Liberty, autonomy, and consent: three loveless American virtues

Brining in a sea of Americanism

I often tell people that I wake up every day trying to answer the question, “How can I make following Jesus not seem like a crazy prospect?” “How do I get ordinary postmodern people to follow Jesus?” It turns out that as normal as I make Jesus (as I try to undo what the loudest Christians in the land are doing), it’s still going to take some radicality to follow him. Despite the effort that many Christians have employed to syncretize our faith with our culture, or to try to use it as an agent to transform our culture, I really don’t think that the American soil is fertile for Christianity to grow.

I keep bumping into this as I consider the American virtues that seem to anchor the nation’s ethos. They are so subtle that they are hard to see. And yet, they saturate everything so much so that they are hard to distinguish. Despite our best efforts to not be tainted, we receive some of these virtues, as I told the folks at the Sunday meeting a few weeks ago, through osmosis (the process of molecules passing through semipermeable membranes from a less concentrated solution to a more concentrated one—in other words, why you brine your Thanksgiving turkey, or why I’m brining duck legs in my fridge at the moment).

The United States is theoretically premised on the idea that everyone has a self-evident, God-given right to pursue their dreams—to pursue their happiness. Right from the nation’s holy scriptures:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776

The idea of pursuing our happiness is embedded in the very fabric of this nation and so it definitely syncretizes with our faith. If our faith is the turkey, it’s brining in a sea of Americanism.

We’re told this idea from our very youngest days, I know this because I’m witnessing how children are formed in our public schools by having children in them. We’re told we can pursue, achieve, and live our dreams. And anything short of that is our own failure.

The virtues that pin down this premise, or at least three of them, are liberty, autonomy, and consent. They understandably developed as primary American ideas in order to maintain the above ethic.

The best thing you can do is leave everyone alone

They are all formulated around never being violated by another person, or agent. They are largely meant to keep the government away from you, as well as other citizens. We do not think of the market as violating us because we think of the market as actually being developed by liberty and autonomy—“economic freedom,” even if it infringes on others, creates a lower class, or oppresses the poor.

You are your own person, you are free to pursue your dreams, and any sort of relationship you have with someone else might be consensual—you must give your permission. Bodily autonomy and rights are the path toward liberty. You aren’t free unless you control all aspects of your life. This is the American ethos. It’s obviously bullshit, since we are controlled and regulated by many different actors, but in general we ignore those actors in pursuit of these virtues. Or we resist them and how they infringe upon our inalienable rights.

And in their own right, liberty, autonomy, and consent are not bad at all. In fact, they are largely important—maybe I’m saying this because I’ve been brining too long—but I think they are manifestly biblical, especially when we consider how the Bible talks about people being oppressed by the powers.

The issue is that they are incomplete. They might make you a free person, but they don’t make you a moral person, or a good person. After we all learned about Aziz Ansari’s bad date, we learned that his behavior, while probably not criminal, was still immoral and unethical. I realized then that we have limitations in our moral vocabulary, because it’s informed by a dialogue around liberty and not love. Here’s what I said then:

Good sex is hard to have. And consent isn’t an adequate moral line. We shouldn’t be surprised since the law keeps us from doing wrong, but doesn’t constrain us to do good. Only God’s love does that.

Similarly, I don’t think of liberty or autonomy as adequate moral compasses either. They might help us from getting harmed, but they don’t build intimacy, engender love, or deepen us. They are limited (but not valueless, mind you).

The inadequacy of our moral vocabulary

I noted this recently when my friends were talking about a photoshoot that went viral. It was apparently based on the Handmaid’s Tale. The Internet works in funny ways. I am amazed that posts like this can travel to the other side of the world, but I’m not surprised. Even in this very post, you see the breakdown or incompleteness of the American virtues I’ve been talking about. It is perfectly within the rights of these individuals to post what they want online and to take whatever photos they want. It’s obviously within the rights of the people responding to express their opinion, or disdain as it were, at what they think of the couple’s poor taste. But you see? “Rights,” “freedom,” “consent,” aren’t adequate to sort through this issue. They might be necessary, but they don’t complete the story.

My response was fairly simple:

“There’s something to be said about how a couple privately expresses their romance and sexuality. I’m not of the opinion that ‘anything consensual’ is fair game, though. I believe couples should interrogate what they are into and wonder about why and talk openly and honestly about that.

With that said, I think there is a measure of responsibility people should take with the art they make, as well. Because decontextualized it can be damaging and we should be careful about that. We need to not only explain our context but place it into context. I think that involves care and sensitivity.

So, philosophically, I do not think consent, on its own, is adequate for discerning sexual ethics and morality. Furthermore, I don’t think any expression of art is ethical; freedom alone, once again, isn’t a good tool for discerning artistic ethics and morality.

But I do think consent and freedom are what the cultural ethos offers us. I don’t think they are good enough.”

If you try to sort through the above conflict (you can see the original poster’s defensiveness in her edited status update) using the American virtues, you won’t get anywhere. You will just end up leaving everyone alone, letting everyone be, laissez-faire economics, if you will, applied to personal relationships.

We need to bear each other’s burdens; we need to love one another.

The issue I have is that these virtues don’t allow us to bear one another’s burdens very well. They don’t allow us to be responsible for one another. They don’t create an interdependent community. What does? The Apostle Paul says it simple: love.

In his famous passage to the Corinthians (this is N.T. Wright’s version), he tells love is the greatest virtue of all.

If I speak in human languages, or even
in those of angels, but do not have love,
then I’ve become a clanging gong or else
a clashing cymbal. And if I should have
prophetic gifts, and know all mysteries,
all knowledge, too; have faith, to move the mountains,
but have no love – I’m nothing. If I give
all my possessions to the poor, and, for pride’s sake,
my very body, but do not have love,
it’s useless to me.
Love’s great-hearted; love is kind,
knows no jealousy, makes no fuss,
is not puffed up, no shameless ways,
doesn’t force its rightful claim,
doesn’t rage or bear a grudge,
doesn’t cheer at others’ harm,
rejoices, rather, in the truth.
Love bears all things, believes all things,
love hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never fails.

So, now,
faith, hope, and love remain, these three; and, of them,
love is the greatest.

Paul is countering some of the philosophy that basically started Western ethics in this very passage. He says if we don’t love one another all of our other virtues are useless and pointless. Liberty, autonomy, and consent are loveless virtues. We need to add love and allow its primacy to govern our love.

I think this passage is so overdone (and for some reason recited at weddings, even though it is not about marriage) that it’s hard to see its wisdom. This passage actually describes a revolution of morals. And if applied, would result in a revolution in the United States. If we were “great-hearted,” “kind,” without jealousy, fuss, “not puffed up,” didn’t force ourselves or our rightful claims (there’s liberty and autonomy again), didn’t hold a grudge or expect rageful vengeance, didn’t celebrate when our enemies were defeated—but rather rejoiced in truth, I think the entire American fabric would be torn, if not altered.

I’m afraid that being influenced through osmosis actually waters down the above passage. Brining a turkey for it to retain moisture is a good thing. Brining your faith may not be. This is why I’m committed to a radical alternative to the world. We’re swimming against a current and we’re trying to find our safety. We’re grabbing who we can to take along for the journey. We don’t want to get swept up in the tide; and don’t have the audacity to think we are above the tide or can actually alter its direction.

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