Freedom is not just a crucial principle in our religious tradition. It is also a foundational value for the United States. It’s a well-worn word in politics, often used to invoke soaring pride. It speaks to an ideal we all seek to live and know.
But what do we really mean by freedom? And is it possible that the rhetoric of freedom has actually undermined freedom’s power to shape our collective commitment to this crucial condition of life?
Let’s start with the definition. Freedom is a state of liberty as opposed to confinement; freedom is the power of self-determination, the ability to control one’s own life. It means emancipation, liberation, a state of free will, agency.
A major theme of George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, is the authoritarian government’s use of doublethink. This likely inspired what we commonly call doublespeak, the art of using language in a way that deliberately disguises, distorts or reverses the meaning of words. In the novel, the superstate of Oceania is a world of perpetual war, with constant government surveillance and public manipulation by masters of doublespeak. Doublespeak in politics is when powerful, patriotic, even moral language is used, but with a contrary or empty meaning to the underlying words. As a great example, one of the official slogans of the ruling Party was “War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.”
I cannot help but think of Orwell when so many of our recent overseas wars are named for freedom, such as Operation Enduring Freedom, and when we use the language of freedom to protect discrimination, as when the notion of religious freedom is misused to promote religious discrimination. So many politicians speak as if a love of freedom lives in their hearts, but they do not seem concerned about the reality of mass incarceration in the United States.
The statistic that continues to shock me—and should shock us all—is that the U.S. contains five percent of the world’s people, but 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population. One quarter of all the people imprisoned anywhere in the world are in the U.S. In fact, the United States has the highest incarceration rate of any country, with a total of over 2.3 million people behind bars. From 1970 to 2005 (a mere 35 years) the US prison population grew 700 percent while the actual population during this time only grew 44 percent. This is reality in what we call the Land of Liberty.
What the Black Lives Matter movement and Michelle Alexander’s incredible book, The New Jim Crow, have revealed is that our system—at all levels of municipal, state and federal government—is financially dependent on American’s criminalization and imprisonment. In this Land of Liberty, the Land of the Free, we create financial incentives and fund our governments by criminalizing the population. Meanwhile, the rhetoric of freedom—silent on the issue of mass incarceration, detention and criminalization—instead speaks only of birth control, marriage, health care, guns, taxes and war.
What was it that Jesus said about looking at the speck of dust in your brother’s eye but failing to notice the log within your own eye? But before going any further, let’s step back and remember that love of freedom in the United States has never rung fully true. There is no idealized past to look back to on this one.
The soaring rhetoric of liberty inscribed in the Declaration of Independence, what some call our American credo—that “all men are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”—was written by the slave-owning father of our country, Thomas Jefferson. And indeed, the document’s proclamation of liberty stood in sharp contrast to the undeniable reality of slavery. And even after the brutal Civil War brought an end to the institution of slavery, the struggle for equality, dignity and freedom continued, and continues today.
Yes, we’ve made progress on many accounts, but there are losses as well. We have not reached the pinnacle of equality; our present system is found lacking when compared to the elevated rhetoric of freedom that we hear so frequently on our radios and televisions and in the mouths of too many of our political leaders.
Yet, freedom remains our aspiration. Even if the way it gets trotted out to defend every war and narrow political position undermines and impoverishes its meaning, this aspiration of freedom still has real power to inspire and challenge us. For it is the need and hope and love of freedom that has led human beings throughout history—and still today—to march sometimes joyfully, sometimes in agony, toward full emancipation.
So are we—as Unitarian Universalists, as U.S. Americans—a people of freedom? Do we even know what freedom means?
The Jewish Austrian psychiatrist, Victor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and author of the famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning, writes:
Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness.
This is so important, this coupling of freedom and responsibleness. I cannot be free if you are not free. For, in the words of Nelson Mandela, “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” This idea that freedom by itself, alone, has the tendency to degenerate into mere arbitrariness is why our rhetoric of freedom echoes so hollow when it is deployed to defend and protect individual religious preference, personal ideology, or the protection and benefits of privilege.
What happens when my understanding of freedom infringes on your freedom? Whose privilege, whose ideology will carry the day? This is where we see the limits, the poverty of freedom if it is not coupled with a sense of relationship.
True freedom is knowing that we cannot be free when others are oppressed. The power of freedom is in the call for equity and liberation and justice for all. And this freedom does not exist by itself, or in a vacuum, or as some idealized state. It exists in relationship, arising from how we live in ways that enhance each other’s freedom.
The Black feminist writer and theorist bell hooks says, “The moment we choose to love we begin to move against domination, against oppression. The moment we choose to love we begin to move towards freedom, to act in ways that liberate ourselves and others.” She argues that before we can get to freedom, we have got to learn to love, we’ve got to choose love. And love is about relationship. It is about the connections we have to each other, seeing and valuing the ways we are interdependent.
Expecting freedom without love, separating freedom from an ethic of relationship and responsibleness, is how we can have such a powerful rhetorical proclamation of the unalienable right to liberty defining a nation that was built on domination, oppression and slavery. This is how today we can talk about liberty in terms of protecting wealth and guns, limiting birth control and protecting the right to discriminate against GLBTQ people. This is how we carry out wars in the name of freedom, all the while incarcerating more people than ever in history. It is because we look at freedom as an individual thing—separate from relationship, separate from our responsibilities to each other, separate from an ethic of love.
As Unitarian Universalists, we are a people of freedom, committed to religious freedom, but that commitment cannot be separated from the call to love one another. In one of the most precise and beautiful articulations of the challenge and the aspiration of the religious life, A. Powell Davies describes us as, “The religion that knows that we shall never have hearts big enough for the love of God until we have made them big enough for the worldwide love of one another.”
When we choose love, we move toward freedom—we move toward God, toward beauty, toward our highest aspirations, toward the fullness of what lives within us. When we choose love, we begin to be the people of freedom.
Rev. Frederick-Gray’s justice work emerges from a deep faith in the power and importance of love and compassion and the call to love our neighbor as ourselves.Her work is fed by her daily spiritual and meditation practice. In addition to ministry, Susan is a spouse and mother.Her husband, the Rev. Brian Frederick-Gray, is the Pastor of the First Christian Church of Scottsdale and they and their nine-year-old son live in north Phoenix.