The Spirit of Liberty

By Bishop Brian Maas

While few now know his name, Learned Hand was one of the most distinguished jurists of the 20th century, a judge who was widely known in his time and who has been frequently quoted in legal cases since. He was scrupulously neutral in approaching cases and sought to issue opinions that were fair, if not always popular.

In this month of celebrating the birth of American liberty, Hand is worth noting and quoting by people of faith for this excerpt from a speech he made in New York in 1944, a speech in which he articulates both the aspirations and the limits of liberty and does so in the context of the Kingdom of God:

What then is the spirit of liberty? I cannot define it; I can only tell you my own faith. The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias; the spirit of liberty remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded; the spirit of liberty is the spirit of Him who, near two thousand years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never learned, but has never quite forgotten; that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest.

Lutheran Christians speak their faith in the dialect of grace, the understanding that all we have and all we are, including our salvation, is the result of the free gift of God. We strive to live into the grace we have received by practicing grace ourselves. Grace is that gift that lets us live the spirit of liberty as Hand describes it: “the spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.” Grace always makes room for the possibility that there’s another point of view.

Ours is a nation experiencing great turmoil for a host of reasons. That turmoil is exacerbated by those who are rigid in their conviction that they are right, and that there can be no consideration of another point of view. There is little of the humility that acknowledges that God alone is right and God alone can be certain.

Now as much as at any time in recent history, it is our call as people of faith to exercise the humility and the grace to live the true spirit of liberty; to show that we can hold strong opinions, and hold them with confidence, without negating the perspective of others. Yes, there are things that are right and things that are wrong, but even as we respond to those judgments, we do so recognizing that those we oppose are nonetheless also the children of God. To fail to do so is to lose the spirit of liberty and fall into a slavery to unquestioning certainty; a slavery from which Christ died to free us.

As a people blessed to live in a land in which we enjoy immense liberties, let us be witnesses to our faith, a faith that calls us to true liberty, and in its rootedness in grace and humility grants us true freedom.