06 July 2014

Locating Freedom

"The Spirit of Detroit," by American sculptor
Marshall Maynard Fredericks (1908 – 1998).
2 Corinthians 3:17-4:6

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost/ 6th July 2014

A song came to mind this week. It’s from 1974 or 1975, when I was about ten or eleven years old, when the musical Shenandoah was on Broadway.  At the time, perhaps the best-known song from the show was “Freedom.” That’s about the only song I remember from it, a musical that’s largely forgotten today.  Perhaps you remember the words: 
            Freedom ain’t a state like Maine or Virginia/
            Freedom ain’t across some county line/
            Freedom is a flame that burns within us
            Freedom’s in the state of mind.[1]

I remember thinking: where is freedom?  There are places that are free and places that are not.  The United States, I learned in school, is a place of freedom; the former Soviet Union was not.  There are places where liberty is in the air one breathes and there are places where it’s not.  Sometimes you can be so close to freedom, see it at a distance, and yet know that where you’re standing, you’re not free.  A line makes all the difference.  On one side of border you’re free; on the other side enslaved.  What is it like to live enslaved or with limited freedoms within a stone’s throw of freedom?

When I was in Detroit two weeks ago for the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), I walked past a remarkable monument, the International Underground Railroad Monument. The walk between my hotel and the convention center followed along the Detroit River. On the other side of the river, to the south, lies Windsor, Canada.  Detroit was a terminus on the Underground Railroad.  On the other side was freedom. 

"Gateway to Freedom"
The memorial is a bronze, life-size sculpture of an African-American family—mother and father and children—carrying their bags; alongside them are several citizens of Detroit, white, who are pointing the way to freedom, across the river, into Canada.  There!  On the memorial are the (known) names of people who helped African-Americans make it to freedom. It also lists the (known) churches and the (known) ministers that helped make the journey possible.  Sometimes you can see freedom—there at a distance—but you have to venture forth, take a risk to get there.
It’s easy to associate freedom with geography. I remember driving through East Germany on the way to West Berlin.  It was 1990.  The Berlin Wall had come down the previous autumn, but there were still two Germanys at the time.  It was a harrowing experience to go from West Germany into East Germany—through the heavily fortified border crossing, barbed wire, watchtowers, tanks, machine-gun batteries—driving through East Germany along the only highway allowed by my transit visa (we were not allowed to exit off the highway), and then eventually enter West Berlin through the British sector.  It was disturbing and stressful.  I arrived in West Berlin with one of the worse headaches I’ve ever had.   Then, in West Berlin, we saw the remains of the Wall, (I still have a piece of the Wall) and looked across No Man’s Land into East Berlin. Freedom on one side; very little freedom on the other.

Tearing down the Berlin Wall, 9th November 1989.
But freedom isn’t only a state or region, “it’s a state of mind.”  Freedom is a thought, an idea, a concept. This weekend we Americans have been celebrating the birth of a nation, but it’s also the birth of an idea that was a long time in the making.  Before the political, even military revolt, there was an ideological revolution—the gestation and eventual birth of freedom. Liberty.  While it’s often taught in schools that the concept of democracy has its origins in Greek civilization (that’s basically true) or in the Enlightenment philosophy that swept through Europe (that’s also basically true), it’s important to remember that the idea of freedom also has a source in the biblical witness and through the Bible’s influence on thought and culture, particularly those nations with a strong Calvinist-bent, such as the United States.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”  From the Declaration of Independence.

It’s easy to demonstrate that very similar ideas are found in, of all people, John Calvin (1509-1564).  At the end of Calvin’s magisterial work, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1559, he talks about the responsibilities given to those in authority over the people.  Those in leadership have an obligation to care for the needs of the people.  If the welfare of the people is in question, then the people might have a right to do something about it.[2] They might not be fit to serve.[3]

We might poke fun at Calvin today.  But we cannot underestimate the influence of his pen and his mind and heart upon the formation of the United States.  Calvin and Calvinist theologians had an enormous sway over the intellectual life of the British colonies, primarily through the voice of the minister.  Presbyterians in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Congregationalists in New England, together, represented that Calvinist voice. These were the people saying no to bishops and no to kings.[4]  Through clergy educated at Harvard and Yale and the College of New Jersey (later Princeton), clergy educated in Scotland and England and the Continent, Calvinist ideas combined with ideas that flowed from the Scottish Enlightenment in Edinburgh and Glasgow and provided the intellectual framework for independence.  It’s for this reason the war against the crown was known in the Houses of Parliament in London as that “Presbyterian rebellion.”  The British army closed many Presbyterian churches in New Jersey because the ministers were preaching sedition.  The British vandalized or destroyed Presbyterian churches.  The British converted the First Presbyterian Church in the City of New York in a stable.  The British burned the Presbyterian Church in Elizabethtown, New Jersey.[5]  The church I served in Mendham, NJ, founded in 1738, was a field hospital for Washington’s troops that camped for two winters at Jockey Hollow, near Morristown. This was not unique. An Anglican, loyal to the Crown, Dr. Charles Inglis, rector of Trinity Church in New York City, noted in 1776, “I do not know one Presbyterian minister, nor have I been able, after strict inquiry, to hear of any who did not by preaching and every effort in their power promote all the measures of the Continental Congress, however extravagant.”[6]

The person who best represents this Presbyterian “extravagancy”—it feels odd putting these two words together, “Presbyterian” and “extravagancy”—was the Reverend John Knox Witherspoon (1723-1794), president of the College of New Jersey, the only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence and later member of the Continental Congress.  In pulpits and in lecture halls in Princeton, through his writings, Witherspoon was one of the strongest voices for independence. John Adams (1735-1826) called him a “high Son of Liberty.”  

