“Never forget that the purpose for which we live is our improvement, so that we can leave this world after we, in the great or small sphere, have done little good for our fellow men and made little effort to lessen the sin and sorrows that exist in the world. ” – WE Gladstone
I’m writing from the Gladstone Library in Wales, a premier library founded and honored by William Ewart Gladstone, the quadruple Prime Minister of England.
I don’t just mean Gladstone because his face lurks around every corner. This weekend I was on BBC Radio Scotland talking to Baroness Helen Kennedy, a lawyer and human rights advocate, and Richard Holloway, a former Primate of the Scottish Episcopal Church, about the big current problem of competition rights: people on opposite sides of Brexit, the right to abortion, the Black Lives Matter, rights to arms, on the prevention of COVID, on almost every difficult cultural and political issue.
In response to this language of conflicting rights, I began by saying that those of us in the Christian tradition should talk less about rights and more about responsibilities — what is really harmful to my neighbor may not be a right that I need to hold tight. It then occurred to me that what we were actually talking about, what we were in danger of losing in these divisive times of “my rights” and “my fears,” were traditional liberal values.
A few years ago here in the library, Martyn Percy, dean of Christ Church Oxford, said he felt the Brexit vote was a startling failure of liberal values. What he meant by “liberal” is not what we usually think of in America, but what Gladstone meant, not liberal politics, per se, but a broadly defined liberalism: compassion for others, openness, responsibility for the greater good, a willingness to do everything. we see people as people and at least take their needs and desires into account when making decisions.
As we reflect on liberal values and the value of conversation to address these conflicting claims, it is important to note that these fears and concerns are not necessarily equal. Aquinas says that it is possible to have unreasonable fear, a fear that revives us, but it should not. A fear that becomes spiritually paralyzing in spite of its false. Someone’s fear of being forced to give up their assault rifles, for example, can be measured by my fear that I – or anyone else – will be killed by an assault rifle, since such a weapon has been used in four of the five deadliest shooting masses .
When I see parents who are obsessed with what transgender children can use in the toilet or whether primarily peaceful Black Lives Matter protests could set fire to their neighborhoods, I see unwarranted fears, especially compared to counter-claims, of the fact that 2021 looks like the deadliest years of violence against transgender people ever, or that the odds of the police shooting you if you do something while Black is at least three times greater than my chances.
What you probably notice from the example like these is that excessive fears on the one hand can actually cause very real harm to those on the other. So, if you are a privileged person (like me, like many people who complain loudly about their rights), then perhaps our desires, fears, and perceived needs should be in balance with whether they harm people who have traditionally been disadvantaged, those children of God whom Scripture sometimes calls “the least of these.”
We want what we want. But radical individualism — much more part of the American ethos than the British — does not sustain communities; destroys them. Liberal values, on the other hand, enable community. After all, without liberal values, we all suffer.
In war and in peace, sacrifice, compassion, mercy and shared responsibility have always changed the world for the better. The world is becoming more fragmented, more dangerous, and more selfish day by day, and sometimes I become more and more hopeless.
But surely some hope remains.
Sunday, when I was at the BBC in Edinburgh, it was Remembrance Sunday, a holiday in the United Kingdom that is somewhat similar to our Veterans and Remembrance Days. It is a day to remember all those who died in the service of their country since the First World War.
Being in the UK at such a time means being stunned by the human cost of freedom. In Oxford, where I spent most of the fall, every college and every church has a crowded war memorial mourning members who fell in battle between 1914 and 1918. Right in front of Gladstone Library, a poppy-decorated war memorial remembers the ranks of local villagers who gave their lives in the First World War.
There are similar heart-stopping images in every village and town across the UK. At train stations and in banks, in fact, almost everywhere we turn, there are monuments to those who died more than a hundred years ago.
What do Britons remember on Remembrance Sunday? Certainly not the poor conduct of the First War, not the terrible human cost of a conflict that never had to be waged.
But Richard Holloway spoke on Sunday morning about memory simply and beautifully: We want to remind ourselves that there used to be a multitude of people who were willing to give of themselves for something greater than themselves. Who were ready to put aside their fears and their own desires for the common good. Who did not insist that their lives and their future are all that matters.
We call these beings heroes in our memory and we can consider them exceptional, but really, their calling is also ours: to leave the world a little better than we found it, to change the lives of others, to reduce the sin and sorrow that are in the world. And that can only be done with liberal values.
“Fear drives us to live constrained little lives.”
Fear leads us to live humble little lives; selfishness makes our hearts three sizes too small. But Jesus called us to love extravagantly, and Gladstone argued that liberal values call us to recognize that every human life has ultimate value: “All human beings have the same rights to our support,” he said. “The ground on which we stand here is not British or European, but it is human. Nothing more than humanity can pretend to represent it for a moment. ”
The language of law forces us to build walls and sacrifice a connection, to awkwardly balance on our own little piece of land, but the memory reminds us: We are called to something bigger, to something better, and our lives are connected to each other.
Baptist News Global senior columnist Greg Garrett is an award-winning professor at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. One of the leading American messengers on religion and culture, he is the author of more than twenty books. He currently manages the Eula Mae and John Baugh Foundation Racism Research Fellowship and is writing a book on racial mythology for Oxford University Press. Greg is a lay preacher educated at a seminary in the Episcopal Church and a theologian at a residence in the American Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Paris. He lives in Austin with his wife Jeanie and their two daughters.