by Donald Schell
The heroic woman gazing out to sea with her torch held high invokes the longing in the human heart “to breathe free,” the longing for common life and purpose, the longing for human embrace. Words carved in stone give voice to the power and promise sculpted into her face and pose.
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
Promising new life in a place where people may live together in freedom, she sounds like a latter-day prophet calling exiles home from Babylon or into St. Paul’s heavenly Jerusalem, the City that is “free and mother to us all.”
Emma Lazarus, the poet who gave Liberty her voice, does speak like a Biblical prophet, and what we hear isn’t a hope bounded or defined by religious tribe or group, but, as in the later prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures, a generous longing in the human heart for peace, grace and reconciliation. I think, beneath or alongside some very different thoughts and impulses, everyone hopes that we might become people who could fearlessly embrace, comfort and encourage frightened strangers. In the Biblical prophets the poem’s promised gift of freedom doesn’t just deliver us from bondage, but freedom is the gift in a restored human community. It comes for peacemaking, for ending division to make a place for us and for all in a peaceful, productive community.
There are other voices in the human heart. Sometimes people more like us than we’d care to admit cheer on demagogues promising deporting the other en masse, building border walls or keeping Muslims out. Such voices have been part of our culture and society from the beginning too. In their dark way, our demagogues seize on a skewed part of our national vision of individualism and personal liberty. First, they’ll claim our freedom is complete and fully present (so needs to be defended, rather than extended), and then, we find that what they mean by “freedom” is radical individualism, the gift of being accountable to no one but oneself.
The Book of Common Prayer’s collect for the Reign of Christ offers a vision of freedom more like Emma Lazarus’s, a vision that heals radical individualism when we pray, “that the people of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin may be freed and brought together under His most gracious rule…”
The reign of Christ is a community that brings divided people who are not free together into freedom.
The words on Liberty’s pedestal were always a hope, an almost eschatological vision of who we hoped to be and what we intended to be for the rest of the world. But slavery was written into the Constitution, we fought a bitter war to end it and then, as Michelle Alexander describes so well in the New Jim Crow, went through various stages of denying freedom to some and fragmenting community until today we imprison more of our citizens than any country in the free world, taking liberty (and life) from people of color on a scale rivaling South Africa under apartheid. And though we might be poised to elect a woman president, we can’t resolve to pay women equally for equal work or to acknowledge the social good of universally accessible child care. Is this about our hypocrisy or about our becoming? Certainly the freedom we live is deeply incomplete so long as it doesn’t belong to all of us. Biblically and theologically, it’s also incomplete if “freedom” is simply opportunity for unhampered exercise of our own whim and protection of fiercely held opinions and judgments of others from any criticism or constraints. As we ask our politicians to proclaim our exceptionalism as the freest people on earth, some of us wonder whether we’ve simply lost our way or whether we never really found it.
Lazarus’s poem was written in the era of “Irish need not apply.”
And before that, our national myth-making about freedom and denial of our unfinished work as a nation goes all the way back to the beginning. The framers of the Constitution and the leaders of the revolution that made the Constitution possible believed they were doing something unprecedented in human history, and to an extent they were. They rallied around a call to freedom as they hammered out a political system that made voting citizens of a larger proportion of the male population than any country in previous human history.
But in their debates the Framers of the Constitution and other leaders who would subsequently shape the myth and civic piety for the new nation remembered that almost 20% of the country’s population were as unfree as any group in human history. At the Constitutional Convention they argued fiercely how their commitment to individual human freedom could protect freedom and “property rights” of slaveholders, or whether it should. The founders got no further than agreeing to disagree and so built protections for an institution of human bondage into the nation’s charter, but proceeded to tell our story as if 1776 marked the new dawn of human freedom. Renaissance and Enlightenment thought and secular piety had pushed relentlessly toward gestures to protect the promise and worth of every human person. But the same thought and piety turned a blind eye to the beginning and massive development of the largest slave-based economies in human history.
When a synagogue in Rhode Island wrote George Washington expressing their support for his courageous, tolerant leadership, his reply to them reiterated an emerging, new national rhetoric, identity story and declared mythology around ideas of individual liberty and “land of the free” orthodoxy. And, thank God, we’ve come to the point where most of us face the contradiction immediately – this decisive leader and advocate for democratic institutions was deliberately turning a blind eye to enslaved peoples who he “owned” and who were simply excluded from the freedom he insisted was universal –
“The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy — a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.”
In Washington’s telling of our founding story, “…the Government of the United States…gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance…”
Again, by the grace of God, and speaking to the grander human freedom God calls us to, since the beginning there have been prophet-like voices struggling to hold themselves and all of us accountable for the cost of the half-truth our “freedom for all.” President Lincoln comes to mind immediately – in the history of his presidency we can read his growing personal determination to acknowledge and act on the bitter truth that freedom for just some diminishes us all. And many of us heard that prophetic voice in Martin Luther King. There are many more.
“Liberty of conscience?” “Yearning to breathe free?” Are these evocative phrases talking about our unfettered ability to do whatever we please? That seems to be the best radical individualism can come up with.
But when St. Paul says, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom,” that freedom, the freedom to love and to create something together sounds much more like what Martin Luther, another renaissance voice, wrote about in The Freedom of the Christian,
“A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” And “…love…makes us free, joyful, almighty workers and conquerors over all tribulation, servants of our neighbors, and yet lords of all.”
Our deepest yearning to breathe free cries for deliverance from the isolation of the pervasive sin that John O’Donahue calls the “woundedness that keeps you stuck and paralyzed in hungry anxious places.” And the freedom that delivers us, doesn’t free us into the new isolation of new selfishness (as Ayn Rand would have it) but into relationship and love.
The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.
image from Flickr