You know what? I cry whenever I vote. From the very first time, when I pulled that lever in the presidential election of 1972, (I voted for George McGovern), I get teary. Voting is that monumental for me. It is a most potent symbol of democracy and of freedom. Given the state of our country and the economic, political, environmental and social challenges we face, given that some are questioning whether, or to what extent, the United States is a democracy, these days I’m asking myself what it even means to be free.
We human beings have been aware of our need, our desire, our passion for freedom maybe ever since our beginning. Metaphorically speaking, wasn’t it at least partially a desire for freedom of the mind that led Eve and Adam to want to know the difference between good and evil? Countless wars have been fought to preserve and to take away freedom. Countless people have tried to define it, describe it and create it. Countless songs have been sung; countless words have been written in celebration, out of inspiration, in the striving for freedom. Today I’m thinking that freedom is both a cause and an effect. It is the result of certain value systems, of certain ethics. It is the cause of certain behaviors to bring about those ethics and value systems. Freedom is relational. Clarence Darrow said “You can only be free if I am free.” Deeper, freedom serves the human longing for a full and richly sustaining life. I wonder if our desire for freedom, if our need for freedom, is not fundamental to our beings? Which would be why it has, and does, play a critical role in human history? Are we free? Are we really free? What does freedom mean?
Unitarian Universalism is all about freedom, of course. Freedom of conscience, freedom of the pulpit, freedom of belief. Back in 1980 when I was first learning about UU’ism, the idea that I was free to believe the deepest truths of my mind and heart won me over and I have been a UU ever since. That’s how much of an impact freedom made on me.
The borning of Unitarianism and Universalism in this country coincides with the birth of the United States itself in the late eighteenth century. This is no accident. Many of the same principles, values and ways of thought can be found in each of them. Thomas Jefferson, Unitarian, wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men (and I say people) are created equal,” ( each of us has inherent worth and dignity), “that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” (The free and responsible search for truth and meaning.) “– That to secure these rights Governments are instituted among Men, (people), deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” (The use of the democratic process in our congregations.) “– That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to 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.” Here freedom is associated with life and safety and happiness and it is the job of government to function in a way that brings them about.
Some of the same people who played instrumental roles in the founding of the country made important contributions to Unitarianism or Universalism. Universalism, which claimed that God loves all people and thus there is salvation for all people, developed in America during the 18th c. “By 1781, Elhanan Winchester had organized a Philadelphia congregation of Universal Baptists. among its members was Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. . . John Murray, an English preacher who immigrated in 1770, helped lead the first Universalist church in Gloucester, MA, in the battle to separate church and state” (Mark Harris, Unitarian Universalist Origins: Our Historic Faith) and served as a chaplain in George Washington’s army. Unitarianism, which proclaimed the unity of God over the Trinity, saw its earliest churches arise in the Philadelphia area in the 1790’s. Of the first five Presidents of the United States, three claimed Unitariansm. Just like the thirteen colonies, Unitarianism and Universalism did not arise from nothing. Oh, each had a gestation period. The seeds of Unitarian thought and Universalist belief were carried to this land at least three quarters of a century before any distinct congregations emerged.
Do people, individually and collectively, really have an unalienable right to liberty: in body, mind and spirit? Yes, if we believe we are born equal. Yes, if we have a right to pursue happiness. Freedom and happiness are linked. Happiness brings freedom. Freedom promotes happiness. Equality opens the possibility of freedom and happiness for everyone. This is what we Unitarian Universalists say we’re about. This is what we say the United States is about.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in his State of the Union speech on January 6, 1941, said the following about freedom and democracy: “For there is nothing mysterious about the foundations of a healthy and strong democracy. The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple. They are: Equality of opportunity for youth and for others. Jobs for those who can work. Security for those who need it. The ending of special privilege for the few. The preservation of civil liberties for all. The enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living. These are the simple, basic things that must never be lost sight of in the turmoil and unbelievable complexity of our modern world. The inner and abiding strength of our economic and political systems is dependent upon the degree to which they fulfill these expectations. . . .
If the Congress maintains these principles, the voters, putting patriotism ahead of pocketbooks, will give you their applause. In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his (and her) own way—everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants– everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world.” Dwight Eisenhower was later to say, “Peace is the climate of freedom.”
Hear the echoes of the Declaration of Independence: all persons are born equal and have a right to live in safety, freely, pursuing happiness; and it is the job of government to help society function in a way that makes this possible. Hear the echoes of our Unitarian Universalist seven principles: freedom of conscience and belief, peace, justice, equity and compassion in human relations. I had not realized before the great similarities between the aspirations of our democracy and the aspirations of our Unitarian Universalism. Therefore I would say that when we, as Unitarian Universalists, think that our government is not living up to its job of ensuring and protecting, not doing everything itself, but ensuring and protecting systems that promote life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, freedom of speech, and of religious expression, freedom from want and from fear, when we think our government is not doing this, it is our job to speak up. Because those are foundational values for us. Because we need better from our government. More equality of opportunity for youth and for others. More jobs and fairer wages for those who can work. More security for those who need it. And we need less. Less special privilege for the few. And we need preservation of civil liberties for all. We needed it in 1941 and we still need it in 2014. The values of our democracy and the values of Unitarian Universalism dovetail.
