Vol. XLV No. 12 — December 1967

A Terrible Freedom

Conrad Hahn

In the Gospels we may read the story of Jesus cleansing the Temple. It was “a one-man show.” It was an overt attack on the “financial interests” which the authorities could not ignore, because it condemned them and their commercialized concepts of religion and its observances.

Wine merchants and sellers of sacrificial animals had booths in the Court of the Gentiles, one of the earliest “ecumenical approaches” in the history of religion. In some months the money changers also set up their tables there, so that the Jewish people might exchange other coins for the half-shekel pieces in which the “animal tax” had to be paid. The populace probably regarded these arrangements as a convenience to help them comply with the law.

According to Josephus there was evidence of “graft” in the sale of some sacrificial animals. Jesus may have been angry at the sellers of doves because of “extortion.” But there seems to be no evidence that He was protesting against sacrifices as such or the sale of animals for that purpose. He apparently, single-handedly, acted out a bit of prophetic symbolism: cleanse the Temple and yourselves or the Lord will cleanse it more severely.

In His denunciation of the money changers and sellers of doves, Jesus explained his protest. “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations, but you have made it a den of thieves.” (Mark 11:17) Jesus was insisting on fundamental reverence; a noisy market place is not a house of worship.

The Court of the Gentiles had been intended as a place of prayer for non-Jewish pilgrims. It was to be a universalizing symbol of God’s power and influence; but men had made of that sacred place a den of greedy robbers. Jesus was protesting against secularization and commercialization of a house of prayer.

What God’s creative intent through Solomon had made “a house of prayer for all nations,” men had debased into an avaricious anthill of trade.

Man has a terrible freedom — to ennoble or debase, to conserve or to despoil, to create or to destroy. When he chooses selfishly, he usually brings on tragedy. The Temple was destroyed by a warlike enemy? Of course. But long before that final tragedy, the priests and the people themselves had destroyed the special significance of the dwelling place of the One True God.

This New Testament story points to one of the crucial problems of our time. “Freedom” is on every man’s tongue. Men babble everywhere about “the rights of free men.” All kinds of protest are carried out in the name of “freedom and democracy.” It must be admitted that much of the struggle between men and nations is the struggle for the rights of human beings against the love of money that is the root of all kinds of evil. Poverty, exploitation of the weak, slums, disease, crime — and eventually war — can all trace their origins to the sleek fat pocketbook that can even buy “justice,” when that ideal concept is debased into “legal justification.”

Some of our young people are choosing to become “hippies” as a protest against the hypocrisy of an overwhelming materialism that destroys real love and “concern” between human beings. Being so young, they do not realize the awful price they are being forced to pay for their kind of “freedom.” Disease, discomfort and dirt, lack of any satisfying purpose, intolerance, and alienation from most of human society are a rather high price to pay for becoming the victims of the criminal purveyors of drugs and vice. Man has a terrible freedom; he can ennoble or debase. It is sad to realize that he can choose debasement in the mistaken thought that he is “freeing” himself from some of his frustrations. The “hippies’ protest” is a retreat from reality.

Protest has become a way of life in our present situation. In China the “Red Guards” have made it a tool for the ruthless suppression of dissenters. In many countries protests have to be “approved” by the governmental authorities. Obviously such protests are controlled propaganda devices rather than free expressions of disagreement. The “right of the people peaceably to assemble” and the “freedom of speech” are seriously mocked.

Even in our own country, the right to protest is being abused and debased. When a crowd of noisy objectors makes it impossible for a speaker to be heard, when an unpopular point of view is denied expression on the lecture platform or is sneered at in a television news report, the protesters may be exercising the right of free speech, as far as they are concerned; but they are willfully denying it to those with whom they disagree. Many of the current “marches” and “sit-ins” are examples of such injustice. “We demand to be heard.” But the same voices will be angrily raised to drown out those with whom they disagree. Such is tyranny.

