What’s the point of…freedom?

What’s the point of…freedom?

In August last year, I visited the Tower of London, where scores of volunteers were ‘planting’ the ceramic poppies that formed the World War I commemoration ‘Blood-Swept Lands and Seas of Red‘.

Each poppy represented one British military casualty during the First World War. It was an incredibly moving sight, and even more so when I learned that despite the fact that the former moat already appeared well covered, the organisers were concerned that they might not get finished in time for the November commemorations. There was still more than two months’ worth of work to be done?

I returned in late October, when almost all of the 888,246 poppies had been planted – by now completely encircling the Tower.


The atmosphere among the crowds, on both occasions, was of sobered awe. So many lives lost. So many young men killed for…for what?

They died for our freedom. And the thought that hasn’t been far from my mind since my first visit was ‘What have we done with that freedom? What have we used it for?’

It seems to me that we know what we’ve been freed from – tyranny, oppression, foreign invaders – but we’ve neglected to consider what we have been freed for.

The couple of decades between the two World Wars were, in the UK at least, a period of throwing off restraints. Though some of the trend had begun in the earlier years of the century – notably with the Suffragettes seeking to (in the words of a Mary Poppins song), ‘Cast off the shackles of yesterday’ – it accelerated after the War, with the ‘roaring’ Twenties coming to be known as a decade of decadence, partying and throwing off the moral and social restraints of the Victorian era.

A social upheaval had begun, and although the partying and financial extravagance would be curtailed by World War II, the transformation of British life was even more marked:

– Many who had been in service for generations and maybe never left their own towns had now travelled the world, learned new skills and broadened their horizons – they were no longer willing to return to the closeted world they had left;

– Women, who had been needed to fill the roles left empty by the men, or who had been recruited into the military or had volunteered as nurses to ‘do their bit’, were no longer willing to return to lives in which they were expected to be nothing more than homemakers or, in the case of the upper classes, nothing more than decorative additions to their husbands’ households;

– Advances in technology, made both necessary and possible by the war effort, meant that communications, travel and more were vastly improved and would only develop over the coming decades.

The world had changed. We had been given – had been bought, at the cost of so many lives – freedom, in innumerable areas. It took a while for our economy to recover, and for the national exhaustion to wear off, but by the ‘swinging’ Sixties the extravagance and lack of restraint was well and truly back, and this time was experienced by the lower classes at least as much as by the rich.

What did we use that freedom for? Consumerism and self-expression.

Charlie Hebdo

Fast forward to 2015, and the prompt that finally gave me a focus for this article: on 7 January 2015, twelve people were shot dead in the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The killers were Islamists who were retaliating for a series of cartoons which had been offensive to Muslims.

Both the media and the social networks were flooded with news reports, with messages of sympathy and solidarity, and with condemnation for this ‘attack on freedom of speech’.

Several publications, I understand, republished the cartoons in question as a gesture of defiance. Many more refused to do so, and were vilified in some quarters for their cowardice, their giving-in to the terrorists (the critics somehow missing the irony of the fact that they in turn were trying to limit someone’s freedom of speech, forcing them to ‘say’ the same as Charlie Hebdo).

I haven’t seen the cartoons. I’ve read descriptions, and it sounds as though they would offend me, let alone Muslims.

Freedom of Speech is a tricky topic. I don’t know how to think about it. I don’t think there is a Human Right to be offensive, but nor do I think there is a Right to be protected from offense. Satire has long been a powerful and effective tool for pointing up hypocrisy in and failings of those in authority – and for enabling us to see our own faults and weaknesses in a new, sobering light. At its best it makes us laugh, then makes us change our ways. At its worst it is an ugly, snide, hurtful instrument of hatred, which wounds and divides without bringing about any change of heart.

Yes, we have the freedom to act and speak like that, but is that what freedom is for?

The only limit our society seems to place on our freedom is that it must not harm others, but ‘causing offense’ is causing harm. To offend is to hurt, to wound, to cut down; just because the wounds are emotional rather than physical, that doesn’t make them any less real.

Yet how do you define freedom of speech – or any of the other freedoms we hold so dear, and for which those thousands of men, women and children died – without restricting them to the point that we no longer feel free?

