Really? Thy kingdom come?

Do you believe in an afterlife?  Heaven?  Paradise?  Something like that?  A place where you will live with your loved ones in happiness?

Tell me about  that afterlife you imagine.  Does it include violence?  War?  Weapons?  Abuse of women and children?  A society where some have far too much and others not enough?  Destruction and degradation of the natural world?

Probably not.  In fact, the opposite.  I’m guessing you imagine a place of peace and contentment, a place where the wrongs so familiar in this present existence are finally righted.

And when you pray, Christian, do you earnestly say, ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven‘?

Hypocrite.  Like me, you hopefully pray that the ideals of heaven will invade the present one.  And yet you readily resign yourself to the brokenness of this world, you won’t lift a finger to undo it; worse, you are part of the problem, you contribute to it.  You celebrate warfare and violence.  You accept the preeminence of money above righteousness in the businesses you support, the choices of the governments you elect, in the lifestyle you live.

“Oh, well, I’ll just get through life as comfortably as I can and slip peacefully into eternal bliss…”  To hell with thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Really?  So you believe those things that cannot survive into eternity should enjoy our present support, our quiet complicity?

This is not the way of Jesus about which I read in the Gospels.  Maybe we should look for a new religion.

Or maybe we already have one.

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The Small Thing

“Excuse me!” cried a desperate voice from behind.

Paul, lead chaplain for Heathrow’s Terminal 2, and I both turned to see a family – mother, father, adolescent son – hurrying toward us across the concourse, dragging an assortment of hand luggage with them, the woman waving a piece of paper in the air.

“We checked the Flight Transfers screen,” she continued, breathing hard, “but we can’t find our flight.  Can you help us know where to go?”

Paul took the paper from her, a flight itinerary, and started to scan for the necessary details.  I on the other hand, my curiosity piqued by a familiar accent, started a different line of inquiry: “Where’s home?” I asked, already sure of the answer.

“De Nederlands,” said the father, characteristically avoiding the digraph that would have rendered English.

“Nederlanders!  Dacht ik al,” I said, much to their evident surprise and delight.  Continuing in Dutch we exchanged short, relevant histories: they, traveling back from holiday in British Columbia and transferring at Heathrow; me, former long-time resident of the Netherlands, chaplain at Amsterdam Schiphol airport, and now doing the same kind of work in London.

“Well,” said Paul, pausing for effect.  Paul used to work for American Express and has an endearingly direct way of dealing with people; no fluffing about, just the necessary facts.  He had ignored our conversation as he studied the document and was now ready to tell us what he knew.  “As I see it, the basic problem is this: you’re at the wrong airport.  Your onward flight is from Gatwick, in about three hours time.  You’re not likely to make it.”

The family were incredulous.  Wrong airport?  How could this possibly be?  How long did a normal transfer between London’s western and southern airports take?  Why would a ticketing website do such a thing?  How could they get to Gatwick?  Did they have to pick up their checked luggage first…?

“Never mind,” I said,  “all we can do is our best and hope it will work out.  Paul’s got a dodgy knee so we’ll leave him behind.  If you follow me, I’ll take you through immigration, baggage reclaim, customs and the trip to the bus station.  No guarantees that you’ll make it, but let’s go!”

And so began a hurried but calm guided tour through the intricacies of travel transfers, the most hated aspect of international journeys.  An hour later I waved the family off at the Central Bus Station, nurturing a small but reasonable hope they would make their flight, and sure that this would not have been the case if they had faced the task alone.  As I walked back to my office I realized we had never even exchanged names; there was no way for me – or them – to follow up on our joint endeavour.

I am so pleased that my day-to-day responsibilities afford me the opportunity to offer hands on help to those in need.  Yes, most of my time is taken up with duties involving paper and ideas and planning.  But if I keep my eyes open I can always find a way to be practically engaged with airport personnel or passengers.

Perhaps my experience reflects a wider felt need?  I notice from my forays into social media that we are all fairly accomplished at holding strong opinions on a wide variety of issues.  We passionately share our opinions, ideas, articles, and videos on every conceivable subject, not the least bit encumbered by the supposed taboos of religion and politics.

