, Paul does quote the Law in confirming that the goal has always been “equality, that now at this time your [the Corinthian believers’] abundance may supply their [the poor Jewish Christians’] lack, that their abundance also may supply your lack–that there may be equality” (8:14).  General economic equality among Christians is a Christian goal.  However, the means to this equality is not external force, but inner love.  A few verses earlier, Paul made it clear, “I speak not by commandment, but I am testing the sincerity of your love by the diligence of others” (8:8).  Do you see?  Paul did not remove their liberty to force an equality, but instead appealed to their liberty to voluntarily bring about economic equality.

Years ago, I heard theologian David Wells say that once love diminishes in a society, law rises to fill the void.  We have a lot of laws today.  We are in desperate need of a revival of love, which is the classic Christian way.  Paul urged love when he wrote, “Brethren, you have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Galatians 5:13).  Martin Luther urged love when he wrote his classic treatise, On the Freedom of a Christian (1520).  Do we not need it urged again today?

Christian, let me ask you.  If you are a political libertarian, is it solely because you oppose political larceny or might there also be some reluctance to part with your earned income to help the poor?  Conversely, if you are a political egalitarian, is it solely because you oppose the oppression of the masses or might there also be some secret envy to have what others have?  In both cases, it is covetousness–either to want what others have, or to keep what others need.  Either way, the solution is love.  We need more love.

Therefore, I conclude with a suggestion triggered by my sixteen-year-old son.  Perhaps the saying should read, “Liberty, Equality, Charity.”  Only by grace in Christ can such an ideal ever be even foreshadowed here on earth, but what a beautiful picture that presents!  Praise God for His glorious gospel and grace!

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