Freedom. It is such a familiar concept to us who live in these United States of America, in this land of the free. We love the whole idea of freedom, yet it is more complex than it seems.
According to the author William Faulkner, “We must be free not because we claim freedom, but because we practice it.” Will Rogers echoes a similar view but with a bit more of an edge in saying, “Liberty doesn’t work as well in practice as in speeches.”
Former president Dwight D. Eisenhower underscored the fragility of freedom. “Freedom has its life in the hearts, the actions, the spirit of men (sic) and so it must be daily earned and refreshed – else like a flower cut from its life-giving roots, it will wither and die.”
Martin Luther King put a condition on freedom. “There can be no true civil liberty without justice.”
Janis Joplin sang, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”
While Mark Twain, with tongue firmly in cheek observed, “It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have these three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence to practice neither.”
Jean-Paul Sarte offered a more elusive description that makes you stop and think in saying, “Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.”
And perhaps most familiar to us all, Thomas Jefferson wrote in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that 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.”
“The faith of our nation is captured in [Jefferson’s] words, “Forrest Church comments. “These are words that distill a mission while investing future citizens with a sacred charge.” Church considers the Declaration the “American Creed.” He goes on to say, “Living up to the truths our founders held self-evident…remains a constant challenge. But it invests our nation with spiritual purpose and – if we honor its precepts – a moral destiny.” (from the American Creed, p. xii)
The idea of human freedom is not, of course, uniquely American. It has deep biblical roots going all the way back to the beginning when God granted freedom to Adam and Eve – free with one proviso about eating from that one tree, that is. God’s message of freedom winds its way throughout the Old Testament. Think of the story of the Exodus as the Hebrews leave behind the oppression of Egypt, and then struggle with their new found freedom in the wilderness. Think of all the prophets calling the people of Israel to justice. The prophet Isaiah proclaimed, “Lift up your voice like a trumpet…loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke, let the oppressed go free.” Then in the New Testament, Jesus gives his life over to God’s insistent call for the equality of freedom, crossing societal boundaries, breaking religious rules, healing the outcast and disregarding nationality, gender and economic status in his relationships. He promises his followers, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”
In the Bible, God is always enabling or encouraging people to be free of everything that confines and restricts their becoming all God created them to be. It took considerably more time for any government to permit freedom to flower. Most significantly, in the year 1215 the King of England signed the Magna Carta which set forth basic principals of civil liberty, limiting the power of government, guaranteeing the right of Habeas Corpus and establishing property rights to ordinary citizens.
Paul’s letter to the Galatians is often called the Magna Carta of Christian freedom. To the church in Galatia he wrote, “For freedom Christ has set us free.”
So then we are free, both as citizens and as Christians. However given that freedom is open to interpretation, the question becomes: Free to do what? For one perspective on that big question, let’s approach it by considering first what freedom is not, and then what that implies in terms of defining freedom in a way that is true to both our civil and spiritual lives together.
To start with, freedom is not about having whatever you desire. Paul cautions, “Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence…” This lesson is as old as the Garden of Eden. Like Adam and Eve, most of us are in a place where we can freely enjoy consuming much fruit from a variety of retail trees. But the truth is, having everything your heart desires rarely bring peace or joy. Freedom loses its sweetness if it is only about filling yourself up.
Freedom is not the absence of restraint. This leads to a great irony: true freedom is found within limitations. Our government, our society, most of the organizations we are a part of include regulations, obligations and limits. Freedom is lived out in relationship and in community. The fact is, your freedom may impinge on my freedom. Freedom that is true to all requires that we respect one another’s rights and opinions.
Freedom is not an abstraction independent of responsibility. Paul warns, “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself. If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care you are not consumed by one another.’” The potential dark side of freedom is chaos and lawlessness. Freedom is more than just liberation and voting as we have learned these last years in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon. The reality, as every struggling nation has to learn sooner of later, is that freedom represents a means, not an end.
