Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Freedom Is More Than a Word

When the oldest living alumnus of a great Eastern University returned to attend homecoming he was asked to address the faculty and student body in the chapel. The ninety-six-year-old benefactor was guided to the lectern by the president, and the reluctant audience settled in to hear a long rambling speech. They were surprised, however, when the old man draped himself over the lectern and made a single sentence speech. He said, "I want to thank this school for setting me free without setting me adrift", and he sat down. What a tribute to set someone free without setting them adrift.

One of the most meaningful efforts in which we can engage ourselves is becoming free and setting others free. So many people are bound by so much: ignorance, pain, fear, guilt, superstition, hate, greed, lust, and the list goes on. Sometimes you can look into the eyes of some people and see chains on their souls, and others are bound by chains we cannot see. There are people who are afraid to be free, preferring familiar chains to unfamiliar freedom.

Americans are heavily endowed with popular notions of freedom conferred on us by virtue of our heritage and our government. There is a great deal of mythology in that concept. In his book, "From Freedom to Slavery", Gerry Spence points out that we believe we are free in approximately the same way we believe in God. "Freedom", he said, "is an article of faith, not a fact, not a condition. The history of humankind with its legacy of slavery, wars, and brutality, overshadowed by heroes of peace and service, servs as a reminder that no one can enslave our minds or soul, without our consent. Mr Spence also notes that "the freedom we enjoy in America, when set against the freedom of peoples in other lands, is emblazoned like a single candle lighting the gloom".

But, we all know (in fact we may be) people who, although living in a free country, are not free. There are many who live with the illusion of freedom, but who are sadly and unhappily imprisoned by choices they have made, particularly those made in response to adverse circumstances in their lives. There are many things that may constrict and limit us as much as any prison wall. The choice to do drugs puts you in a personal prison. There is the marriage that failed, a child that went wrong, a job that was lost, a lawsuit or an illness that crippled and limited you. There are endless ways in which our freedom can be challenged. Most of our freedoms, and certainly the most important ones, are personal, private and internal. There are some freedoms that no external government can confer on, nor withhold from us. These freedoms come from our own internal government (personal standards and choices), or from the government of God, which is a gift of grace. Perhaps you remember that famous line from Richard Lovelace's poem "To Althea,from Prison", "Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage."

There are more people than you might think that do not realize they are free because they feel inextricably bound to someone who has a perverted need to control and possess those near them. Ironically, this enslavement is often done in the name of love, but if it is love at all, it is self-love.

It is difficult to set our children free when it is time for them to leave the nest. We would like to keep them just as they were when they depended on us and loved us best, and when we enjoyed them most. However, in our better moments we know this is wrong. They must be set free to "become", and they may then return to love us in more mature ways.

All of us should be in the business of setting people free. Lee Wilson Dodd once wrote:

Much that I sought I could not find,

Much that I found I could not bind,

Much that I bound I could not free,

Much that I freed returned to me.

Giving and receiving freedom is basic to love. Without freedom, we often end up owning people and loving things. And, that is not good for anyone concerned.