A friend of mine put it well on his Facebook timeline:

…freedom isn’t an excuse for unnecessary abuse and mockery, not an entitlement to deeply offend with impunity. We as a society must resist this in the name of freedom of expression and speech. Let us use our freedom to encourage, restore, heal and grow people. Let us love our neighbours and pray for our enemies. This is mankind at its best.

What is freedom for? It is to build up, not to destroy; to love, not to hate; to help, not to harm.

If freedom means freedom from all restraint, we will never be free from this kind of hateful speech/’art’ or this kind of violent retribution. We will never be free of lies, slander, cheating, extortion, or excess. We will never be free from oppression, injustice or inequality. Unrestrained freedom leads inevitably to moral decay – as the briefest glance at Western society will tell you. Yes, there is terrible oppression elsewhere in the world, and on the whole our lives are better – safer – than theirs, but would we really describe the West as ‘mankind at its best’?

We are free, and as I gazed on those poppies, then went to church that afternoon, I thanked God for that freedom and for the sacrifices made by so many to give me the life I now live. I thanked God for our safety and security, and I asked his forgiveness for the way we have used it – to indulge ourselves instead of to build a better world.

I mourn for the families and friends of those killed in the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and for all those so filled with hatred and fear that they will retaliate in thoughts, words or deeds against one side or the other in the coming weeks and months. I mourn for a society that takes its hard-won freedom and uses it to hurt, offend and shame, to satisfy itself rather than to nurture others.

I pray that Christians will begin to demonstrate what it means to be free – free from hatred, anger, self-seeking and vice, free to love our neighbours as ourselves. I pray that God will help me to live this out more and more day by day.

Let us use our freedom to encourage, restore, heal and grow people. Let us love our neighbours and pray for our enemies.


17 Comments On This Topic
  1. Ann
    on Jan 12th at 1:15 pm

    Mmm, excellent, Jen. Our governments view of freedom is leading us down a very slippery slope as they are afraid to say ‘no’ to anything and have any moral stand for fear of offending anyone. On a slightly different note, I have just read Interserve’s magazine (and their missionaries all serve in Islamic societies) the main article was saying that the present Isis and other groups are actually just groups of Islamic thugs much like Hitler. And this is heralding the end of Islam. a VERY long drawn out end, but they are seeing conversions of muslims like never before and seeing how these groups are turning ordinary musilms away with business men actually changing their ID to Christian to make their life easier. so God has a plan in all these things however dreadful.

    • Jennie Pollock
      on Jan 12th at 1:33 pm

      Thanks Mum.
      Ooh, that is interesting, and very good news!

  2. Sheila
    on Jan 12th at 3:46 pm

    Well put, Jennie. Freedom is a hard line to follow. I’ve been reminded of a line in one of Kris Kristofferson’s songs: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Trying to find something positive after the last few days, perhaps it is good that society is beginning to question what freedom is and what we definitely do not want it to be. Freedom, just like truth, can be twisted into shapes that we do not recognise.


    • Jennie Pollock
      on Jan 12th at 4:33 pm

      Thanks Sheila. Yes, that’s a great positive to take away.

  3. Jim
    on Jan 12th at 7:56 pm

    I have struggled a bit as a Christian to know how exactly to react to these cartoons. To me it’s clear that they are morally wrong (though it’s a struggle in some ways to argue even that when trying to convince people who don’t share a Christian worldview). But I don’t think many Christians would think that everything that’s morally wrong should be illegal – we wouldn’t want to criminalise a child for lying, for instance. But other moral wrongs should definitely be illegal, e.g. murder. It’s difficult to know where to draw the line.

    • Jennie Pollock
      on Jan 12th at 8:00 pm

      Yes, I think you’re right. That’s one of the areas where we walk a difficult line, isn’t it? The values we want our society to live by aren’t necessarily things we can legislate for. We need to oppose immoral legislation, but also find some other ways of promoting moral standards for people to adopt by choice.
      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  4. Jeffrey Pollock
    on Jan 12th at 8:08 pm

    Love this perspective: All truth, no mush. Thank you Jennie Pollock for sharing your thoughts!

