President Barack 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.
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 from 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 freed up socioeconomic 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 have 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.
The context is these 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 urges those in the boat to cast their net on the other side. The disciples follow that advice, and they catch so many fish that they aren’t able to haul them all in.
Finally, the “beloved disciple” (presumed to be John) recognizes Jesus, which provokes a naked Peter to put on his clothes, jump in the water and swim 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 breakfast for these disciples – sharing the bread and fish he had brought with him, along with some of the fish the disciples had caught. 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 with each query.
In response, 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 Jesus’ words about the belt has been the subject of dispute and various interpretations.
Complicating the matter is the inclusion of what appears to be a parenthetical phrase in the text, noting that these words refer to the manner of Peter’s eventual death.
What is not in dispute is the instruction Jesus directed to Peter following the comment about Peter’s belt – “Follow me.”
Since that directive couldn’t be clearer, I believe we have to contend with the truth that Christian discipleship is about more than freedom and liberty.
Yes, human beings have the freedom and liberty to dine or not dine with Jesus, to love or not love Jesus, 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 someone else fastens the belt 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 and liberty always have their counterpart in equality.
And the truth is 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.
Larry Greenfield is executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago. He also serves as editor and theologian-in-residence for The Common Good Network.