William Sloan Coffin commented some years back, “I think we can say that democracy is a form of government that demands more virtue of its citizens than any other form of government, but I do not think we can say that democracy guarantees that the virtue will be exercised. So let us term freedom of choice less a virtue than a necessity, a precondition to real freedom, which is to make choices that are generous, loving and wise. Our wills are only free when they can will the will of a loving God.” (Credo, pp. 80-81)
Freedom therefore is not another word for nothing left to lose. Freedom means moving beyond self. It means making a commitment to something worthy. Again Paul writes, “You are called to freedom…through love to become slaves to one another.” Slaves to one another? Isn’t that the opposite of freedom? But though such loaded terminology may be baffling and off- putting to us today, what Paul was talking about is the kind a kind of love that binds us together as a community. We cannot fully enjoy our own freedom and well-being without also being committed to our neighbor’s well-being.
Harper Lee’s well known novel, To Kill a Mocking Bird, tells the story of a small town southern lawyer who came to the defense of a black man wrongly accused of the rape of a white woman. One evening, just before the trial began, the attorney Atticus Finch (memorably played by Gregory Peck in the movie version), sits in his rocking chair. He has just finished reading the evening paper, The Mobile Press. He puts the paper on the floor and reaches out his arms to his young daughter, Scout, who comes and sits on his lap. They talk quietly together, the father’s arms around his daughter. He knows there will be trouble ahead for her at school. He knows how the community hates what he is doing in defending a black man. He wants to try to help her understand why he simply has got to do what he is about to do.
“Scout, when summer comes, you’ll have to keep your head…; it’s not fair for you and your brother Jem, I know, but sometimes, [even when you are little, you] have to make the best of things, and the way we conduct ourselves when the chips are down – well, all I can say is that maybe when you and [your brother] are grown, maybe you’ll look back on this with some compassion and [you will see that I tried not to] let you down…Tom Robinson’s case…goes to the essence of a man’s conscience. Scout, I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man.”
Scout answers, “You must be wrong. Everybody in town thinks you are wrong.”
“They’re entitled to think [whatever they want,]…but before I can live with other folks, I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.” (pp. 113-114)
Freedom of conscience enables us to show love and commitment to the general welfare by making choices and taking stances that go against the grain.
As part of my summer’s reading I picked up historian Michael Bechloss’ new book, Presidential Courage. What I like about it is that Bechloss gives the reader the back story of the personalities and politics and intrigue that confronted presidents such as George Washington, John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, who were faced with making decisions that put their leadership in jeapordy. I learned new things about some of the stories I was familiar with, like Lincoln’s signing of the Proclamation of Emancipation. Other stories were new to me, like George Washington being threatened with impeachment as he put his prestige and legacy on the line against strong political forces and public opinion to hold firm for a peace treaty that saved our fledging nation from a divisive conflict too soon after the revolution. Another was about John Adams incurring his party’s “unrelenting hatred” by refusing to fight France, warning his enemies. “Great is the guilt of an unnecessary war.” It was to cost him his re-election. Theodore Roosevelt refused to give in to J P Morgan and the Wall Street power brokers who dominated his party to work for a peaceful end to a coal strike that would have crippled the country and hurt the welfare of miners and their families. Each of these presidents chose to put the welfare of their country ahead of themselves.
Freedom stands as the foremost principal our government and civil life was founded upon…freedom to live as equals, freedom to enjoy the choices liberty offers, freedom to pursue happiness. And freedom is what Christ has given us, freedom to be the person we are intended to be and freedom to love and serve another. There is a notable harmony between the ideals of our country’s foundation of freedom and our faith’s gift of freedom. One reinforces the other, and the two become fused together.
If you were a Boy Scout you recited: On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; To help other people at all times; To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.
The Girl Scout version was only slightly different: On my honor I will try: To serve God and my country, To help people at all times, And to live by the Girl Scout Law.
It’s all there: freedom to serve God and country and a commitment to live strong and help others. Freedom is a way of living. I am grateful for our country and for our faith that gives us the freedom to follow what God desires for us and which we, in our heart of hearts, desire for ourselves.
And so as we celebrate the freedom we have this Fourth of July, may we not take our freedom for granted, forgetting how precious and fragile it is, and that it begins with God – as acknowledged in the Declaration of Independence, and in the Magna Carta of Christian freedom.
“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
“For we are called to freedom in Jesus Christ…and through love committed to the welfare of one another. For the whole law of our faith in Jesus Christ is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
May it be so in this great land of liberty. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. .