The limits of freedom: rights at the expense of responsibility

Much discussion about freedom has arisen from the recent murders in Paris of Charlie Hebdo staff who had published provocative cartoons. Many demonstrators, even world leaders, have shown their solidarity with the Charlie Hebdo philosophy of total freedom, with numerous references to the French Revolution ideals of liberty, fraternity and equality.

Much discussion about freedom has arisen from the recent murders in Paris of Charlie Hebdo staff who had published provocative cartoons. Many demonstrators, even world leaders, have shown their solidarity with the Charlie Hebdo philosophy of total freedom, with numerous references to the French Revolution ideals of liberty, fraternity and equality.

How realistic was this?

Greg Neiman, in his excellent editorial Publish and be damned?, which appeared in the Red Deer Advocate on Jan. 13, wondered whether we should “blast those cartoons all over the world.” Then he asked the right question concerning our freedom to do so: “But what, exactly, would we be proving? That we are all capable of gratuitous religious insult? That we will all provoke anger, just because we can?”

While on vacation in Aix-en-Provence, France, in 2012, I came across a very interesting monument in this regard. It was the cenotaph of a well-to-do carpenter and developer named Joseph Sec, who died in 1794, at the height of the French Revolution, when the heads of aristocrats were rolling, society was being reshaped, and ancient customs were being abandoned. This monument declares rather poignantly the limits of freedom. Loosely translated, it states: “Having left a cruel slavery, I have no master but myself. But I will use my liberty only to obey the law. Faithful observer of these laws which God himself has graciously given us, I admire them more each day and would rather die than abandon them.”

Joseph Sec understood that freedom is not licence. He knew that the proper exercise of freedom means restraint and alignment with the law of God, expressed in the Golden Rule.

Perhaps the greatest problem unleashed by the French Revolution was its disassociation of liberty, fraternity and equality from this biblical context expressed by Joseph Sec. Freedom is neither independent nor an end in itself, but an opportunity to benefit oneself and others. Unfortunately, the Revolution emphasized rights at the expense of responsibilities.

I hope and pray that Christians, Jews, Muslims, and all religious groups, including agnostics and atheists, will be able to exercise their mutual responsibilities in respect and peace, because without that, the ideal of a multicultural society is unsustainable.

Jacob M. Van Vliet

Red Deer County

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