By Steven Norris
Freedom. It’s been on my mind quite a bit over the past days and weeks. Maybe it was watching the fireworks on the fourth of July from the parking lot of Southern Crescent. Maybe it was joining in the national phenomenon of seeing the musical “Hamilton” for the first time on my television. Maybe it was from driving up and down Hill St. in all its patriotic glory. Maybe it stems from my recent pilgrimage to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice or my walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma last weekend.
When we, as citizens of this nation, talk of freedom, what do we mean?
As one writer put it, our conversations on freedom typically occur in terms of “freedom from: freedom from the tyranny of a distant crown; freedom from government meddling in how we speak, associate, and worship; or even freedom from meaningless jobs, middling marriages, or conventional mores.” For many of us, our definition of freedom is defined by the wholesale removal of restraints.
This, however, is nothing more than pseudo-freedom. To be entirely unrestrained as a people renders us slaves to a new master – in bondage to momentary passions, lusts, or fleeting desires.
True freedom is only possible when there is a “motive that transcends the present moment, which is obedient to a higher call: a call from God.”
We see that call reflected in one of the beloved hymns of our nation. Written by Katherine Lee Bates and first published on July 4, 1895, “America the Beautiful” articulates a vision of world and nation that could be. Unlike “The Star-Spangled Banner” that reflects on mere survival through the midst of storm and conflict, “America the Beautiful” articulates an ideal worthy of our striving.
Instead of “freedom from,” it articulates a “freedom for.” Listen to these words: “Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law . . . who more than self their country loved and mercy more than life! . . . crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.”
This is not a freedom enslaved to personal passions or the whims of the moment, but a freedom dedicated to service, to kinship, to a unity of heart, mind, and purpose. This is vision opposed to self-centered narcissism, a vision released from personal gain and self-gratification. This is vision driven by the common good, the welfare of all, and the possibility of future for every man, woman, and child.
Over and over again, scripture and experience teach us that “freedom from” will never be enough to provide true contentment and purpose. “Freedom from” all law and restraint will never provide the kind of flourishing that we long for as humans. Rather, the freedom of which our hymns speak and hearts dream may be found when we can see beyond the paralysis of the present moment to a vision of what might yet be in our community and nation.
My prayer is that we might have the courage to dream of that kind of freedom in these days once again.