But isn’t there something in us that longs to be engaged in actual acts of compassion, that hungers to make a real difference in the lives of others?  Even just a small thing?  How often do we put down our laptops, i-pods and smartphones, leave our opinions behind and find someone we can serve, in whose life we can make a real, tangible difference?

It is so easy to complain about how the world should be a better place. And it should be.  So what are we doing to make it so?

Homeland Insecurity

The other day I had my first real bout of missing Canada since arriving in the UK three months ago.

Our new table top stereo had arrived from Amazon the day before, replacing and closely resembling the unit we gave away when we left Vancouver, another casualty of the voltage difference between the continents.   I bought the new one at a steep discount, the vendor advertising it as “slightly scratched, with damaged packaging”, but when it came there wasn’t any damage at all.  Pleased, I plugged it in, set the clock, made sure I could dock Renata’s old iPod, and then a USB stick, and finally began to tune the FM radio stations.  It was then I realized I didn’t know anything at all about radio in the UK.

Since our arrival I’ve only once listened to an actual radio.  We had taken the Tube and then the bus to a northwest London IKEA to buy a few things and, as one does, emerged three hours later, tired of slow walking and pushing two enormous shopping carts full of projects.  No way were we getting home on public transport.

The guy at the IKEA delivery desk took one look at our horde of mostly small treasures and informed us we didn’t want his next day service. He sent us to a neighbouring desk, that of a taxi company.   Ten minutes later, after anxiously submitting our postal code to be vetted, we were out on the pavement hurriedly throwing everything into the back of a minivan, an older one of the kind that looks not far off a giant and slightly melted microwave oven.

It was a hot day, the only one we’ve had so far really, the front windows were down and, as we crawled along in London traffic, a pleasant selection of classic rock & pop was playing on the radio.  “You know Billy Joel?” our young driver shouted at me over the noise of the traffic outside his open window, smiling proudly, as if he had just discovered him.

To be more like Jesus I ignored his question and replied with my own. “Where are you from?” I asked, having picked up on a heavy and distinctly non-British accent.  To be honest I could already tell from his physical appearance and accent he was of Somali extraction, but I was trying to be polite.

“Croydon,” he replied.

“Were you born there?” I continued, again being polite and not believing for a second he would answer in the affirmative.  I already had my follow-up question about Somalia at the ready.

“Yeah,” he said, “in 1991.”

Wow.  I thought of my own children, born and raised in the Netherlands; are they – second generation immigrants themselves – still so easy to identify as “foreigners”?  I wondered.

We chatted all the way home, he informed me of the name of the station he was listening to, and I gave him a decent tip for the help of  getting our things indoors and for the bother of time wasted in the traffic jam.

Now, weeks later and tuning my stereo for the first time, I couldn’t for the life of me remember the frequency of that station.  I duly consulted Google and came up with a list and descriptions for all the tunable FM stations in the London area.  The BBC dominates with half a dozen offerings pegged at different slices of the local demographic.  As for my UK-Somali friend, he had been listening to Smooth FM.  Very fetch.

The next day, radio tuned, it was my turn to cook dinner, something I enjoy doing and have long preferred to do while listening to the radio, in the company of a glass of red wine.  In the past five years, while living in British Columbia, I grew fond of CBC Vancouver’s late afternoon show, “On the Coast”.  Light banter, news, human interest stories, music, contests – it’s a really lovely mix for someone of my age and interests.  But, sadly, that too had to go when we moved to London.   (Yes, I could listen online, but am not likely to do so at 02:00 in the morning.)

At first I thought my irritation was because the red wine was missing.  I’ve given up most alcohol for the time being – long story – and there was a disruption in my regular pleasant pattern of cooking and sipping.  I was unsettled.

But then I realized it wasn’t the lack of vino that was causing my irritation, it was the newsy BBC radio station I had tuned to.  It was only news.  It wasn’t comfortable and homey.  So, leaving the onion half-cut on the cutting board, I went over and messed with the radio, selecting another station.  One that turned out to be hosted by the most obnoxious, self-absorbed, screechy chatterbox of a host as ever I’ve heard.  Again, knife down and another station.  Too much music; in fact, only music.  No good.

