How Should Course Students Respond to Protests and Civil Unrest? (June 12, 2020)
As people across the US and indeed around the world have taken to the streets to protest in support of Black Lives Matter, I am hearing the question arise of whether taking sides is in keeping with A Course in Miracles. The concern seems to be that if you are for something, that means you are against something else, and that feels like an attack.
There is a line in the Course that completely settles this issue: “Because [freedom] is true, it should not be fought for, but it should be sided with” (T-7.I.5:4). We could not ask for a sentence that more directly addresses taking a stand for something in the world. What does it mean? (All references below are to T-7.I).
The Four Freedoms
That key line appears in a fascinating discussion of “the freedoms”—the Four Freedoms famously set forth by Franklin D. Roosevelt in a 1941 speech: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear (of aggression from neighboring countries).
The first two of these freedoms (of speech and of worship) are already protected by the US Constitution. But the latter two (from want and from fear) went farther, suggesting that it was a universal human right to have economic security and to not have to fear the incursion of war. It is clearly a humanitarian picture, a utopian vision of a new world centered on human rights and human wellbeing.
This vision has gone on to inspire and influence social movements and their leaders throughout the world. The Freedoms aided in the formation of the United Nations and also its 1948 Declaration on Human Rights. Further, they gave hope to oppressed people the world over. This included Nelson Mandela in South Africa, who was inspired by a version of the Freedoms that appeared in the Atlantic Charter. And, according to historian John Bodnar in The “Good War” in American Memory, this also included early civil rights leaders in the United States, who “saw in the president’s language the promise for an end to racial oppression and restrictions on black voting in the South. And many blacks saw in the term ‘freedom from fear’ a critique of the practice of lynching.”
It is significant, then, that the Course supports this vision, although it has one caveat. It criticizes seeing the Freedoms “as many instead of one” (5:2). In its view, we should emphasize the unity of the single underlying principle of freedom.
However, not everyone was onboard. Conservative critics saw the Four Freedoms as just a reiteration of Roosevelt’s New Deal. Think of the third freedom: freedom from want. How do you achieve that without expanding social programs? Further, politicians on the right feared that the Freedoms might foster racial equality.
Now let’s say that we as Course students can time travel back to the early 1940s. Once we find ourselves back there, should we support the Four Freedoms? Should we take a stand?
The Course’s answer is brilliant and clear: “Because [freedom] is true, it should not be fought for, but it should be sided with.” Let’s take those one at a time.
“Should not be fought for.”
This is a direct criticism of Roosevelt’s speech, for the Four Freedoms were used by him as an argument for entering World War II, which was already more than a year old by the time of his speech. Even once we entered the war eleven months later, the Freedoms remained at the heart of our justification for being there.
The Course is saying that all of this was wrong. It says the Freedoms “would indeed have been freedom if men had not chosen to fight for them” (5:1). Do you see the implication of that? It is saying that going to war to establish the Freedoms emptied them of the very principle of freedom itself. It left them mere husks that had been drained of their essential life.
Is this so hard to see? So many of our attempts to better our society and our world are framed as a war: the War on Poverty, the War on Crime, the War on Drugs, the War on Terror. To declare war on something seems synonymous with saying you are really serious about eradicating it. Yet could it be that in waging war we extinguish the light of goodness and truth that had formerly shone at the heart of our cause? What if war itself is the problem at the center of all our problems? If it is, then the more we wage war, the more we feed the hidden core of any problem.
“Should be sided with.”
The Course’s admonition does not end with “should not be fought for.” It then adds that freedom “should be sided with.” Don’t fight for it, but do side with it. This is hugely significant. To “side with” freedom obviously implies mental assent, but it also means standing up for it publicly. The focus throughout the Course’s comments about the Freedoms is on making reasoned arguments in defense of freedom. Arguments are mentioned twice and defense is also mentioned twice. You see them together here: “But the argument that underlies the defense of freedom is perfectly valid” (5:3).
The idea is that if those who are against freedom, who believe it “will hurt them” (5:5), will “listen fairly to both sides,” they “will make the right decision” (5:7). This is because somewhere inside of them they already have the answer (5:8). The “arguments on behalf of ‘the freedoms’” (5:1) simply stir to life the truth that was already slumbering within them.
Taking a side
We don’t have to time travel to the 1940s to face the issue the Course addresses here. We are facing it now. The essential vision of the Four Freedoms is at stake before our very eyes. It’s no accident that Nelson Mandela saw that vision as one of freedom from apartheid in South Africa. And it’s no accident that American black leaders saw it as freedom from racism in the US.
In supporting the Freedoms, then, A Course in Miracles is speaking to this moment, with surprising directness. What is it saying? It is saying that the underlying principle of freedom, which includes freedom from economic want and freedom from fear of violence, is true. And therefore, those who stand up for it, “even if they are misguided in how they defend it [by fighting for it], are siding with the one thing in this world which is true” (5:6).
The principle is true. Don’t fight for it, for as you close your fist, it slips through your fingers. But do side with it. Lend it your belief. And lend it your voice. Not everyone will listen to your reasoned arguments, but some will “listen fairly,” and will find the truth they already knew stirring to life in their minds. They will realize that the principle of freedom is true, and that granting it to their brothers and sisters will not “hurt them,” but will free them too.
Notice the Course’s language here: “side with.” It speaks of a situation in which there are two sides (remember the phrase “listen fairly to both sides”?) and asks us to take a side. As students of A Course in Miracles, then, we don’t have to be shy about taking a side. Let’s stand for the freedom of all people, especially those who have been granted less of it in this world. Realizing that the principle of freedom is true, let’s not fight for it, but let’s firmly, lovingly, and vocally side with it.