Belts

President Obama opined that “the world has lost one of the great champions of freedom and liberty, and America has lost a true friend.”

He was referring to the death of the Iron Lady, the former British Prime Minister, Baroness Margaret Thatcher, on April 8.

Maybe he should have said that our nation lost a “true half-friend” with her passing.

It’s revealing, isn’t it, that the President used two words that mean, essentially, the same thing to describe her championship?

“Freedom” and “Liberty,” that is.

Mr. Obama couldn’t truthfully say that she championed the other half of what we normally attribute to the defining characteristics of democracy.

“Equality,” that is.

Dame Thatcher, by common agreement, achieved greatness by loosening, if not removing, the belt of economic and social restraint in Great Britain during her reign (May 1979 to November 1990).

She had a partner in that belt-loosening/removing enterprise across the Atlantic in President Ronald Reagan.

For both Thatcher and Reagan, freedom and liberty were achieved by attacking and weakening the major institutions that protected the economic and political underclasses while leaving the upper classes untouched and stronger: the institutions of labor unions and regulated economies.

In both cases it was belt-loosening and belt-removing that, to be sure, freed up social and economic systems that had become hardened, stiff, and even petrified, replacing them with a so-called “meritocracy.”

But the consequence was also unparalleled inequality in both countries – a tragic legacy that continues in both nations.

Loosening and removing the economic belt has made a few very corpulent but most everyone else very gaunt.

Economic disparity is portrayed in the last appearance of Jesus to seven of his disciples in the Gospel of John.

(According to this Gospel, Jesus had earlier appeared to the disciples – minus Thomas – in a locked room during the evening hours of Easter Sunday, and then again – with Thomas present – a week later. This Gospel also reports that Jesus was present to the disciples many other times prior to his final appearance at the Sea of Tiberias.)

The context is the seven disciples following Peter’s determination to go fishing, but spending the night on the boat without any catch. At daybreak Jesus appears, unrecognized, on the beach and shouts to those in the boat that they ought to cast their net on the other side. The disciples follow that advice and, lo and behold, they catch so many fish in the net that they aren’t able to haul them all in. Finally, one of the disciples (the beloved, presumed to be John) recognizes Jesus, which provokes a naked Peter to put on his clothes and jump in the water and make his way to shore to meet Jesus. The less impetuous disciples come to shore in the boat with their net still full of fish.

The narrative continues with Jesus fixing the seven disciples breakfast, sharing the bread and fish he had brought with him, along with some of the fish the disciples had caught. So not only the catch was abundant, but also the breakfast itself.

Next Jesus asks Peter if he (Peter) loves him (Jesus), not once but three times. In each case Peter answers affirmatively, although growing a little more aggravated as the same question is repeated by Jesus. In response to this same question, Jesus tells Peter, first, to “Feed my lambs,” then to “Tend my sheep,” and finally to “Feed my sheep.”

It is only then – after Peter has confirmed his love of Jesus three times and after Jesus has insisted three times that this love will be demonstrated by Peter feeding and tending the lambs and sheep of Jesus – that Jesus tells Peter about his (Peter’s) belt.

Jesus tells Peter that when he (Peter) was young he fastened his own belt and was at liberty to go wherever he wished – free to do as he pleased.

But, Jesus continues, when Peter grows old, he (Peter) will have to stretch out his hands and have someone else fasten the belt. Not only that, when Peter is old someone else will take him (Peter) “where he does not wish to go.”

As can be imagined, the meaning of these words of Jesus about the belt has been the subject of dispute and multi-interpretations (for example, the significance of the dichotomies: young-old, self-fastening-other fastening, going freely-being taken, where you wish to go-going where you do not want to go). Complicating the matter is the inclusion of what appears to be a parenthetical phrase in the text, that these words refer to the manner of Peter’s eventual death.

But what is not in dispute is the instruction Jesus directed to Peter following the comment about Peter’s belt.

Jesus tells Peter: “Follow me.”

Since that directive couldn’t be clearer, however the other disputes are resolved, I believe we have to contend with the truth that Christian discipleship is not only about freedom and liberty.

Yes, human beings have the freedom and liberty to dine or not dine with Jesus. Human beings have the freedom and liberty to love or not love Jesus. Human beings have the freedom and liberty to follow or not follow Jesus.

The belt on these matters is self-fastened.

But once that freedom and liberty have been exercised without restraint, then the belt is fastened by someone else and the destination is prescribed.

For the disciple – the follower – of Jesus, there is no longer the freedom to feed and to tend to only one’s self, without a belt of restraint.

Discipleship – loving and following Jesus – demands that the lambs and the sheep – all of them – be fed and tended to.

In the Christian life and community, then, freedom/liberty always have their counterpart in equality.

And the truth is that freedom/liberty and equality are also the essential and inseparable components in democratic life and community.

That’s a truth we need to learn again today, in the post-Thatcher/post-Reagan era.

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