I admit to being fascinated by France’s national motto: Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. It encapsulates what so many countries strive for. I am a novice to French culture, history, and especially language, yet I’m trying to learn. As a context person, I enjoy reading about different places I intend to travel. With an indefinite move to Paris, I’m reading up on French history and culture.
Arguably, this journey begins with Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. As a student in France during my undergraduate days, French friends and their parents told me much of French life revolves around this idea. It’s one idea, they would argue, not three separate ones. They are to be a “tripartite”of three interconnected ideas. That is, each individual is to be entirely free, equal with all, and able to enjoy life to the fullest, what they call a “joie de vivre.”
Students of American history can hear echoes. Our Founding Fathers, notably Jefferson and Franklin, were inspired by these ideas. To be fair, their interest came before they were adopted into French culture. Yet both burgeoning nations, France and America, would use them in forming their national identity. The Americans put their beliefs to paper first, famously in our Declaration of Independence. Jefferson wrote: “All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” There it is for us: equality – “all men are created equal,” liberty – “life and liberty,” and fraternity – “the pursuit of happiness.” Such words birthed two revolutions, not only the American, but the French as well. The French were inspired by the American quest for independence. While the French Revolution played out differently, the seeds were the same. Both began by people under oppression from royalty, and both desired full liberty, equality, and fraternity: the ability to freely and equally pursue their well-being.
These ideas remain near and dear to the people of France. For them, the collective idea of the people is important. This is another current running throughout French life. The people, the common men and women together, the masses, can shape the history, culture, and identity of their nation. This was the case in the storming of the Bastille, July 14, 1787. That day is now recognized as the French independence day, known as “Bastille Day.” It continued into the Revolution, with ordinary citizens taking up arms against the nobility. It still lives in the heart of France today. This has been seen in recent history with the “yellow vests” movement and the strikes paralyzing Paris last year. Of course, the results were different. With the storming of the Bastille and the Revolution, there was much bloodshed. With the “yellow vests,” the transportation system shut down. It’s a big difference. As a footnote, now with the Covid-19, such times seem like a breezy memory. We’ve seen circumstances can be worse.
Now, the French, as I’ve seen and heard, take pride in their liberty, equality, and fraternity. They want to live free, be known as equals, and enjoy life to the full. Arguably these desires connect all humanity. We all want them. For French national life they are essential.
We live, however, in a broken world. There are viruses, but also conflict across communities, races, and nations themselves. As individuals, notions like liberty, equality, and fraternity can be easy to promote and difficult to uphold. In America, there is the idea our history is a pendulum swinging back and forth between freedom and equality. Sometimes we bend towards individual freedom, as seen in our Revolution, World War II, and the Reagan Presidency. At other times, we move towards equality, from the Civil War, the New Deal, and the Civil Rights Movement. As a people, we are committed to both ideals, but events, policies, and personalities push us towards one or the other.
You can witness this in national cultures as well. With Covid-19, Asian societies have a greater emphasis on community and equality than Western ones. Some of their governments are autocratic and top down. How did they contain the virus so quickly? An argument is their culture: with a greater connection to the community (equality and fraternity) and people willing to do as the government leaders dictated. Whereas in the West, no one likes anyone telling them what to do. If you are asked to practice social distancing, it seemingly takes longer for people to heed. In a nutshell, we value our individual freedoms more. We want nothing to compromise it.
I feel like for us, as Americans, our freedom colors everything else, even our equality. We want to be free to do what we we want, marry whom we want, be whom we want. There is a cultural belief that we have the free right to do so, anything we choose, as long as it does not harm another. Live free or die, we can say, and live out.
As a Christian, I believe the church possesses all three attributes for people. Many do not believe this. People can be easily jaded and lose faith in the idea of church, as well as individual churches. Yet the Christian Church was established to give people true full freedom, equality, and community (or fraternity) they seek. I am indebted to a Parisian pastor I know, Edouard Nelson, for helping me think on this. He has a book coming out on it. I look forward to reading it.