Freedom is new life, new ways of being. It is renewal and rebirth. It is an unlocking of potential and possibilities. It has an outer dimension and an inner dimension. The freedoms in the Declaration of Independence and in the Roosevelt speech primarily come from the outside; outer freedoms provided by the interdependent systems and institutions, governments and societies and cultures in which we live. Freedom has an inner dimension too, without which its outer dimensions will not quite function. When we are free internally we can make use of our external freedoms.
What are the inner dimensions of freedom? The jazz pianist and collaborator with Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, like Franklin Roosevelt, spoke about four freedoms but Strayhorn’s are internal as well as external: freedom from hatred; freedom from self-pity; freedom from fear that our actions will help someone else more than they will help us; and freedom from the pride that makes us think we’re better than others.
Strayhorn’s ideas are not that far from Roosevelt’s. His freedom from fear that our actions will help someone else more than us is about a lack of generosity arising from scarcity thinking, especially on the material level. It corresponds to Roosevelt’s freedom from want. If we believe there’s not enough for everyone, then we begin to hoard things. I took a group of youth to Boston one year and everyone brought snacks to share. Except one kid, who brought a six pack of soda, which he kept hidden. I came upon him taking a can from his stash and asked him if he wanted to share them with the others. He said no, because he only had six and there wasn’t enough for everyone, so he didn’t want to give anything to anyone. So he kept all six for himself. I must admit, I understand that. I too am not a stranger to scarcity thinking. Scarcity thinking often leads us to greed and to the economic injustice that is so rampant in our society. Scarcity thinking feeds excessive individualism and leads us to think only about ourselves, only about what is advantageous to us. Strayhorn’s freedom from the pride that makes us think we’re better than others is a spiritual freedom, a humility. It’s a freedom that recognizes all persons as created equal, with inherent value and dignity. Freedom from hatred is about freedom from fear within the human soul as well as about peace. Freedom from self-pity is a spiritual freedom. It is an affirmation of justifiable pride in who we are and it allows us to see others for who they are.
The outer dimensions of freedom are the equal worth of all people affirmed and upheld by the fair access to material resources, the fair access to the democratic process, fair access to a diversity of ideas, fairly represented, and open opportunities for a diversity of spiritual expression. These can lead to conditions that bring happiness. They need to be supported by government. But they need to be also supported by interior resources such as generosity, humility, courage, acceptance of one another. How do we cultivate those? What is the inner work we have to do to free ourselves from hatred, self-pity, discrimination and scarcity thinking?
We have all seen examples of people living in deprivation and under conditions that were decidedly not free and yet their spirits were free. Harriet Tubman said, “There was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other; for no man should take me alive; I should fight for my liberty as long as my strength lasted, and when the time came for me to go, the Lord would let them take me.” Only if she was free on the inside, free from self-pity, genuinely believing in her own worth and dignity could she be willing to die for freedom from external slavery. Ho Chi Minh said “Although they have tightly bound my arms and legs, all over the mountain I hear the song of birds, and the forest is filled with the perfume of spring flowers. Who can prevent me from freely enjoying these, which take from the long journey a little of its loneliness?” Connecting with the beauty, the peace and the life in nature calms and soothes us. Nelson Mandela, in prison for 27 years, did not seem to lose the freedom of his spirit as he made genuine relationships with his captors. Freedom from hatred. African-American slaves, whose very bodies did not belong to them, left a legacy of freedom in their spirituals and in their stories because they had faith in their God. The human spirit seems to have the capacity to remain free even when there is little other freedom if it can free itself from hatred, of self and other, and when it remains able to forgive and to connect with other people and/or with nature.
Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt, Billy Strayhorn describe what freedom looks like on the outside and on the inside. Ultimately what enables us to get there is telling the truth about our experiences, taking responsibility for the consequences, intended or unintended, of our actions, listening to the experiences of others, making amends when appropriate, grieving the past as needed, vowing to make use of all we have learned. “The truth will set you free” is no empty expression. When we own our truth it can free us from self-pity and hatred, from scarcity fears and want. It frees us to speak our minds and it opens our spirits to deeper expression. It frees us to listen. The freedom that arises from owning our truths opens a door to the pursuit of happiness.
So — are we free? Only insofar as we tell the truth and listen to the truths of others, as a society, as a people, as a nation, as individuals. Only insofar as we stop covering up, or putting forth half-truths as if they were the whole truth. Only insofar as we respect each other enough to take one another’s stories seriously. In the land of the free, what enslaves your spirit? What experiences, what ideas, what perceptions, what feelings have you not given voice to that need to be heard? What have you said or done, or not said or done that has built walls around your spirit? What truths are you keeping from yourself?
Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness come at the price of telling the truth. Freedom of speech and religious expression, freedom from want and fear come at the price of telling the truth. Freedom from hatred, self-pity, scarcity mind and discriminating prejudice come at the price of telling the truth. And listening to the truths of others. May we have the courage to do so. May we have the courage to demand that our leaders do so. May we say, with Franklin Roosevelt, that the practice and implementation of internal and external freedoms, is “no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for the kind of world attainable in our own time and generation.” May we attain such a world. May we be truly free. May it be so.