Sunday, March 10, 2024

Escape from Freedom

While a freshman in college, I read Erich Fromm’s famous 1941 book Escape from Freedom. Fromm was a German Jew who fled Nazi Germany. He explored the reasons why people would willingly submit to authoritarian rule. He theorized that humans either embrace freedom or seek to escape from it. 

Embracing freedom is healthy and courageous. Yet many people seek to escape from freedom by means of psychological escape mechanisms. Fromm identified three main mechanisms: automaton conformity, authoritarianism and destructiveness.  

Automaton conformity is conforming to a group’s preferred type of personality, losing one's self in the process. It transfers the burden of choice from self to society. 

Authoritarianism is giving control of oneself to a political movement or leader. By surrendering one's freedom to someone else, the freedom of choice is almost entirely removed.   

Destructiveness is the attempt to eliminate others in order to escape freedom. If that means genocide, overthrowing a government, overturning an election or burning down the country, so be it. Fromm said that "the destruction of the world is the last, almost desperate attempt to save myself from being crushed by it." 

Later in college I read Sinclair Lewis’ 1936 novel It Can’t Happen Here. It describes how a Hitleresque politician rose to power in the United States to become the first American dictator. These days I find myself recalling the insights I received from reading these two books. Now it seems like it could happen here after all. 

I watch American politics today, and I see life imitating art. History is repeating itself, or at least it is echoing. As Mark Twain is anecdotally reported to have said, “History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.”  If that is true, then the 2020’s are rhyming with the 1930’s.  

On February 20, 1939, a Nazi rally took place at Madison Square Garden, attended by more than 20,000 patriotic Americans. It took place two days before George Washington's birthday and was promoted as a “Pro-American rally.” A huge portrait of Washington hung behind the dais with equally large American flags draped on either side.  

The National Anthem was sung. The American flag was saluted with the Nazi salute. The rally was opened by James Wheeler-Hill, national secretary of the German American Bund, with the words: "If George Washington were alive today, he would be friends with Adolf Hitler." Fritz Julius Kuhn, a German Nazi activist, who served as the elected leader of the Bund, was the keynote speaker.   

After the rally the Bund came under investigation, and its financial records were seized. It was discovered that $14,000 (about $273,000 in today’s currency) from the contributions raised during the rally was spent by Kuhn on his mistress and various personal expenses. Kuhn was convicted of embezzlement and sent to prison in December 1939. 

Does any of this sound familiar? It does not take an historian to see parallels to today. I hear echoes of fascism every day in election year rhetoric. I hear rhymes of the 1930’s in the news every morning. Why is this happening? Fromm understood. People are seeking to escape freedom.  

American society is changing rapidly, and that is threatening to people. Change threatens traditional religion, the traditional family, and traditional values. So people take refuge in an imagined, unchanging, and idealistic past, seeking to bring back “the way things used to be.” People see this goal as an exercise of their freedom, but it is actually escape from freedom.  

True freedom is freedom for all. Not just for me and people like me, but for those who are very different from me. Religious freedom is not just for my religion but all religions. Not just for those of my sexual orientation, but all orientations.

It means allowing others to express themselves morally in ways that do not conform to my moral values. It is to refuse to use government power to control others’ behavior, as long as it does not impinge on others’ freedom. True freedom is freedom for all or it is not freedom at all.  

The same is true for spiritual freedom. It is tempting to surrender our freedom to religious authority. To believe only what our religious tradition tells us is safe to believe. To not color outside the lines. To consider our scriptures, our creeds, our leaders, our founders, our church, and our understanding of God to be infallible. There is security in believing we have the one true religion. But there is no freedom in such faith. It is only the illusion of freedom. 

Freedom is a paradox. We love it, and we hate it. We imagine ourselves to be free when we are not. The more we examine our choices, the more we see how limited our freedom really is. Our thoughts, opinions and actions are largely (if not completely) determined by unconscious forces beyond our control. When we realize how unfree we really are, then there is an opportunity to be truly free. 

True freedom requires a spiritual resurrection. We die to self and live to God. We view the world through the eyes of God. We see ourselves as God sees us. We see that only God is truly free, and therefore we are free only in God … or as Christians say, “in Christ.” As Jesus said, “When the Son sets you free, you are free indeed.”  

When we are spiritually free, then political freedom does not scare us, neither our own freedom nor others’ freedom. We can be free and allow others to be free. To be free is to live authentically as one’s True Self, rather than living in bondage to the psychologically and socially conditioned personality that we mistake for our self. Then we can stop this mindless rush toward political Armageddon and take our rightful place as citizens of the Kingdom of God.  


Kathy J said...

Thank you, Marshall. Continue speaking truth.

Rev. Dr. Ernest Boyer said...

Right on target, as always. How we need to hear these words today! Thank you. To be free is to be free in God. Yes! -- Rev. Dr. Ernest Boyer, Mountain View, CA

dkf said...

Very well said Marshall. The parallels between today and the 1930’s that you point out are striking. In trying to understand the dynamics in which we currently find ourselves, I’ve found the work of Ken Wilber and Steve McIntosh valuable. Wilber’s Integral Theory of evolution and McIntosh’s Developmental Politics ( largely built on Integral Theory) view the current dysfunction of the United States as the inevitable clash of 3 competing cultural world views; Traditional, Modern, and post-Modern. Unless the best of these 3 world views are included ( while the worst impulses of these worldviews are rejected) and then transcended into a “higher” more inclusive worldview, we may indeed regress to an earlier less evolved cultural consciousness. Traditional consciousness with its rigid intolerance, prejudice, fundamentalism, and misogyny or worse - an earlier “Warrior” consciousness with its shadow of egocentric ethics, fear, and violence.

Let us pray that we as a nation reach for the higher level of inclusion and Oneness.

Don Frerichs

Kathleen Perry said...

Thank for your work in the world Rev. Davis. As I read this post, I notice the Presence of Peace arise in me. We all need this in the current turbulent times.
Kathleen Perry