The French help me see our need and desire to have liberty, equality, and fraternity. We want to feel free, not bound by anyone or anything. We want to be known as equals with one another where no one is above or below. And we want real community, leading to fraternal joy of people connected and enjoying the good gifts of this world. The French passion for these is stirring. They have a zest for life, and I would add, incorporate community and fraternity better than many nations.
I look forward to seeing more of this, living with the French people and learning from them. I believe we can find true freedom, equality, and fraternity in this life. Nations wrestle with living out these ideals. The Church struggles as well. Yet they are built into the Christian faith and are meant to be lived out. It is my hope to discover new ways of adopting all three ideals in the lives of individuals and communities, here in the USA and ultimately in France.
I am not an expert on French history or culture, so my vantage point right now is a decidedly American one. After reading John Hugh’s thoughts, I am excited to see this emblem of French national identity – liberté, égalité, fraternité – lived out in Paris. What I do know is I have gained a great education on American values living in the deep South of Mississippi the past 16 years.
A child of immigrant parents, who themselves are poster children for the great American dream of upward social mobility in one generation, I learned my American history abroad. I was raised in an oil family – we traveled where oil was to be found and drilled: Indonesia and the Netherlands. Yes, my childhood peers were American, quite a few Texans, but they were also Swedish, Venezuelan, Dutch, Indonesian, Filipino, and Pakistani. Growing up in a privileged upper middle class, I was sheltered from the grassroots of Americana.
Even living in Philadelphia and Boston during my 20s didn’t give me a true understanding of the American values of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, because most of my close friends were immigrants or 1st generation immigrants themselves. We were all trying to sort out what essential parts of American culture have been passed down from generation to generation in the short history of this country.
I have come to see that liberty is the greatest value of America. From our revolutionary impulses against the British monarchy to our plain spoken indignation if an outside authority tells us how to run our lives, rugged individualism tied to the freedom to act as one pleases has birthed great victories and great excess in our country. Even our triumphs in equality are tied to a clarion call to liberty – who can tell a black woman where to sit on a bus? Equality in itself is not a value that rallies Americans in unity as much as liberty does. Liberty resonates first and foremost. Fraternity is a hard fought value in America because we worry our individual distinctives will be lost in a collective mass. Even in the military, where the band of brothers reign supreme, we love to raise to the pedestal our purple heart heroes – individual unsung heroes.
In the midst of COVID-19, I read an article about a defiance and skepticism of centralized power that has long defined — and always will define — a certain kind of Southerner. Concepts like “states’ rights” and “home rule” have been written in blood in the South, for good and for ill. “Because it is simply the case that many people believe there are worst things than dying, such as having to listen to a highly educated egghead in DC or a good ole boy politician tell us we can’t shop when and how we want, can’t congregate on the sidewalk in large numbers if we want to, or can’t walk on the beach to dip our toes in sand.”
You can laugh at that defiance as ignorance, but you miss the key point. That defiance has borne ingenuity, creativity, an unending work ethic, and a mindset to bend reality to one’s will come hell or high water. American ingenuity – as unequal as it historically has been and disparate as it can be – is still a hallmark most Americans like to rally behind. The other great love of America is the calling card of liberty – the underdog. When the unexpected, the left behind, the one without the proper lineage, education, or training breaks forth as the winner, we rally behind because his or her pursuit to be himself or herself – regardless of the odds – touches the deep recesses of liberty we cherish. Don’t stop the underdog.
I see the excesses of America’s love of liberty, and I am curious to learn the underbelly of the French’s intertwined values of liberte, egalite, fraternite. Ultimately, as a Christian, I believe self leadership affects everything. Whether we are highly cynical of big government or believe mass protests are the only effective means to address systemic issues, we cannot rest our heads on our pillows without doing the hardest work first – seeing our own sins first and admitting the lies we tell ourselves every day. For me, the greatest gift to others is valuing the freedoms we get from God first – freedom from the greatest enemy (sin), equality in His eyes (the last will be first and religious hypocrites will be exposed), and fraternity (unending joyous community in eternity). With those freedoms first, we can adjust to the national cultures we reside in as temporary citizens of this earth.
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