Are We Free?

are  we freeOn the Fourth of July we celebrate freedom. I love to celebrate as much as anyone but as I look around me I sometimes wonder if we are as free as we believe ourselves to be. Sometimes the evil of which we prove ourselves capable seems to indicate we are held in bondage to ignorance and denial rather than the freedom of justice and righteousness.

Let’s think about that original Fourth of July that we point to as the birth of our freedom. The political crisis that led to the Declaration of Independence was rooted in economics. The British Parliament enacted financial policies that benefited England but caused financial harm to Americans. One of the rallying cries of those protesting British policy was “Taxation without representation is tyranny!” signifying the basis for American discontent. It was only later in the Revolutionary War that the meaning of the struggle came to be associated with what we today think of as liberty. For the original revolutionaries liberty meant the right to hold on to your property, by the end of the revolution it had come to mean personal freedoms like the right to participate in government, the right to dissent without fear of reprisal, the right to worship God freely without government interference, and all of the freedoms specified in the Bill of Rights that we are celebrating today.

When the Constitution was created a few years after the end of the American Revolution the founders of the United States sought to establish a form of government that would institutionalize the freedoms won in the revolution, which at the time were thought of as incredibly radical. And there isn’t any doubt that their work inspired a movement toward personal liberation from both State and Church oppression that still resonates today. But at the same time the founders perpetuated the institution of slavery which mocked the ideals of liberty they were trying to put into practice. The Constitution not only acknowledged but accommodated a system of brutality that would only end after the devastating bloodshed of the Civil War.

It’s not my purpose here to disparage the founders for accommodating slavery. Slavery was a reality then that it is not today. It had both economic and cultural roots and the idea of ending slavery was then much more radical than the idea of keeping it. It was largely due to the efforts of Christian abolitionists, first in England and then in the United States, that slavery came to be regarded as evil. Yet the fact remains that even though our nation was founded on the loftiest principles of freedom and liberty, it was marred from its birth by the stain of slavery.

In the first few decades of the nation’s existence this issue came to dominate national political life. The conflict was expressed differently depending on whether you were for or against slavery. To the latter, slaves were property, and any suggestion that their right to own that property should be abridged or denied smacked of the same tyranny as Parliament’s insistence of extracting revenue from the colonies without their consent. They defined liberty as the right to hold property, and the purpose of government to protect that right. In that they were in agreement with the Enlightenment philosophy of John Locke, whose writings heavily influenced both the Declaration of Independence and subsequently the Constitution.

At the same time more and more Northerners came to see slavery as a moral evil, something that should not be tolerated in a land that claimed to stand as the beacon of freedom. Few of the anti-slavery advocates believed that blacks were equal with whites. Even Lincoln, who is credited with ending slavery (though he didn’t), believed that the best way to resolve the issue of what to do with freed slaves was to expatriate them to Africa. The passions of both the advocates of the perpetuation of slavery on the one hand and abolitionists on the other drove the country inevitably toward armed conflict and eventually resulted in the Civil War.

Now I want to be very clear here, and this matters, that though slavery was the underlying cause of the Civil War, slavery was not uppermost in the minds of those who fought it. The Declarations of Cause that the seceding States published all pointed to slavery as the cause for dissolving the Union, but on the principle of property ownership. Lincoln, though against slavery, made clear that his highest concern was preservation of the Union. Southerners by and large fought against what they considered to be Northern aggression and violation of their rights; Northerners fought to preserve the Union. Most Southerners didn’t own slaves and weren’t fighting to keep their slaves, and almost none of the Northerners fought to free slaves. This is confirmed by the fact that when the Emancipation Proclamation took effect on January 1, 1863, many Northern officers resigned in protest, refusing to fight to free Negroes.

One incident in the 1830s involved a man named Elijah P. Lovejoy. Lovejoy was a Presbyterian minister in Alton, Illinois and a prominent abolitionist. He operated a press and spoke out forcefully for the abolition of slavery. On November 7, 1837, Lovejoy was brutally murdered by a mob of pro-slavery advocates (in Illinois, hardly what we would consider the Deep South), seeking to destroy his press and silence him. As a result, another minister, Prof. Laurens P. Hickok, rallied the people of the region against the murderers and stated in a meeting he had organized, “The crisis has come. The question now before the American citizens is no longer alone, ‘Can the slaves be made free?’ but, ‘Are we free?”

