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Freedom, Fraternity, and Friends (abridged)

Hubert Morel-Seytoux
On Freedom (January 2022)
Healing the World

[The following text was excerpted from: https://westernfriend.org/media/freedom-fraternity-friends.]

There has always been the problem of where individual freedom starts and where it stops. Clearly, one must define what freedom is, and whether and how limits need to be placed on it. For Quakers, “fraternity” is the criterion for placing such limits, a criterion that is definitely a Quaker value, as we are the Religious Society of Friends.

Besides considering freedom in terms of the contact line between individual and society, we can also consider freedom’s contact line between the individual and the cosmos. Here, we are exploring “metaphysical freedom.” Does man really have any freedom at all?

Some interpret the interaction between man and the cosmos as the interaction between man and God. Others, who part from belief in the existence of God, fully appreciate the extraordinary responsibility that accompanies freedom.

In either case, we must consider the question: How do I live with freedom in my short life? Quakers have a simple answer. While we do not have a “dogmatic” creed, we follow a “behavioral” creed, the Testimonies. We strive to behave only in ways that are morally justified.

Many religions describe God as omnipotent and omniscient. Nothing happens without his will, and he knows everything, including the future. He is also (usually) supposed to be benevolent.

While attending a meeting in a mosque shortly after the events of 9/11, some questions were put to the Imam about those events and the death of some three thousand persons. His answer essentially was, that since Allah willed it, there must have been something good about it. Humans have no right to question Allah; that would show total lack of due respect.

For Christians, the concept of limits to our freedom is not so easily acceptable, and the Church has labored forever at finding a compromise.

For existentialists, to reclaim freedom, you have to deny the existence of God. However, as Camus points out, complete freedom comes with a terrible price: full responsibility. As the existentialists would put it, “No excuse.” You cannot blame God, society, your upbringing, etc. You and only you decided.

After the Fall of Saigon, it was clear that many Vietnamese refugees would arrive in the United States. My wife Chula and I discussed the possibility of sponsoring one of these families. We realized that there would be a lot of red tape and delays; it would entail costs in terms of money and personal comfort; we debated countless reasons why we could not do it. Were these valid reasons? Compared to the predicament of the refuges, our inconvenience would be ridiculously small. The conclusion was indeed: “No Excuse.”

In mid-August 1975, we drove to the Denver airport and picked up Tang and his family. Never in my life have I seen people so dispirited with not a single smile on their faces. They lived in our house for three months before we were able to find some housing for them, jobs, etc. Several years later, again, we had no excuses when we took a young Guatemalan refugee into our home, who ended up living with us for seven years.

Although we do not know whether we have a real freedom or not, in everyday life, we have to make decisions. We have to decide what is right and what is wrong. Quakers are unusual in our belief in continuing revelation. We have no definitive “Scriptures” to decide what is right or wrong.

The motto of the French Revolution is “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” As many philosophers have pointed out, if there are no limits on liberty, there can be no equality; and if there are no limits on equality, there can be no liberty. The reconciliation between the two conflicting objectives of liberty and equality can only come with fraternity. Fraternity would be the guarantee through which limits would be applied or not applied. That the importance of fraternity was fully understood by the earliest Quakers is witnessed in the official name of our religion, Society of Friends.  ~~~

Hubert Morel-Seytoux is especially happy to have met his wife Chula. He is consulting for the California Department of Water Resources, writing a book on hydrologic topics, and is a member of Redwood Forest Friends Meeting in Santa Rosa, CA (PacYM).

Existentialism refugees

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