Years ago Marlo Thomas recorded an album entitled, “Free to Be You and Me.” I don’t remember much about the songs on it, but I do remember my kids and I listened to it a lot. Both then and now the title seems to convey an important message to a world where many who are in the minority have not been free to be who they are.
But even white males who are in the majority have not been free to be themselves. They have been constrained by cultural definitions of masculinity. Unlike persons of color, women, and lesbians, gays, and trans-gender folks, their “lack of freedom” has not diminished their lives.
Freedom. This is a topic that resides in both geo-political and religious spheres. It would seem it shouldn’t matter to which arena one refers – that freedom is freedom. But the devil is in the details, and the prepositions. There is “freedom from” and “freedom to.” When we speak out of the political sphere, my sense is that we most often refer to whatever it is “from” which we hope be free. When I was growing up this was “communism” for most folks. Nowadays I more often hear “big government” or “terrorism.” “Freedom from” has to do with what is “out there” that impinges on my life.
But “freedom to…” – that is about me, about my personal and unique desires or perceived needs. “Freedom to” can be thought of in terms of “rights” – my “rights.” And in contemporary Christian thinking the freedom God desires for humanity is often confused with this “freedom to” or with “rights.” When we look at the paradigmatic story of freedom in Biblical scriptures, the Exodus story, we quickly notice that it has nothing to do with individual rights. Moses’ and the Israelites’ delivery from slavery is a political story of “freedom from” – in this case, oppression.
Walking alongside individuals who are being oppressed, who have no voice, who are not “free to” be themselves is where you and I will clearly see the confluence of “freedom from” and “freedom to.” These are persons whose hopes and aspirations are that they will be free from everything that forces them into corners of silence and diminishment and fear. But as society, it is We The People who are challenged to address the structures that limit and silence them. They are our sisters and brothers. It is We The People who alone can break down the walls that imprison them so that they can be both free “from” and free “to.”
The simple concept of human decency may challenge some of us to do this work. Others of us may respond to the reasonableness of creating an equitable world for everyone. But those of us who are Christian must respond to Jesus’ mandate to love our neighbors as ourselves and become creators of justice. It is only out of the fertile soil of justice that true freedom will ever grow. Because as Martin Luther King said, quoting Emma Lazarus, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.”
Leigh Waggoner is priest at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. She can be reached at 565-7865, or firstname.lastname@example.org.