That is the question I want to put before us today, as we celebrate the Fourth of July: “Are we free?” Hickok recognized the paradox of America, a nation founded on the principles of liberty that tolerated and even supported the institution of slavery, and realized that as long as that injustice prevailed no one in America could really claim to be free.

I want to call attention to the fact that we still live a paradox in terms of our understanding of freedom. As Americans we all believe, instinctively, I think, that we are free and that we are blessed with freedom, and there is a lot of truth in that belief. Americans enjoy greater freedoms than almost anyone else on earth. But at the same time I think some of what we think of as freedom is an illusion. It leaves us to wonder what it really means to be free.

If you asked Americans before the Civil War, North or South, what America stood for, I’m pretty sure that the most common answer then would have been liberty, just like today. Americans then were sure they were free because of the promises of freedom arising as a result of the Revolution. And yet tens of thousands of human beings were held against their will in cruel bondage, and everyone knew this. A few people, mostly Christian abolitionists who were looked upon as radicals and trouble makers, recognized the paradox and sought to bring America’s reality into alignment with its principles.

The war was fought, the Union preserved, the slaves freed. But the conflict remained. It is a complex and painful history, but the essence is that ending the institution of slavery did not even address another, even deeper divide in American life: racism. We want to equate slavery with racism, and in the United States that was mostly accurate. But the opposite was not true. Being against slavery was not the same as being against racism. And so within only a few years of the abolition of slavery those who previously had been marked for bondage by the color of their skin became legally segregated and excluded from the blessings of liberty by that same measure. Americans continued to boast about freedom while everyone knew that millions of their countrymen were not truly free.

The nation was able to ignore this paradox until World War II caused Americans, particularly excluded Americans, to reconsider the promise of freedom. If they were called to put their lives on the line to fight against German and Japanese racism, why should they tolerate racism at home? And so America’s supreme accomplishment: liberating the world from the evils of Nazism and Japanese racist aggression, became the crucible for domestic soul-searching and turmoil. The Civil Rights Movement is today considered a triumph of justice but it was a brutal episode in our history and its promises have yet to be realized. We have abolished slavery in law, and we have abolished segregation in law, but we are still haunted by the ghost of racism.

As Prof. Hickok asked the Americans of his time, “Are we free?” Or are we deceived like pre-Civil War Americans into thinking that because we inherit the promise of liberty made by our ancestors we are automatically free, while at the same time we are held in bondage by racist attitudes we are not even able to acknowledge?

Are we free when we are raised to intuitively see the world through eyes that are tinted with fear and distrust of the “other”? Are we free when we dismiss the cries of our neighbors for justice and equality as whining and hyper-sensitivity? Are we free when in response to each monstrous criminal act and tragic blunder we take refuge behind fortresses of preconceived notions and parrot other peoples’ well-worn arguments to each other? Are we free when rather than taking a courageous stand for peace we allow ourselves to spiral deeper and deeper into enmity, even to promote that? Are we free when being right seems more important than being happy?

Unlike Professor Hickok we can’t note the arrival of crisis. The crisis is ever with us. We inherited it, and it is only deepened by our denial. But while crisis often has a tendency to bring out the worst in people, and we can certainly point to much evidence of that in our history, crisis can also be a time when people are able to rise above their circumstances and aim for a higher purpose. We Americans claim to be a wholly exceptional people. Perhaps if we were as exceptional as we claim to be we would not still struggle with the meaning of “All men are created equal” 239 years after we declared it.

But perhaps what is exceptional about America is that we still can envision a better future. We still can hold ourselves to a higher standard. And we have demonstrated that what we can dream we can achieve.

As we celebrate America’s independence, let us enjoy the picnics and the fireworks and all of the other fun activities and give thanks for the freedoms we have been blessed with. Let us really appreciate how fortunate we are to inherit the promises of liberty. But let us also recall that the liberties we enjoy represent not just a blessing but a calling. We are not free just to be free, so that we can become self-absorbed consumers. We are called to be light, to reflect in our own lives the vision of a world of righteousness, justice, and love. As Americans, we have the freedom to do that. We have the freedom to turn away from darkness and embrace the light. And when that has been accomplished, when, as the biblical prophet Amos says, we “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24 ESV), then we will be truly free. Then we will be able to sing along with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Thank God Almighty we are free at last!”

Happy Fourth of July. God bless our American States!

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