Wednesday is US Independence Day, celebrated with barbecues, (cold) beer, fireworks and Thomas Jefferson’s stirring words about ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ It’s one of my favourites, but in the modern retelling, it often becomes about personal independence, the right of any person to do what they want unhindered and unimpeded by government or their neighbours. It is a celebration for an individualistic age – my life, my pursuit of happiness, my liberty.
But the irony of this is that independence was only possible because of interdependence. Between the colonies as they became states; between the individual citizens of those states (with the terrible exception of the enslaved population). This is not the story of people seeking to be individually free. It is the story of people seeking to be collectively free.
As Christians we understand this paradox. We can do nothing on our own. Without God’s grace, and our service to him, we can never be free. We will always be trapped by a past that holds us down and holds us back. Equally, we can never be free if we do not realise the importance of our relationships with other humans, and the freedom that comes from being mutually reliant on others. It is in communities such as the church that mutually enrichening reliance releases us from fear and loneliness, and allows us to be our fullest, freest selves.
There’s an old Chinese parable about heaven and hell being exactly the same: big tables with bowls of food but chopsticks too long for an individual to use. In hell, people struggle and fail to feed themselves with these chopsticks; in heaven, they use the chopsticks to feed each other. There can be no independence without interdependence.
Revd William Morris