It was no use.  I was now missing CBC radio, missing Canada outright, missing my old life with all it’s familiar comforts and routines.  And my homesickness continued to build all through the evening and into the next day, for no apparent reason.  For one full day the UK just wasn’t good enough.  The weather, the traffic, the lack of mountains, the overcrowded grocery stores, it was all crap.

I’ve resided in numerous countries on four different continents, with my first intercontinental move coming at the age of three.  International transitions are not new or unfamiliar to me.  But no matter how often I do it, still there comes a day when I miss all that was good in my previous life, and I am temporarily blinded to the benefits of my new one.

Losses are just that.  They are genuine and not mere sentimentality; they must be grieved.  That life I left behind?  It is never coming back.  Even if I were to return to the same location, fill my life with the old routines, I myself will have been changed in the meantime.  My new home is already leaving its indelible mark on me, chipping away at my soul to change the contours of my being.

And that’s okay.  My heart may linger over what is gone, yes, but it will also grow to embrace what is new.  One day I will miss this present life and know that it too was good.

Nothing But Blue Skies…

This morning I had my first ever flight with Ireland’s national pride, Aer Lingus, LHR – BHD, on an A320.  Aer Lingus is an easy carrier to identify from a distance, as I learned during my years at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, sporting as they do a dark green livery with a shamrock on the tail.  But I hadn’t realized until just before boarding that Aer Lingus is classified as a low cost airline; service was good, but I’m always going to pass up the opportunity to purchase a drink on board.  I’m old enough to feel it just isn’t right when airlines charge for what in days gone by was a common courtesy.

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So I arrived at Belfast City Airport – ahem! – George Best Belfast City Airport, in Northern Ireland.  (If you don’t know who George Best is, shame on you.  Really.  My football heart grieves for you.)  Having done my homework I ignored the taxi stand and walked confidently out to the road in front where the airport supplies a free shuttle service to the nearest train.  From Sydenham Station it’s less than GBP 2.00 and 15 minutes to get into town in a comfortable carriage; purchase your ticket on board if the conductor makes it to you before you alight.

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I’m here for a meeting of the airport chaplains operating in the British Isles and Ireland.  If you are tempted to think that must be no more than a dozen people, you would be quite wrong.  Nowhere else on earth has the idea of Chaplaincy in an airport been quite as fruitful as it has been here; in the UK and Ireland there are chaplains at almost every airport of any significant size.  Belfast is a bit out of the way for most, so I’m curious to see just how many show up at the meeting tomorrow, but I’m sure I won’t be disappointed.

What do airport chaplains talk about when they get together?  This is my first meeting of the BI & I network, so I can’t speak to the past.  However, from the things I’ve been able to pick up from various emails and conversations, it seems this meeting’s hot topic is in regard to how to create greater space in our gatherings for chaplains from non-Christian faiths.   There was a day when all airport chaplains in Western countries were one shade or another of Christian (true, we didn’t always “like” each other, but we “loved” each other…).  Saying prayers “in Jesus’ name” or reading exclusively from the Christian scriptures was not an issue.  Airport chaplaincy was Christian chaplaincy, as even the title “chaplain” reflects.

But society has changed, and now we have “chaplains” (spiritual advisors, better?) from many different faiths.  What once was inclusive language – because it belonged to all of us – is now exclusive, belonging to a majority at the expense of a minority.  So, we have to find a way forward that honours all our members.

However, as I sit here in my hotel room on a blustery Belfast afternoon, this is not what is foremost in my mind.  What I’m struggling with is the fact that by coming here today (and returning tomorrow), my carbon footprint for the year has increased by approximately 0.3 tonnes.  The average EU citizen has a carbon footprint of about 9.1 tonnes per year; the average American 17.0 tonnes*.  Which is meaningless, until one understands that the global average needs to be a mere 2.0 tonnes per person per year if we are to halt humankind’s contribution to climate change.  As usual, the poor are carrying the burden for the rich.

