has been said that wars provide the punctuation marks of history, and
it is also true, I think, that different decades also form the
paragraphs of this great historical story of which we are all part.
Certainly, each decade has its own spirit, its Zeitgeist (how I’ve
always loved that word)—its own spirit of the time, which provides each
decade with its own flavor, its elan, its color and temperament.
Think of how severely the changes which society has faced, the
issues the world has confronted seem compressed into one ten year
period. Think of the changes we all witness during our span of decades
on this earth (be it seven or eight or even nine). How the soft spoken
and self-satisfied Eisenhower years of the 1950s differ from the “New
Frontier” idealism and the “Great Society” pretensions of the early
1960s, and from the dislocations of the second half of that decade that
ushered in the 1970s: Civil Rights, Vietnam, Watergate, the rise of
Then think of how the materialism of
the 80s gave rise to the self-indulgence and excess of the 90s, then to
the hopes, then the fears, of a new millennium. Now, here we are
already, well into this second decade of this new century (and what are
we supposed to call it? The “tens”? The “twenty-tens”? The “two
thousand and tens”? The “teens”? [Not yet] How about “the second decade
of the 21st century”?) God only knows what these years might
Which is why some of us are much more comfortable looking
back than looking forward. But if the 1960s was the “free
generation”—with its emphasis both on individual expression (“do your
own thing” to use the old expression), as well as idealism and
political activism; and if the 1970s was the “me generation” ; then the
1980s, perhaps, represented the triumph of “free enterprise” (with
Reagan and Thatcher as the best exemplars of the age, no doubt) .
what is striking as we take this stroll down memory lane, is that, as
distinct as each of these decades was, that the idea of
“freedom”—manifested in differing ways no doubt—held a central position
in the Zeitgeist of each. The same is true, too, I think, of the
decades that have come since.
The quest for freedom is a
fundamental precept of American society. It dominates our political
history, from the American Revolution and the drafting of the
Bill of Rights, to the Civil War and the fight against slavery, right
down to the struggle for votes for women and the Civil Rights movement
and the quest for Marriage Equality. It dominates our social history.
No other nation has spawned as many vital reform movements—all seeking
to enlarge the circle of civil society, that place where freedom
becomes alive in people’s everyday lives. Freedom seems to be the vital
fuel that keeps American culture and commerce and industry alive and
dynamic, truly the envy of nations the world over.
Now, it might
be fashionable in some quarters to denigrate or disparage the political
freedom we enjoy as Americans. Some would claim that our political
system is just as oppressive as any other, that we are no more free
than any other people, really. They point as proof to the huge
economic disparities in our nation, to the fact that there is greater
economic inequality in the United States than in any other major
economy in the world.
These are real problems, and it is right to
ask how long political freedom can survive in the face of such economic
injustice. It is right to ask whether the advent of a New American
Feudalism with the stranglehold of the corporations and the crony
capitalists over our society may, indeed, be the greatest threat to our
survival as a free nation.
But the greatest hope of our nation
still lies in its freedom. So let’s make sure we don’t squander it. Or
surrender it to an economic elite who supposedly “know better” – to
those same “geniuses” – those “masters of the universe”-- who lost
American families somewhere over 19 trillion dollars in household
wealth in the Great Recession of 2008 and years following. For our
freedom is a precious and rare commodity indeed. It is our birthright.
It is more valuable to us than any pay check,the gift not of church or
state or government, but endowed to us, from our Creator; the precious
legacy of all the men and women of the Earth.
It is a
commodity all too rare in too many lands, still, in this world of ours.
So many people still are not free; they struggle under one form of
dictatorship or another—from Cuba in the west, to North Korea in the
east, with places like Belarus and Iran and Burma in between, to name
just a few. One of the names given to the Statue of Liberty by Italian
immigrants entering America around the turn of the 20th century was
“Santa Liberta”, “Saint Freedom”. Compare that to the Chinese
students in Tien An Men in 1989, who constructed their own model, and
called it the “Goddess of Liberty” to symbolize their struggle for
That’s how holy—even religious, even
transcendent—personal freedom can seem to those who don’t have it. We
should take pride that our nation has been, throughout its history, a
beacon of liberty and hope to the oppressed around the world. May we
hope that it continues to be such in our own day, as well.
so hope—and may we strive to make it so. Just yesterday, as I was
striding across the parking lot at the Stop & Shop (a place where I
stride often, if the truth be told), I was thinking about some of the
points I wanted to make in this sermon today, and I spied a bumper
sticker (it’s amazing how things will sometimes just pop up when you
need to see them). It was on the back of a pickup truck, and it had the
Marine symbol on one side, and it said: “For those who fought for it,
freedom has a taste that others will never know.”
It’s the God’s
honest truth, of course. Those who have to fight for their freedom
(which is not most of us) will never take it for granted ever
again; they won’t assume (as most of us probably do) that it will be
there when we need it; that it is, and always has been, and evermore
shall be. Those who fight to defend freedom—or to achieve it—or to
regain it—know how precious it is, not just intellectually, but in
their bodies, in their very beings. Soldiers on the front line at Omaha
Beach knew. The students of Munich of the White Rose knew as they
distributed their leaflets under the threat of Nazi tyranny. The man
and women who braved East German gunfire to scale the Berlin Wall
knew. The students in Tien An Men who watched their Goddess of
Liberty hurled to the ground knew, as did the Chinese student a few
days later, who stood silently in front of the tanks that moved down
Beijing’s Avenue of Heavenly Peace. The people who marched defiantly in
the streets of Tunis knew, and those in the streets of Cairo, and
Tripoli; and those now dying in the streets of Damascus and Homs and
other cities across Syria know so well how precious freedom is.
