Divisive political ideology, racial discrimination and theological dogma seem to be tearing us apart more and more each day. Contemporary discourse continually pits religious, political, social and racial factions in opposition to one another.
Our nation was founded on the incredibly radical notion of freedom and equality for all, and yet the controversies of our time seem to move us further from the ideals upon which we were established. Consider the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence.
“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.” The Declaration of Independence
These words form the foundation upon which our nation was been built, but how many of us are truly characterized by the full meaning of the words “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness?” It seems like most people are in pursuit of these ideals rather than characterized by them. Are these just euphemistic aphorisms, or truly a guide to how we should strive to become as a society.
From the moment Thomas Jefferson penned this revolutionary document, we have struggled to find the path toward full embodiment of these truths. Visionary in nature, they did not describe the reality at the time, but rather a set of ideals the soon to be birthed nation would seek to pursue as it developed and matured. In a sense, our founding fathers, described the essence of freedom and left a road map to follow as we would seek to grow in our ability and desire to live up to these words.
Like all growth, this process has been slow and painful. It took 89 years of struggle, after these words were ratified, for the passage of the 13th amendment and a constitutional end to legalized slavery in America. It then took another 99 years to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which made it illegal to discriminate based on race, color, religion, sex or nation of origin.
During the subsequent 53 years, we have watched our great nation continue to wrestle and work out the true meaning of those immutable words “all men are created equal“, with God given rights to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Each step closer to realizing freedom for all has been hard-fought and come at great personal and national cost. Each step brings us both closer to true freedom for all, while simultaneously revealing additional obstructions woven into the national tapestry that must be bold addressed and courageously navigated.
The events of 2017, have shown us anew, that our contemporary chapter in the struggle to realize freedom for all in America is still very real. We have a long way to go. The tragedy in Charlottesville thrust the reality of racial discrimination back into the forefront of our national conscience. Frequent stories of unarmed black men being killed during interactions with police has led to renewed fear, devastation, distrust and at times violent retaliation. All of this seems to expose deep divisions along political, racial and socio-economic lines that represent our current obstructions to freedom.
Electoral swings over the past few election cycles have consistently left many in our nation angry and disillusioned. For as long as I can remember, half the country has vilified whoever is currently our president. In recent years we have seen this trend catalyzed with the widespread anger directed toward President Obama on the right side of the political spectrum. More recently with the Trump Presidency the anger and mockery has found its home on the left and center portions of the political establishment. And yet, both men swept into power with masses of Americans endorsing them, simultaneously leaving millions feeling disenfranchised, fearful of their freedom being restricted.
Many church leaders across our nation seem to increasingly be finding themselves embroiled in controversial issues at times furthering the polarization of our nation. Rather than being characterized by truth grace and love, many in religious circles are known for their ideological opinions, then for Christ like behavior. Facebook feeds fill with Christians speaking provocatively, taking strong sides in response to the most recent political, social or racial conflicts. Many of have missed the point of America. The point is not being right or better then others. The point isn’t our status or affluence. The point is freedom… Freedom for everyone!
So my question is this… are we free?
As long as some among us do not have freedom, we are not truly living up to our mandate as a nation of freedom for all. John F. Kennedy warned us of this when he stood on the steps of the City Hall in Berlin in 1963 condemning the communist crackdown on freedom. He proclaimed, “When one man is enslaved, all are not free.” Although he was there to condemn the soviet machinations that were severely limiting freedom on the other side of the Iron Curtain, his words rang true around there world, perhaps no where more loudly then right here at home. A year later, we would pass the Civil Rights Act mentioned earlier. Given our current social and political climate, we would do well to heed these words today.
It is important to understand however, that freedom is not a level of social development to which we as a nation will ever ultimately attain and then rest on our laurels. Freedom is a constant pursuit that we work towards in every generation. As Coretta Scott King astutely observed, “Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation.” We should not be surprised that we must continue to fight for it today. Rather we must ask ourselves, are we willing to re-earn it for today’s generation?
Unfortunately, somewhere in the development of our national identity, we began to worship individuality at the expense of true freedom. Many of us have come to believe that the point of America, is to provide the right to believe and behave however one chooses. This perspective is slowly destroying the very fabric of our nation and eroding our noble foundation. If this were the case, then the logical extension of this belief would be that no one else matters and we each can discriminate and dishonor those around us as long as the outcome makes us feel good. Many have embraced this approach to life de facto and the ramifications have been disastrous. A society built on individualism will inevitable lose its ability to honor those different from themselves. History has shown us time and again the horrific outcomes this leads to. The point of America is the pursuit of freedom, for every human on the planet, and this requires that we actively chose to treat every human with honor and dignity regardless of differences. It is only when we reorient our world view to this perspective that we can ever be truly free.
So the question must be asked, how can we begin to live as truly free people? I would like to offer up a couple suggestions. The first one comes from the timeless wisdom of scripture. We must choose to honor everyone! Consider the words of Peter, written to a severely persecuted people living in the oppressive Roman Empire.
“Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” 1 Peter 2:16-17
In order to be truly free, Peter challenges his readers to, “Honor everyone.” He goes on to offer an absolutely crazy idea. He directs them to “Honor the emperor.” The word for honor here is the same word Jesus used in Matthew 15:4 when he commanded us to “Honor your father and mother.” Even more startling is to consider that the Emperor of Rome at the time Nero, who was known for some of the most vile human atrocities of all time, including extensive persecution of the very Christians to whom Peter was writing. And yet, Peter tells us that to truly be free, we must honor everyone, even leaders we fear and despise.
Our consistent culture of dishonor is the greatest threat to freedom in America. If we want to be free today, we must choose to honor everyone, especially those people we like the least. Even those politicians that are anathema to our sensibilities and personal political perspectives. Only when we choose honor, can we expect to help all be free, and therein, find freedom ourselves.
Freedom is worth fighting for! This is imprinted deeply on our national psyche. Attaining freedom however, is a series of hard choices. We must consistently choose honor as a top priority in all of our interactions! Are we willing to make that choice day after day?
A world where we choose to honor everyone, and fight for freedom together is a world I want to be a part of building. How about you?
I’d love to hear your thoughts, ideas and feedback. Leave a comment below.