By David Hegg
Sometimes great things, essential movements and seemingly necessary events end up being the cause of unintended consequences. Laws meant to curb illegal behavior can have loopholes that create opportunities for new kinds of criminal endeavors even as the introduction of miracle drugs can, years later, be seen as having caused unintended health problems. Simply put, what appears to be progress can sometimes cause damage in the future.
Stay with me here as I suggest that one of America’s greatest triumphs, our independence from England in 1776, laid the foundation for the crippling autonomy we now see all around us. We threw off the shackles of the king’s authority and declared that every person has inalienable rights, which was a grand and glorious thing to do. Centuries later, however, we are experiencing the unintended result of replacing mutually agreed-upon ethical and legal absolutes with personal autonomy. In escaping the tyranny of the Crown, we’ve ended up creating a society where, today, everyone seems to wear one.
Autonomy comes from the Greek word autonomia, which is a compound made up of autos, meaning self, and nomos, meaning law. While it is often poor exegesis to consider that a word’s meaning equals the sum of its parts, in this case, it actually does. To be “autonomous” is to be under “one’s own law.” Today, we are watching as “personal law” quickly becomes the law of the land.
Consider this. Truth is no longer absolute. Rather, we are being told it is flexible, malleable, and can be rearranged, redefined, or rejected depending on an individual’s desire. Natural law is law no longer unless it suits the individual’s narrative. We are watching as a “truth revolution” is severing us from the reality of absolutes. We’ve become our own personal lawmakers.
And what is even more troubling is the rejection of any metric by which truth can be measured. On the one hand, biological, chromosomal truth is being denied in regard to gender even as it is agreed that two fives equal $10 when paying for groceries at the market. Why is one natural absolute flexible while the other is not? Imagine the uproar if the sales clerk handed you two $1 bills and said, “Today, we’re identifying ones as fives!”
But natural law isn’t the only victim of the tyranny of autonomy. It is stunning to realize how quickly we have abandoned criminal law. Just as the tyranny of King George became an excuse to dress up in costumes and throw tea into Boston harbor, the supposed “tyranny” of our justice system has become the excuse to let criminals steal freely from stores and shops. It is no exaggeration to say we are no longer a society of laws, but of lawlessness that champions personal autonomy dressed up in the political language of restorative justice. Ultimately, we have two systems: one that can be flexed to fit a political narrative, and another that can be used to thwart a political opponent.
Lastly, perhaps the greatest law that has given way to autonomy is the love of neighbor. When I was growing up, people agreed that some things were right and best while others were wrong and hurtful. Being kind, thoughtful and helpful to those we encountered was not only right, it also was essential to our mutual well-being. To love one’s neighbor was one of the foundational laws for maintaining a society that worked for everyone.
Sadly, today, “love” is being used to legitimize all kinds of things that are actually unloving. To love is to want the best for someone even if it means the love must be tough. In the biblical book of James, the author declares “whom the Lord loves, he disciplines.” Every parent knows this. If loving your child means allowing them the freedom to do whatever they want, you’ll be responsible for producing an adult who will be a drag on society rather than a conscientious positive contributor to the world in which he or she lives. No good parent believes their children are better off being autonomous rather than responsible to keep the rules.
But, the truth is, sometimes doing what is right, and living with the absolutes of natural and criminal laws, is hard. Perhaps that’s the bottom line. When natural law cramps my style, autonomy becomes a much more attractive position, especially if I can market it as freedom. If truth becomes restrictive, then redefining it and demanding my world accept my perspective allows me the autonomy, indeed the authority, to escape the bonds of social constructs and truly find and be myself.
Friend, that’s where we find ourselves today, under the thumb of the tyranny of autonomy. But, unlike the tyranny of King George, we don’t have to go to war to escape. All we need to do is winsomely but courageously stand up for absolute truth, whether it be natural law, criminal law, or the law of love. After all, rules, laws, and absolutes are what keep civil society civil.
As G. K. Chesterton remarked, “Before you start tearing down fences, find out why they were put up in the first place.” He was right because tearing down the fences of truth and restraint has created the unintended consequences we see all around us. But it’s not too late. Good people doing good things can bring about good results for everyone.
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.