LORD ACTON: COMMENTARY ON FREEDOM – 1870

“I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favorable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption, it is the other way against holders of power increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. That is the point at which the negation of Catholicism and the negation of Liberalism meet and keep high festival, and the end learns to justify the means.”

“Before God, there is neither Greek nor Barbarian, neither rich or poor; and the slave is a good as his master, for by birth all men are free; they are citizens of that universal commonwealth which embraces all the world, brethren of one family, and children of God.”

“The Idea that the ends of government justify the means employed, was worked into the system by Machiavelli. He was an acute politician, sincerely anxious the the obstacles to the intelligent government of Italy should be swept away. It appeared to him that the most vexatious obstacle to intellect is conscience, and that the vigorous use of statecraft necessary for the success of difficult schemes would never be made if governments allowed themselves to be hampered by the precepts of the copy-book.

“His audacious doctrine was avowed in the succeeding age, by men whose personal character otherwise stood high. They saw that in critical times good men have seldom strength for their goodness, and yield to those who have grasped the meaning of the maxim that you cannot make an omelette if you are afraid to break the eggs. They saw that public morality differs from private, because no government can turn the other cheek, or can admit that mercy is better than justice. And they could not define the difference, or draw the limits of exception; or tell what other standard for a nation’s acts there is the judgment which heaven pronounces in this world by success.”

“The way was paved for absolute monarchy to triumph over the spirit and institutions of a better age, not by isolated acts of wickedness, but by a studied philosophy of crime, and so thorough a perversion of the moral sense that the like of it had not been since the Stoics reformed the morality of paganism. The clergy who had in so many ways served the cause of freedom during the prolonged strife against feudalism and slavery, were associated now with the interest of royalty.”

“THE MOST CERTAIN TEST BY WHICH WE JUDGE WHETHER A COUNTRY IS REALLY FREE IS THE AMOUNT OF SECURITY ENJOYED BY MINORITIES. LIBERTY, BY THIS DEFINITION, IS THE ESSENTIAL CONDITION AND GUARDIAN OR RELIGION.”

“THE DANGER IS NOT THAT A PARTICULAR CLASS IS UNFIT TO GOVERN. EVERY CLASS IS UNFIT TO GOVERN. THE LAW OF LIBERTY TENDS TO ABOLISH THE REIGN OF RACE OVER RACE, OF FAITH OVER FAITH, OF CLASS OVER CLASS.”

I often wonder about our national myth of freedom for all people. The national myth proclaims freedom for all – even while we have accepted slavery, genocide, racial segregation, restricted housing and educational benefits to segments of our society. When I read the Gospel, I hear the story of a teacher proclaiming universal love; healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and taking care of one another, recognizing that we are all part of the Cosmos coming alive. It seems so often that we like to exclude others rather than include them – they are different – they don’t share our same heritage; therefore, exclude them. We are often more about creating divisions than bringing life.

Today, we accept a political system where money is power and power rules. Politicians spend most of their time raising money and so often becoming beholden to those who have acquired the most money. Follow the money and you will for the most part find the origin and the goal of government decisions. Our congress cannot spend time in debate and deliberation due to their need to feather their own nest and raise the necessary dollars that enables them to run for office. They choose slavery to those plantation owners as much as the plantation owners are slaves to acquiring more and more; they never have enough. We live in an oligarchy where the few are served by the many and there is no freedom – freedom becomes a myth, an illusion. Greed becomes the religion and allows for poverty, war, violence, ignorance to become the norm. We create heroes of our military who become the pawns of those in power. They are sent to impose the will of those in power on others – and if a few die along the way – that is necessary. We parade a few out at athletic competitions for applause and then forget them and their physical and emotional needs – they become throw- aways. And Women and children become throw-aways – there for the pleasure of those in positions of power. Sex becomes a weapon, a show of force and domination, with no real empathy. The Gospel states that the “love of money is the root of all evil.” It is the god that we so often worship and do anything to acquire and keep it, while using it as a tool or a weapon without regard to others. Slavery so often is hidden – and the one addicted to power is so often the slave.

We live in a world torn by a need to acquire power and at the same time to serve the common good. We are called to wash the feet of one another – to become servant and to confront power – to be a sign of contradiction. This call is found throughout the Scriptures and throughout various religions throughout history. Lord Acton, among so many in our world, challenged the role of power. Jesus said to love one another and to walk with one another – that we are all part of the same creation that is ongoing; we are children of the one God – that breathes on our world and brings life to the universe. We are called to become responsible for ourselves and for our world – we are called to become co-creators of life reaching out.

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