As an airport chaplain at one of the world’s busiest airports, I believe it is part of my job to be a voice for creation care and for environmental justice.  Air transport has made impressive strides in the past fifty years with regard to lowering the CO2 emissions of aircraft; however, the growth of the industry has out-paced the advances in technology.  In my view there is no way to stop the growth in the industry (we love to travel!), but we can all do better at limiting the negative impacts of our actions.  For my part: I don’t own a car, I cycle or bus to work, I rarely eat meat, and I try to limit my air travel.  And in cases like the present, I buy offsets.  Today I purchased offsets from Myclimate, which invests my donation in projects which mitigate the effects of human green house gas emissions.  myclimate

Here’s a great article in the New York Times which gives you ideas about what else you can do to rein in the adverse effects of your travel lust.

Happy travels!

 

 

*Don’t be too rough on the Americans: yes, their average is super high compared to the rest of the world.  But their economy also accounts for roughly 20 percent of world trade, much of which they share with the rest of us.

I resolve…

Two thousand years ago a man appeared on the human stage whose titles included Son of God, Lord, Saviour of the World, God from God, Divine, God Incarnate, Liberator and Redeemer.

His name was Caesar Augustus.

Augustus (“the illustrious one”) was worshipped as a deity and promoted a form of world peace, a Pax Romana as it was known, achieved through overwhelming military might, cultural domination, violence and power.

Near the end of his reign, another man appeared, lived his life in relative obscurity, finally submitting himself to an undeserved death as a non-violent revolutionary. Soon, his followers – inspired by his manner of life and death – began to lay claim for him to all the titles of Caesar.

Jesus Christ (“the anointed one”) also believed in world peace; he described it as the Reign of God, achieved not through violence and aggression, but realized through one’s love of God and neighbour, demonstrated through self-sacrifice and unflinching justice.

At this time of year in the northern hemisphere many cultures, including our own, celebrate the turning point away from the darkest days and longest nights; our festivities and new year coincide with the return of the sun, the promise of a new beginning. Christianity too, in our Christmas season, appropriates the imagery of light appearing in darkness, hope being born in a time of desolation. At this time of year we join with all who long for the opportunity of a new way of seeing and a new way of being.

But will we truly embrace the light when it comes? Will we turn away from our old ways and take on the new? Will we continue to secure peace in our lives through force, dominating others, manhandling our daily schedules and responsibilities? Or engage instead a new paradigm, finding peace through establishing justice for ourselves and our society? The choice is ours: to live less by the rule of Caesar and more by the rule of Christ.

Today, as we turn the page on a new year, I resolve…

To seek justice for myself. I will not let myself be hurried or harried by things beyond my control; I will give myself the space and time needed to maintain balance and contentment, to attend to my mental health. I will sleep. I will not eat more or less than my body demands for its just maintenance. If I feast, I shall also fast. I will not consume what I know to be harmful to my body. I will take joy in walking and running, in using my strength, in being alert and making the most of my memory, reason and skill. I will not let my opinion be left unheard, my voice drowned out. I purpose to delight fully in listening, seeing, hearing, tasting and touching.

To seek justice for my neighbour. I will not coerce or manipulate others to achieve my desires; I will make my request, respectfully, and accept the autonomy of the other. I will not raise my hand, nor use an instrument, to strike another. If I must resist to protect myself or my neighbour, I will not purpose to destroy or bring lasting harm. I will not use my authority to intimidate or badger another. I will not speak evil of another, or whisper things I would not be willing to say to them directly. I will not profit from my neighbour’s misfortune, nor yearn for my neighbour’s possessions. I will do for my neighbour what I would wish my neighbour to do for me.

To seek justice for other peoples and cultures. I will respect the vast diversity of God’s creation in humanity, which display the multi-faceted wisdom of God. I will not denigrate or malign, through word or deed, communities that are different than my own. I will not begrudge them their triumphs nor make jest of their failures. I will not contribute to war-making. I will not promote my own people and our aspirations at the expense of harm to others; if I have gained status or wealth from the wrongdoing of my forefathers I will acknowledge it and seek to redress their failures. I will give thanks for my own identity, take pride in it even, and rejoice in the uniqueness of others.