  5. Terry
    on Jan 13th at 1:41 am

    Thank you, Jennie.
    There is a nursery rhyme aphorism: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me.” Not really true, is it? Although not directly responsible for last week’s massacre in Paris, the magazine’s words and pictures lit the fuse, and acted as a magnet. They deliberately churn out their garbage, knowing that it will have an irritating affect on a few radicalised young impressionable minds. Add to that, that they are the children or grandchildren of the generation when Algeria was brutalised by France in the 50’s and 60’s, and you have a lethal cocktail. “Sow to the wind, and you will reap a whirlwind.”
    Looking through some of the images of the magazine, I find that the puerile filth ( I won’t call it satire ) directed towards what we as Christians honour as sacred, objectionable. But more than that, I pity those who can’t find something better to do with their lives.
    We cherish freedom of speech, but not to misuse it to irritate and verbally/pictorially abuse others. If there is a moral in this for anyone, including me: DON’T AGGRAVATE PEOPLE – they don’t like it!

    • Jennie Pollock
      on Jan 13th at 10:31 am

      Thanks Terry – good rule of thumb!

  6. thetruthisstrangerthanfiction
    on Jan 14th at 6:36 pm

    Are we really as “free” as we might think, here in the West, if by enlarge we are being constantly fed a narrative which is quite set apart from the true underlying reality..?

    I very much agree with your points about freedom not being a license to say anything and everything our petulant minds might conceive, and that as Christians we are called to be free from all such attitudes and entitlements as we used to have in our former selves, but at the same time, I have experienced a great deal of forced re-examination over the past few years, particularly in terms of how I view the historical/political/spiritual context of the world in which we all find ourselves living in. I no longer view any war, anywhere, as having bestowed “freedom” upon anyone, but instead as the regrettable architectures of wealthy, deceptive people with dark globalist aims. A few years ago, I would not have known what the term “false flag” even was supposed to mean, and yet now, when I turn on the “telly” it’s practically ALL I see, whether it’s Charlie Hebdo, or North Korea supposedly “hacking” Sony, or beheadings on youtube, etc. These things are all theater, carefully crafted to steer us towards a very specific end….

    (p.s., how the heck did you manage to hardly look any older than you did on Logos II? Fancy a game of scrabble sometime…?) 😉

    • Jennie Pollock
      on Jan 14th at 8:12 pm

      Wait…is this Dan? Where did you appear from?! (And if it’s not Dan, who is it?)

      I think you’re right about wars never actually bestowing freedom, but only because only God can give real freedom. We might be free of Nazi rule, but we’re not free from the rule of sin. Every solution anyone finds will be a false hope – but everyone is searching for the answer.

      • thetruthisstrangerthanfiction
        on Jan 14th at 8:15 pm

        (I never did apologize for spilling soda on your travel scrabble board, did I…..)

        What time is it there, anyhow? (wait, are you even in England? Thought I saw a pic of you with the London Eye behind you…)

        • Jennie Pollock
          on Jan 14th at 8:19 pm

          I’m sure you did apologise – I never found the tiles we lost in the sand, though! Fun memories. 🙂
          Yes, I’m in England – I live in central London, and it’s about 8pm here. Where are you these days?

          • thetruthisstrangerthanfiction
            on Jan 14th at 8:31 pm

            I’m quite sure I never “apologICED”… 😉

            I live in the SW U.S. now. In the desert. (I look out my rear kitchen window and see a huge beam of light shooting into the sky from a glass pyramid…)

            So hey… I’m curious. Do most people in England believe that Charlie Hebdo, 9/11 and the “7/7” bombings are all pretty much as the mass media claims? (just like most people in America still believe…) or do you know of any people in your circles who are starting to think there is something more to all these events…?

          • Jennie Pollock
            on Jan 14th at 9:07 pm

            Ah, there are always theories and counter-theories, I don’t pay much attention, because I don’t think we’ll ever know the truth.
            Great to hear from you – stay in touch!

          • thetruthisstrangerthanfiction
            on Jan 14th at 9:23 pm

            (and perhaps the Truth, in it’s entirety, is a bit more than we’d care to accept, so we’d almost prefer to never be able to know…..) I will stay in touch. Thanks for responding.

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