The Unfinished Work of Freedom
BY Jim Cosgrove
August 09-15, 1998 Issue | Posted 8/9/98 at 1:00 PM
The tragic killing of two Capitol Hill police officers is an occasion for reflection. Their willingness to lay down their lives to protect the process of freedom represents the best of humanity.
The response of the American people revealed something far greater. It revealed a deep longing for heroes. A few years back, the refrain to a popular song proclaimed, “We don't need another hero.” The refrain was wrong. Still reeling from the aftershocks precipitated by the loss of our national moral compass we are crying out for true heroes to lead us out of the morass. Judge Robert Bork wrote a book entitled Slouching Toward Gomorrah. I suggest that we've been living in the “Gomorrah” of our own moral relativism, and most of us know that it's time to get out.
These two police officers were faithful to their wives and their children, patriotic, and hard-working. They demonstrated a commitment to higher principles. That was most perfectly proven by the shedding of their blood.
“A man can have no greater love,” says the Bible, “than to lay down his life for his friends.” These men were made from the same stuff this great nation was founded upon.
As their bodies lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda, the whole nation paused from its self-induced stupor and cried. The tears we shed were for these men and their families, but I suggest that they were also the tears of mourning for our lost goodness. These were truly good men. The kind of men we want our leaders to be.
The attributes demonstrated by Officers Chestnut and Gibson still provide the path to a future of freedom. Though these two men were of different races and religious traditions their blood was red. It was shed to preserve the common ideal of freedom. Their differences reflected the authentic diversity from which is woven this marvelous quilt called America. They held in common the deep core values that characterize the American civilization. Values like a devotion to protecting innocent human life, a love for the family, a respect for good government, and a commitment to authentic freedom.
Some 135 years ago, another great American hero, Abraham Lincoln, dedicated a resting-place for men who gave their lives to a higher cause. At Gettysburg he spoke to a nation reeling from national crisis and longing for stability and sanity. He told our forfathers that the blood shed for freedom must always prompt a response in those left behind.
“It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work,” Lincoln proclaimed, “that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom.”
We who mourn the loss of these two heroes must resolve that their lives not be sacrificed in vain. They died protecting visitors, public officials, and staff — but they gave their lives to protect much more: the “unfinished work” of freedom. The rest of the world is only now awakening from the long slumber of enslavement to the ideologies of despair, which gripped the world at the end of this century. They look to us for example. Will we export the best we have to offer or will the unbridled license masquerading as freedom be all we offer?
The families of these slain officers did not know one another prior to this terrible tragedy, yet they joined together in solidarity and grieved for the loss of these good men. Crossing religious and racial lines they came together as Americans and set the example for all of us as we approach a new century. This is the path to peace and the road to national recovery.
For a brief moment the news moved from the salacious details of leadership apparently gone astray to leadership pointing the way to what Lincoln called “our higher angels.” We paused from the shrill rhetoric of those who for too long have attempted to clothe the killing of the most vulnerable in the new-speak of “choice.” Some choices are wrong.
Yet some choices, such as the ones made by these brave men, need no vocabulary to argue for them. They flow directly from the law written on every human heart.
In 1995, Pope John Paul II spoke to all of America during his visit to Camden Yards in Baltimore.
“Surely it is important for America that the moral truths which make freedom possible should be passed on to each generation,” said the Pope. “Every generation of Americans needs to know that freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.”
Moral leadership is about the oughts of our life as individuals and as a free people constituted in time together as a nation. Authentic freedom is not about some unbounded right to choose to do whatever we want. Lincoln put it well: “You cannot have the right to do what is wrong.” Authentic freedom is choosing to do what is right. It is not only a freedom from unjust restraint, but also a freedom for responsible living. It recognizes that all of us participate in the unfinished work of freedom every day as we make the small choices about how we govern ourselves as individuals, families, communities, and as a nation.
Authentic freedom isn't free. It is purchased and protected by the blood of heroes like these two officers. When such heroes appear in our midst it is time to reflect on our life together. The blood shed for freedom cries out to all of us to remember our obligations to one another, to our children — born and unborn — our elders and “the least among us.”
These two men now join the long list of American heroes. May all those who seek public office this fall, and those preparing to seek the highest office in the land, remember the price of freedom and conduct themselves and their campaigns accordingly. America cries for heroes who will heed the call and lead us in the “unfinished work of freedom.”
Deacon Keith Fournier is president of Catholic Alliance.
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