To seek justice for the animals. They are my older siblings in Creation; I will respect them. I will not demean or objectify them, reducing them to mere cuddly playthings or inexpensive protein. The animals given into my care, or whose products I use, will be treated with steady devotion and genuine concern for their well being.

To seek justice for the earth. For the earth and everything in it belongs to God. I will not disrespect or abuse things that belong to the divine. I will leave the earth, the part given to my sustenance and enjoyment, in better condition than when I found it. In lifestyle choices I will not take the easy way, if taking the easy way brings harm to creation; I would rather be inconvenienced than leave an indelible stain in creation. I will live as if this world is my home, the one I have been given to steward; he who is faithful in little will be given much.

This year I resolve to live by the pattern of Christ, to reject the ways of power and violence and pursue instead the pathways of justice.

Just between you and me

As I sip my coffee in a cozy shop at an upscale mall in western Canada, reading the international press on my laptop, I find I am quite concerned with the plight of Syrian refugees washing up on the shores of the Mediterranean.  I’m also upset about climate change and the attitudes of Big Oil, about our addiction to a source of energy that is proving toxic for our planet while other – admittedly more expensive – energy options are available.

The reason I’m having a coffee?  I’m waiting.  Waiting for my car to come out of the garage, hoping it will serve me for many more miles.  Oh, and did I mention that I’ve just done an online search for the best air tickets available for an upcoming trip?

It’s so easy to express concern, to be passionate, about what is distant from us, what doesn’t impinge on our own lifestyles and behaviour.  Creating distance – physical, social, legal, emotional – insulates us from any sense of personal responsibility.  By habit, our attention is drawn away from the immediate, the part of our world that is most obviously given us to influence, and focused instead on the problems other people should deal with, if only they would face up to it.  Come on, EU, where’s your compassion?   Get real, Big Oil, show us you can innovate!

Jesus and his friends headed north to the coast, where no-one knew them, presumably for a little break from the crowds.  But their fame preceded them and before long Jesus was again confronted with someone who wanted his attention.

…a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about Jesus, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.   But he did not answer her at all.  And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’   He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’

Dear woman, your problem is urgent but I’m afraid it is outside my brief.  I’m a Jewish prophet, not a Gentile one.  I’m not even on home soil; we’re outside my jurisdiction.

Distance, in this case ethnic and religious, absolves, alleviates, and excuses.  There must be someone else you can see.  Jesus, shockingly, is cast as the antithesis of the Good Samaritan.

But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’  He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’   She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’

The woman is not put off so easily.  She comes forward, closing the distance between them, and personalizes her plea.  This has nothing to do with the nation of Israel vis-a-vis her daughter, both parties not present; this is between her and Jesus: Lord, help me.

I’m not at the children’s table asking you to take their food away in order to meet my need.  I’m at the master’s table, your table, asking you to let a few crumbs fall to me.

Forget the distance between our peoples and our religions; forget your foreign tour, your holiday; forget the parameters of your vocation, of decorum and what others will think.  This is just between you and me, between a “master” at his table and a “dog” in desperate need of some crumbs.

Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.

Suddenly the distance is closed entirely, the excuses for inaction are gone.  Jesus, congratulating the woman for understanding how compassion works, grants her wish.

We pray so earnestly and work up our anxiety so easily about what is far from our own beds.  We make our monthly donation to support poor children in developing countries, we sign petitions to stop drilling in the Arctic, we rage against far-flung injustices.  All good and wonderful, truly.

But what are we doing here, in this place, with the brokenness of our world which is right around us, about which we can actually do something?  Are we willing to break down the barriers, even the ones we have erected ourselves, let go of our excuses and let our lives be touched by the needs of our neighbours?

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?  So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.  (James 2)

You can’t follow Christ if you’re not a liberal.

