The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime, and the punishment of his guilt” (John Philpot Curran, Irish judge, July 10, 1790).

Eternal vigilance by the people is the price of liberty” (Andrew Jackson, March 4, 1837).

What then is the spirit of liberty? I cannot define it; I can only tell you my own faith. The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias” (Judge Learned Hand, May 21, 1944).

Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Jesus, Matthew 26:41).

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers…” (Paul, Romans 13:11).

Vigilare (Latin,keep awake”)

Funny how my mind works. I was out pulling weeds the other day when I thought of the famous statement usually quoted as “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom”  (erroneously attributed to Thomas Jefferson). I suppose that at the same time I was thinking about my blog for this week, I was reflecting on how I have to keep a constant watch on the weeds or they’ll take over. And for good or ill, this post was the result of my down-in-the-dirt, on my knees meditation.

Freedom is extremely important to me. It forms a kind of trinity of essentials, along with love and truth. That’s why I’m glad I’m an American, blessed with a Bill of Rights that grants my neighbors and me freedom to worship (or not) as we please, to speak, to enjoy a press not under state control, to assemble with others peaceably, and to petition the government for redress of grievances.

Freedom is also one of the reasons I have chosen to remain a Presbyterian. One of our dearest historic principles is that “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship” (Book of Order, Presbyterian Church [USA], G-1.0300). Another important viewpoint from my tradition is that God is completely free and sovereign. Related to that affirmation is the recognition of the human tendency to try to usurp the place of God or to worship something or someone else in the place of God. Thus we become tyrants and seek to force others to bend to our control and our ideas (cf. Book of Order, G-2.0500a[4]).

For me, the greatest threat to our freedom comes not so much from outside enemies, but from those tendencies toward tyranny and idolatry that we have within ourselves. Because of our fear, lust for power, drive for control, ignorance, and whatever else, we want to restrict the freedom of others while maintaining the broadest possible set of rights and greatest array of choices for ourselves.

Ironically, some of the most vehement opponents of freedom are found among those who name the Name of Christ and profess love of America. Many preach and act against reproductive choice. Others (falsely) proclaim America a “Christian nation” and long for our land to be a theocracy, governed, of course, by their narrow interpretation of God’s law. Still more rail against the separation of church and state and/or try to have fundamentalist doctrine enacted into law or replace sound science in our schools. Freedom of thought, of exploration, of relying on one’s own moral judgment go out the window. Those of a different faith or none are looked on with suspicion, made to feel second-class or regarded as intellectually and morally inferior.

But don’t be smug, progressives! Just because you or I might have a kinder, more tolerant heart or a broader mind doesn’t mean we won’t be susceptible to the same tendencies toward tyranny and idolatry we see in fundamentalists and the Religious Right. We merely express them in a different way. So we need to be eternally vigilant, ever on the watch for those weeds of prejudice, hatred, and fear in our own lives that would lead us to be unfaithful to the One who said his Truth would set us free. Root them out lest they choke the good seed of the liberating Word. Freedom is too precious a gift not to be thus protected and allowed to grow and flourish in our hearts and minds and in those of our neighbors.

© 2009 Tom Cheatham


One of our favorite Christmas books is the award-winning The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg. We also love the extraordinary animated movie of the same name. It’s the story of a skeptical boy at the beginning of adolescence who learns the power of belief when he takes a magical train ride to the North Pole. There he meets Santa (“Mr. C.”) who grants him the “first gift of Christmas,” a bell from Santa’s sleigh.


Given the beauty and the positive theme of the book and movie, it was disconcerting and troubling on a recent trip to see a criticism of The Polar Express on a sign outside a fundamentalist church in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. “The first gift of Christmas was a child,” read the message. I’m sure if an emoticon had been available to put up, it would have been a shouting face expressing disapproval or even anger. And if italics could have been included, the word “child” would have been so emphasized.


What kind of believers have to put down a work for children, whether The Polar Express or some other, to make their point? They must be terribly insecure in their faith! And how is it that they saw in the book and movie a threat to Christianity, another front or issue in the alleged “war on Christmas” (the totally bogus invention of the Religious Right)? The author’s and screenwriter’s subject was not the biblical Christmas story at all. In fact, it had to do only with one boy’s journey back to belief and the embrace of the true spirit of the season at one particular Christmas. Surely a heart-warming and uplifting message for all people!


The Bible and the wonderful story of the first Christmas point us to our Savior, and the gift of the first Christmas was a child. Indeed, each year he is born in us. That truth is not diminished or rendered false by other stories or approaches to the season.


Christians who live with joy and hope and regard others with good will need not be threatened by truth and beauty whatever its source, whether a children’s tale or someone of another faith or no faith at all. The God of the Bible, the God whom the Child of Bethlehem reveals to us, is so big that all truth is his truth, all beauty his beauty. It’s a shame that some of those who consider themselves defenders of the faith deny and/or forget that all too often.


© 2009 Tom Cheatham