Freedom. The bedrock of the American experiment. It is protected in the first amendment of the Bill of Rights, adopted in 1791: freedom to exercise one’s religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of the right to petition the government for redress of grievances. These freedoms are enshrined because they weren’t available under colonial rule.
We cherish freedom. We celebrate freedom. And yet – we are increasingly challenged by various paradoxes that the concept of freedom generates. Two glaring examples stand out: the substantial minority in this country, who are highly organized and well-funded, who insist on the freedom to buy, carry, and use a gun – without hindrance. And the majority of Americans who insist that a woman should have the freedom to determine whether or not to bring a pregnancy to term. What has emerged over the decades – and now is reaching full crescendo – is a paralyzing polarization in which people are fighting against someone else’s freedom – to either own, carry or use a gun; or to have an abortion.
As more and more people seem to be locked down and closed-up on these two – and other issues, the idea of freedom has been reduced to a parochial value and a tribal rallying cry.
And freedom suffers as a result.
Most of us have felt pressured to make a choice as to which silo, which tribe, we want to join. And to feel compelled to adopt the metaphors and messages of that group, accompanied by an expectation that we will adopt the identity of that silo, tribe, ideology, or party. Over the years I have heard many people identify themselves as Christian, and refer to other people — “He/she is a Christian.” The identifications are clear — as are the implications: Christians are those who claim a prescribed set of beliefs and and engage in a particular practice — and those of us who may have lived a lifetime of faith and discipline, with a different theology and kind of engagement, are not considered to be fully Christian. That may not be overtly said, but after hearing these conversations so often, it is how I usually feel. Despite my baptism, ordination as priest and later as bishop, and regardless of my lifetime of seeking to follow the witness and teaching of Jesus, I am led to believe that I don’t make the cut. That I don’t fit.
These harsh distinctions are not limited to the religious arena. Increasingly, businesses and educational institutions are embracing training in diversity, equity and inclusion — DEI. The intention is to invite students, teachers and colleagues to discover the roots of prejudice and racism, how they hinder the flourishing of schools, universities and workplaces; and how people and institutions can move forward if they confront some destructive historical patterns. A laudable and indeed necessary goal. But what many people are experiencing is a veiled form of coercion, which undercuts freedom — which in some cases are reinforcing some of the prejudices that the training programs are trying to address. In a May 15 New York Times article, some of these important initiatives are revising their curricula — calling them Diversity, Equity and BELONGING. Acknowledging that everyone on the ladder — whether from the top or the bottom, is part of the process. No one is excluded.
To my mind, which has been largely shaped by my religious journey, freedom is generative. It moves outward. It needs to include everyone. Limiting freedom to an ideology or race or economic status is not freedom; it is security posing as freedom. True freedom is excruciatingly difficult to achieve. It involves opening hearts and expanding horizons. It means engaging in contentious issues — like guns and abortion, with a willingness to listen and learn, rather than to insult or shame.
Creating freedom is hard work. There are times when it is just too hard, or not worth the effort. Or it feels too difficult to sort through the challenge of discerning freedom from protection. Those who insist on an absolute freedom to own, carry or use guns are, to my mind, not on a journey to freedom but instead display a fierce determination to secure tribal borders. And need to be challenged. Those who are virulently opposed to abortion, and seek to thwart women from having any freedom of choice in determining the course of their pregnancy are, to my mind, seeking to shore up their silo. And need to be challenged.
Arriving at freedom was a challenge when our country was created and the Bill of Rights were written. It still is, some 237 years later.
It is work we are called to do.