President George W. Bush said in his Second Inaugural Address (I know
that it’s over 40 degrees outside; but hell really must be freezing
over for me to quote George W. Bush for the second time in three
weeks)—he said, correctly, in my estimation: “There is only one force
of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and
expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent
and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom.”
Indeed “Only freedom can work such miracles!”
it’s one thing to talk about freedom (in that speech, President Bush
used the words “free”, “freedom”, or “liberty” an amazing 49 times) ,
It’s another thing to practice it, or more importantly for a President,
perhaps, actually to encourage it and foster it in the real world. As
Adlai Stevenson (whom I am much happier quoting) told the American
Legion convention in 1952: "Patriotism is not a short and frenzied
outburst of emotion but the tranquil and steady dedication of a
We may often praise freedom as a glorious ideal. But true
freedom is not just an ideal; indeed, it is perhaps the most real, the
most embodied, flesh and bones, of human ideals. True freedom cannot
exist in a vacuum. It is not merely a god whose name we invoke to cover
up our transgressions. True freedom, both in the political and
religious sense, is the living force by which men and women are
empowered to fulfill their ultimate potential as human beings. Freedom
is never an end in itself, but always a means toward an end. The purity
of our freedom guarantees the rightness of the goals which we seek.
the letter to the Galatians in the New Testament, St. Paul put it very
succinctly: “For, dear brothers and sisters, you have been given
freedom: not freedom to do wrong, but freedom to love and serve each
Freedom does not cut us off from each other, but joins us
to them. It does not lessen our commitment to others, but deepens and
strengthens the ties that bind. Freedom does not stand in contradiction
to responsibility; they are not opposites. Rather, true freedom leads
inevitably to our assuming greater responsibility—for our own lives;
for the one another; for the life of society and the world.
once said that when the half-gods go, the real gods finally arrive.
Certainly, there are any number of pretenders to the throne of true
freedom. A first false idol is, of course, license. License defines
freedom as our ability to do whatever we want to do, whenever we want
to do it. This false god stresses the sanctity of action, without any
regard for consequences. (Like a President, say, who launches an
ill-conceived war for “Freedom” without having a clue as to what the
consequences of that war might be.) To this way of thinking, the
fewer outside hindrances to our action, the better; the fewer people in
the way, the better. In our private lives, this becomes the philosophy
of “Live for today.” Or “Live for the present” or “Eat, drink,
and be merry, for tomorrow we die. And maybe bring the whole world down
Those who trumpet an extremely individualistic notion of
freedom deny the fundamental reality of our radical interdependence—as
individuals, as groups, and as nations. They follow the precepts of Ayn
Rand (perhaps the most heinous goddess of false freedom of all time),
and deny that politically and economically, we are part of a
commonwealth with one another, and that spiritually and
mystically, we are part of an interdependent web of creation with all
If there is one assumption we
need to integrate into our beings if this human race of ours is to
survive, it is that we are not here in this world alone, and that
we do not live for ourselves alone. A life which constantly seeks to
limit and control its interpersonal responsibilities (even in the name
of “freedom”) is a sterile and dead existence. It is a living death.
(Perhaps a comfortable one, and a nicely gilded one, but a living death
Now, as people who have been here
for more than a few years, you and I know what this world can do. Other
people (even those we like; even those we love) can be a pain in the…
neck… sometimes. They give us grief; they make us cry; they make us
mad; they don’t always bring out the best in us. But that is just how
this life is.
Just last night, Elizabeth and I watched the film,
The Tree of Life. What a strange film. Way too deep for me, I’m afraid.
But it had (at least) one good line. At one point, the mother tells her
son: "The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life
will flash by." Only insofar as we are able to love one another will
there be any hope for us, will there be a purpose to our lives when the
closing bell rings for each one of us.
As the Eagles used to sing:
Desperado, you ain’t getting no younger,
Your pain and your hunger,
They’re driving you wild.
And “freedom”? That’s just some people talking,
Your prison is walking this world all alone.
simply, we need one another. Others need us. There is a symbiosis—a
balance—in Nature, which needs to be reflected in human societies if
they are to be healthy and whole and just.
None of us was created
to be slaves to another. Nor were any of us created to enslave others.
We were endowed by our Creator with the right to share the Earth
together, with the ability to help one another, and with the calling to
live in peace with all creatures.
We exist in a continual state of
covenant—covenant with one another and covenant with that Creative
Force in the universe in whom we live and move and have our being.
Love is a circle, it knows no bounds,
The more you give, the more comes around…
is freedom which allows the circles of our lives to grow wider and
wider. Freedom allows us to share just as widely as we may the gifts of
our lives and the wealth which they produce. Freedom allows us to be
the fully human beings that we would be, that we can be.