I agree, I dislike them too: those internet headlines whose primary purpose is to entice  the reader to click on them.  “Five things every man should know about women.”  “You won’t believe what she did next…”  “I lost 100 pounds by changing one simple habit.”  Etc. etc.  But bear with me; I’m quite earnest with the title above.

There are Christians of all types and persuasions, of course.  You might think of yourself as a Conservative Christian.  Or a Progressive Christian, a Bible-Believing Christian, an Evangelical Christian, a Full-Gospel Christian, a Charismatic Christian, an Orthodox Christian, or whatever other adjective you want to use to describe your particular experience of Christianity.  And I won’t argue the sincerity and legitimacy of your claim.  You can be a Christian, one who adheres to the Christian religion, while finding your identity in any of the above, and more.

But you can’t follow Christ, interact with your fellow human beings and with your Creator in the manner Jesus did, if you’re not a liberal.

Be careful now.  I’m not talking about national politics, about the degree to which governments should be active in promoting social change, or of individuals committed to left-wing policies.*  (However, you can be a good Christian and be of that persuasion too, but that’s not my meaning.)

What I mean is this: you cannot truly follow in the spiritual footsteps of Jesus unless you are willing to test the authenticity of the inherited traditions of your faith and life and, when they are found wanting, discarding them in favour of new ways of thinking and living.  Jesus did not live with the expressed purpose of destroying the traditions of his society, but at the heart of his message, his life and his teaching,  one finds a deep personal openness and freedom, a liberality of spirit.  He is consistently and by far the most liberal-minded person in the Gospel narratives.

So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

In the north of the Netherlands there is a small village which, a few years ago, drew international media attention.  As part of an experiment sponsored by the European Union the village of Makkinga took a radical step: they removed all traffic signs.  Down came the advisory signs, the speed limits, the stop signs, the parking indicators, and even the lines in the streets were removed.  All that remained were the signs indicating the names of the streets and a sign at the entrance to the village declaring that the town is “verkeersbordvrij” (free of traffic signs).

What thought lies behind this apparent insanity?   Hans Monderman, a Dutch traffic expert and one of the project’s co-founders put it this way:  “The many rules strip us of the most important thing: the ability to be considerate. We are losing our capacity for socially responsible behaviour.  The greater the number of prescriptions, the more people’s sense of personal responsibility dwindles.”  In the right context, he believed,  allowing drivers a significantly greater degree of liberty in determining their driving habits would also heighten their sense of responsibility for road safety, and increase their consideration for others using the road with them.

The results?  A lower average traffic speed compared to when the signs were up, and a dramatic decline in traffic-related incidents.  Other, larger towns in Holland and around Europe have since followed suit.

What rules guide the Christian life?  When I became an Anglican I went to a parish church with a lovely Victorian-era interior featuring a triptych of faith tenets inscribed behind the altar.  In gold script painted on dark wood panelling one could read the Apostle’s Creed in the lefthand panel, the Ten Commandments in the middle, and the Lord’s Prayer to the right.  These were deemed by the church builders, presumably, to contain the core statements of the Christian faith.

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Jesus, however, like the small town in the Netherlands, seems intent on paring “the rules” down even further, to the bare essentials.  In fact, his summary of what is required of us amounts to something more akin to guiding principles than to rules: Love God with all your being, and love your neighbour as yourself.   Beyond that, live your life freely, making of it what you will, creating your own offering back to God, formed of the raw material God gave you to work with in the first place.

As Christians we are given a delightful liberty; it comes with a great responsibility.  Sadly, many cannot handle this freedom and find it easier to revert to a list of rules.  In itself that’s disappointing, but not a complete loss.  There’s some sense of security to be had there, and clarity too.

Still, if you went to the circus and the only tricks the trapeze artists were able to do were a few jumps and flips off their springy safety net – using it like a trampoline – it would be a disappointment, even if it was mildly entertaining.  Trapeze artists are meant to be flipping and soaring through the air, high above the safety net.  It takes practice and daring, but it can be done.

Go on, it’s time to let go and embrace your liberty.

 

 

* Keeping in mind that in some countries “liberal” is a right-wing label.  Either way, you get the point that I am not talking about politics.