It’s a terrible freedom that insists on rights while denying them to others. One cannot preserve a freedom if one despoils it in the very practice thereof. Anger, hatred, and revenge, which prompt that kind of protest, will only destroy the very freedom it thinks it is exercising.

But when that kind of protest degenerates into riot and upheaval, into bloodshed and murder, into the destruction of those things and values that alone make civilization possible, “free” men are no longer free, because they have become the victims of their baser passions the subtlest but most powerful form of slavery to which human beings are subjected. "Peaceably to assemble” is the right guaranteed in the Constitution. Violently to assemble is willfully to destroy; that’s not an exercise in freedom.

But merely to object to the objectors is not sufficient. There must be a recognition of the conditions that produce their discontent. There must be a desire to improve the situation. There must be confidence that the problems can be solved, and that requires “good will toward all men” and a sincere desire to see that true justice prevails. In our increasingly computerized world all this requires that we take our eyes off the dials that measure materialistic achievement and profits, and look at our fellow-men. Fundamentally, that’s what the protest is all about.

Many a Mason has looked at our disturbed society with deep concern and worry. “The Masons ought to do something!” he shouts in his frustration. What he usually means is that Masonic organizations should pass resolutions to send to the “proper persons,” be they legislators, government officials, school administrators, clergymen, etc.

But that’s not the Masonic way. Freemasonry was not designed to be a “pressure group.” It commits no man to a particular creed, a definitely worded philosophy, a political party, or a slogan. Freemasonry teaches its initiates the moral duties of civilized man. It teaches each member singly, one at a time. It trusts that the worthy man will apply those lessons to his public as well as his private actions.

It requires a man to be “of good report,” a peaceful citizen, and a “practitioner of the art.” Which art? The building of harmonious human relationships through the practice of brotherly love and relief, while always searching for the Truth to which such actions lead. That means individual action.

That was the way in which Jesus cleansed the Temple. He didn’t organize a march of 50,000 victims of the merchants and money changers at the Temple. He didn’t even arm the twelve disciples with whips to go along and make a demonstration. He went into action alone.

The authorities, we are told, “sought a way to destroy Him; for they feared Him, because the people were astonished at His teaching.” Note that word, teaching. It took rare courage to stand up and teach so dramatically an unpopular doctrine alone.

To feel that one is losing his freedom is a terrible experience. Our era is marked by a fear that the individual human being is losing his significance as an individual. “I’m only one; I don’t count for anything.” In a world of mass production, including the possibility of mass destruction, in the search for mass solutions to mass problems, men are dissatisfied with the mass culture that reflects that kind of civilization. Revulsion is part of the turmoil of our times.

The impulse to find mass solutions leads to a drive to get a “consensus.” Men must agree with their leaders and/or the opinion makers, to be “productive.” The individual is pressured to conform — in ideas as well as in dress and speech and behavior.

It becomes a terrible freedom to act individually, particularly if the individual does not accept the “consensus” which is currently in vogue. Such individuality has always been the stuff of martyrdom — of scorn, of bitter opposition, of enmity and hate.

Resolutions and declarations, however, have little effect in turning aside the forces of intolerant conformity. Where the opposing force is vengefully revolutionary, they are useless. Then only the determined and courageous individual has the power to exemplify the importance of a different opinion and a nobler standard.

If Masons are really committed to the tenets of their profession — brotherly love, relief, truth — they will take a stand where they are, individually, to insist that brotherly love be used in solving the problems of our time, and that truth be sought increasingly and accepted unconditionally, so that justice may prevail. Falsehood is the principal support of our burgeoning criminality.

To exercise that kind of individual freedom requires searching inquiry and constructive thinking. More than that, it requires a defiant moral courage in an age in which people have lost their faith in man and God.

Masonry will have influence in this era only as individual Masons, alone, dare to cleanse the Temple of Freedom by teaching their fellow citizens our tenets and by unflinchingly exemplifying them in their everyday activities right where they are. That kind of teaching our world still understands.

The Masonic Service Association of North America