When asked by friends why he continued on his path of reasoned dissent against Apartheid, which would in 1978 cost him his life, the South African political philosopher Rick Turner remarked that it was about “choosing to be free”. As a student of existentialism and the 1960s New Left, Turner emphasised in his life and teaching that people had to make choices. In this he would have understood clearly Jesus’ question to the cripple at the pool of Bethsaida (John 5:1-16).
The sad truth is that many people do not want to be well. We see this in folks trapped in addictions, bad relationships – or unjust situations. Somewhere, somehow, they believe that the situation cannot be changed. They give up. In the Gospels we occasionally read how the healings or miracles (‘signs’) of Jesus and his disciples fail. And when asked about these failures, Jesus ascribes them to lack of faith.
Freedom is, after all, dangerous. Freedom is about taking a stand, taking responsibility for oneself, one’s life and the world. It is much easier to be a professional victim, a charity case.
I’m afraid I see all too much of this lack of freedom in our current society, marked by people giving up even trying to find work, or turning to self-destructiveness – alcoholism, domestic violence or petty crime against one’s fellow poor.
While it’s undoubtedly true that many people were terribly brutalised by the Apartheid system, at no time in our history did they simply give up. There were always those who chose to struggle for freedom, chose to be free. Even at its lowest ebb, the ANC made noises at least – literally by detonating crackers filled with pamphlets in public places. Tactically useless, they were simply saying “We are still here.” And when one generation of activists were exhausted, jailed or unable to function, others took their place.
Freedom is about taking a stand, an inner disposition, a decision not to give up, that leads to imagining an alternative future. It is about declaring that (a) things can change, and therefore (b) I am going to make things change. With such a decision comes a hope that gets imagination going again.
The rise of new small businesses, young entrepreneurs who try to see in the socio-economic malaise an opportunity, is a sign of hope. New political parties, too, insofar as they challenge the complacency of ideological conformity, are a sign of hope too. So also is the decision of religious communities to once again go forth into the public square.