Today is Labour Day, the last gasp of summer, and parents all over North America are finalizing back-to-school details while their kids pack their brand new backpacks, test out their pencil crayons, and pose in front of their mirrors modelling their new clothes.
This morning before the heat of the day set in, I went on a walk around the neighbourhood. I pondered the origins of Labour Day, the fight for worker’s rights that continues in many parts of the world, and the general concept of freedom.
We live in a culture that places a lot of value on individual rights. The right to work safely, the right to associate with whom we wish, the right to express ourselves, the right to vote, the right to move freely, the right to a fair trial, the right to education, the right to religious assembly, etc. For those of us that have grown up in environments where these rights are generally upheld, we tend to take them for granted until something happens and we feel our rights have been violated.
I’m extremely grateful to live in a country where my freedom is respected, and after living and travelling in countries where many people – especially the poor – lack basic human rights, I appreciate mine all the more. But there’s also something troubling about freedom, something that may appear benign due to its subtlety but which can result in widespread destruction:
Unfettered freedom, when coupled with our human tendency to be selfish, leads us to use liberty for our own purposes, undermining the freedom of others.
Our freedom to buy cheap clothes undermines the freedom of sweatshop workers to earn a living wage.
Our freedom to pollute undermines the freedom of all of us to breathe clean air.
Our freedom to purchase sex undermines the freedom of vulnerable people to be free from exploitation.
Our freedom to buy new cell phones and electronics undermines the freedom of Congolese children who are forced to mine coltan.
This is why we need laws. Laws, when designed well and implemented effectively, rein in our selfish tendencies and protect our communities. As Martin Luther King Jr. quoted:
“It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that’s pretty important.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr. knew from personal experience that giving people freedom without boundaries would ultimately result in violent abuse. Freedom, when blended with power, often ends up being lorded over those with less power. We simply need to take one look at free trade agreements and the international corporate system to see how freedom is wielded as a weapon by the rich, crushing many under its wheels.
The beauty is that in our everyday lives, we can choose to see our freedom as a gift and responsibility. This means we can give it away and share it generously for the sake of others. This is something that happens on a heart level, something that can not be legislated.
It takes places within churches, families, friendships, marriages, communities, and partnerships. It takes the form of hospitality, generosity, and simplicity, and requires selflessness, sacrifice, and compassion.
Here are some ideas:
- Use your freedom of time to volunteer for an organization in your community this fall
- Use your freedom of movement to travel abroad to learn about the real life challenges of people in the developing world
- Use your freedom of free speech to tell stories that matter
- Use your freedom of receiving payment for your labour to donate generously to a cause you care about
- Use your freedom of owning a home to practice hospitality
- Use your freedom of citizenship to sponsor a refugee
Today, let’s celebrate our freedom by refusing to hoard our power, but to elevate the value of our fellow brothers and sisters whose rights are being trampled.