John Witherspoon statue, Princeton University,
by the renowned sculptor Alexander Stoddart.
A native of Paisley, Scotland, a graduate of the University of Edinburgh, with a honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from the University of St. Andrews, when Witherspoon arrived in Princeton 1767 he was part of an elite class of highly-educated individuals who served the cause of liberty, not because it was simply rational, but because such a cause flowed from his conscience, from his convictions as a Christian.  The early founders were not trying to form a “Christian” nation, but Christian ideas were definitely shaping their actions. In July 1776, British troops quartered in Long Island burned Witherspoon in effigy. [7]

Since the time of Moses, when God’s people were liberated from oppression in Egypt, to the emancipation of God’s people from the grips of the Babylonian Empire freeing them to return home from exile, to the ministry and message of Jesus Christ who came “to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18), to Paul’s experience of the Holy Spirit as freedom, we find this broad, overarching theme of scripture, a theme near and dear to the heart of God:  liberation, liberty, freedom.  God wants our freedom.

Walking through the streets of downtown Detroit two weeks ago I came across a large statue that contained these words by Paul:  “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17).  It’s actually one of my favorite passages of scripture.  What’s so striking about the way Paul talks about freedom here is that it’s not an idea or a concept or principal.  It’s not really a place or region or territory.  Instead, freedom is discovered through a relationship, through Paul’s relationship with the Lord.  Freedom is something he discovers in and through his experience of the Spirit.  Freedom is not “from” something or someone, but something, freedom, received in and through someone. 

So often we associate freedom with independence, not being dependent upon anyone or anything. We think of freedom as being ruggedly individualistic, alone, solitary—free to do whatever we want, whenever we want, free to be whatever we want to be.  Self-sufficient.  Free to do it, “My Way.”  That’s certainly one way to talk about freedom.  It’s also a pretty good description of hell.

In his classic work On Christian Liberty, Martin Luther (1483-1546) said, “A Christian…is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian…is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to everyone.” It’s a paradoxical statement, but it beautifully captures the Christian idea of freedom. Luther points to what freedom looks like theologically.  Freedom is found in and through the relationship with Christ.  When we know Christ and are known by him we discover what freedom looks like and feels like—a space is provided, space to breathe and thrive and live.  With Christ, through the experience of face-to-face mirroring, as we come to know Christ more and more, as our relationship with him deepens we are transformed, we are changed, and we experience freedom.  That’s what the Holy Spirit is always trying to do for those in Christ, transform us, change us, reform us.  We discover within the covenant of God’s love and grace that we are forgiven, loved, accepted, wanted by God, and with all of this comes freedom—which means we can let down our guard and not be afraid, it means we can relax, relax and fall into the arms of God, allowing Christ’s Spirit to carry us and hold us and transform us and love us. That’s freedom. 

This means that we as Christians are never really our own. We don’t belong to ourselves. We’re not individualists, off doing our own thing. We are bound to Christ. Or as Paul described himself, doulos Christou: a slave or servant of Christ.  Therefore we are called to serve others—not because we have to, but because we freely want to.  “For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Christ’s sake” (II Corinthians 4:5).  We enact our freedom by freely caring for our neighbor, by serving one another, loving one another, giving of ourselves to the other as servants of Christ.

This means that we servants of Christ have an obligation to our neighbors, whoever our neighbors happens to be, because Christ is committed to them too.  This is a contrasting view of freedom, so often confused with being an isolationist, a rugged individualist.  There’s little Biblical support for that view.  When we know that to be in Christ is freedom, that in Christ we know we are already free, this awareness frees us to extend freedom to others, to know we’re already free means we don’t have to worry about it being taking away from us, we can let others be, let them be free. It also means we are free to work and strive and even fight for the freedom of others, on behalf of others who are still bound. Freedom begets freedom.

God desires our freedom. I wish more Christians, as well as non-Christians knew that this, too, is part of the faith experience.  “For freedom Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1).  God desires our freedom.  And one of the best ways to discover that freedom is to be found in Christ, bound to Christ, to know the life of the Spirit who always, now and forever, works for our liberation, our liberty, our freedom—all for the glory of God.  Freedom begets freedom.




[1] Shenandoah (1974). Music by Gary Geld, lyrics by Gary Udell.
[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559), Book IV, Chapter XXV, “The Church and the State.”  To those with civil authority, “...if they remember that they are the vicegerents of God, it behooves them to watch with all care, earnestness, and diligence, that in their administration they may exhibit to men an image, as it were, of the providence, care, goodness, benevolence, and justice of God….  If they fail in their duty, they not only injure men by criminally distressing them, but even offend God by polluting his sacred judgments….” IV.xx.6.
[3]Calvin is very clear that regents and magistrates deserve respect and should be obeyed.  “But in the obedience which we have shown to be due to the authority of governors, it is always necessary to make one exception, and that is entitled to our first attention, –that it do not seduce us from obedience to [God], to whose will the desires of all kings ought to be subject, to whose decrees all their commands ought to yield, to whose majesty all their scepters ought to submit.” (IV.xx.32).
[4] Bradley J. Longfield, Presbyterians and American Culture: AHistory (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 32ff.
[5] Longfield, 45.
[6] Randall Balmer and John R. Fitzmier, The Presbyterians (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1993), 37. See also Lefferts A. Loetscher, A Brief History of Presbyterians (Westminster Press, 1978).
[7] Longfield, 41.

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