The Predicament of Freedom

In anticipation of Independence Day next week, I find myself thinking of words from American history that capture one of the core ideas of our democracy:

"I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death." Patrick Henry, speaking at the Virginia Convention in 1775

"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. From The Declaration of Independence, adopted in Philadelphia on July 4th, 1776

When the Continental Congress declared the separation of the thirteen colonies from Great Britain 231 years ago, liberty was foremost in the minds of our nation's founders. The idea did not originate with them, of course. In every age and across the earth, human beings have, as the inscription of the Statue of Liberty reads, yearned to "breathe free."

Three thousand years before Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, the Hebrew people suffered under bondage in Egypt. They yearned for freedom. God sent a man named Moses who demanded of Pharaoh, "Let my people go!" When Pharaoh refused, God delivered.

A thousand years later, the people were again oppressed, both by the tyranny of the Roman Empire and by the powers and principalities of the world, and God sent a man named Jesus. He announced in his inaugural sermon that he had been anointed by the Holy Spirit "to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives. . .to let the oppressed go free."

This same liberating Jesus would later say to his closest 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. . .so if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed."

Freedom. Freedom is an idea that originates in the very heart of God. In the beginning, when God created humankind, God could have made us puppet-like, so that whenever God wanted us to do something, God would just pull a string and we would do it. What kind of relationship would that be? God created us, women and men, with the capacity and the responsibility to act as free moral agents. The desire for freedom is not simply a function of the human spirit. Its source is nothing less than the free will of the Living God.

There are more than fifty references to freedom in the New Testament, each of them exploring a different dimension of what Paul calls in his letter to the Romans, "the glorious liberty of the children of God."

In Paul's letter to the Galatians, however, there is a less than glorious atmosphere surrounding the subject. It seems as if the church there was divided into camps. There were those who believed that freedom meant license to do whatever you pleased. I remember a noted 20th-century novelist saying that what is good is what you feel good after and what is bad is what you feel bad after. The Gnostics in the First Century wouldn't have gone in that direction. What they would have said is that setting the human spirit free from matter and flesh is the whole point of life and that what you actually do is of little consequence, so do what you please. In response, Paul replied, "Do not use your freedom for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves of one another, for the whole law is summed up in this single commandment: You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

Another camp in the church in Galatia was made up of those who thought it imperative to adhere to the requirements of religious ritual, the most significant of which was circumcision. That crowd would have said that freedom in Christ is all well and good, but that they felt much more secure remaining inside the old prison of a thousand do's and don'ts.

Paul was passionately convinced that observing the ritual or not observing it really was of no consequence. According to Paul, "The only thing that counts is faith working through love."

Just as each generation of Americans must learn anew what our Pledge of Allegiance maintains-that civil liberty is a function of fidelity to justice, so each generation of Jesus' followers must learn anew that Christian liberty is a function of fidelity to the law of love.

I am not speaking of love in a moonlight and violins sort of way, though in our hard-wired, hard-edged world, we can use all the romance we can muster. I am speaking of love in the sense in which Jesus spoke of it. When he voiced the great commandment to love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength and all your mind, he was emphasizing ethics over emotion.

The great 20th- century religious thinker Reinhold Niebuhr put it this way: "Basically love means . . .being responsible, responsible to our family, toward our civilization, and now by the pressures of history, toward the universe of humankind."

To be free really means to be liberated from the prison of "me, myself, and I". To be truly free is to be able to move beyond the self and, as one who is wise has put it, to move into the risk of love and to give oneself to the demand of service. To be free is to be free for responsibility, not from responsibility. I think of how Christ Jesus who had everything in the world going for himself-power, status, safety-how he chose, freely chose to empty himself and take on the form of a servant for the sake of the world. Now that is freedom.

I think of how God made us as one human family, irrevocably bound to one another in God's heart and mind from the very beginning so that we are by nature inclined toward one another. The need of the other is really our own need. The suffering of the other is, in a real sense, our own suffering.

I sometimes use a little test Frederick Buechner suggests. I use it to see if I am still a functioning, free moral agent. Beuchner wrote: If you have not cried for someone other than yourself in the last year, then the chances are you are already dead. That's a good place to start, having feelings of empathy for the other. But I know I haven't passed the test until I actually do something-make a call, bake a pie, write a letter, offer comfort, stand up for someone whose voice is not being heard. How did Paul put it? The only thing that matters is faith working in love.

By the will of God and through the power of the Holy Spirit, freedom and responsibility belong together in our lives and in the life of our faith communities.

The same is true, I believe, for our nation. One of America's greatest gifts to the world is the notion of religious liberty. The state cannot impose religion, and all our citizens are free to exercise religion or not, according to their own wishes. But that does not mean that people of faith do not have a crucial role to play in the life of our nation. We ought to be working every day to create a society that is marked by concern for the common good. We ought to be listening for the voices of those who are not being heard. We ought to be speaking out against excessive self-indulgence and naming the corrosive consequences of greed. Paul put it so plainly in this regard, "if you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another."

I believe that the United States has a particular calling-that we are called to be a servant people, bringing good news to the oppressed, modeling justice, proclaiming liberty to the captives. Can you even think of a time that called for moral leadership more than these troubled days? Oh, what an opportunity we have, what a responsibility we have-to repair, to raise up, to build up, to offer hope for all those who mourn in our midst and beyond our shores.

Learned Hand was one of our country's most outstanding jurists. He once asked himself, "What is the spirit of liberty?"

In answer, he wrote these eloquent words:

The spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women. . .it weighs their interests alongside its own, it remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded. . .the spirit of liberty is the spirit of Him who, 2,000 years ago, taught humanity a lesson it has never learned but has never quite forgotten: that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, may our pledge of allegiance be this day to that kind of kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven.

Let us pray. Most merciful God, we praise you for the privilege of worshipping you openly and freely. Help us to hunger and thirst for all that is good, until your kingdom comes on earth as in heaven. All glory and power to you, mighty God, now and forever. Amen.