Generosity of Freedom

Passover begins tomorrow evening. You probably know that Passover is the annual retelling of a story that is central to Judaism - the liberation from slavery in Egypt.

That story has also inspired others throughout history - especially slaves in the US who saw themselves in the enslaved Jews and saw hope in the promise of liberation by a god that was on the side of the oppressed rather than the way their Christian tormenters told the story.

You probably know some details of the Passover story - especially if you've ever attended a Passover Seder where the story is retold each year with words, song, and foods that symbolize the suffering of slavery and the joy of freedom [...]

Well, the Seder tells one story.

There is always more to a story than the viewpoint of one story-teller. I just happened to stumble into some very ancient writings the other day that could shed some more light on the Passover story. 

After extensive... scientific... verification, the documents I found have been validated as the personal journals of Pharaoh Thutmose III, who lived from 1479 BCE to 1425 BCE. I will now quote from those writings.

Dear diary: This Pharaoh business is not nearly as much fun as it looked when dad was doing it. I thought he was all-powerful! Last week, I had one of my advisors killed for being rude. That's my right, of course. But since then, everyone in the royal court has been a bit on edge. Oh, it's "yes Pharaoh" this and "yes Pharaoh" that, but I can see they're too frightened to tell the truth. Hmm... Maybe I should have a few more executed? I'll have to think about that.

Dear diary: Increasing the executions has not really been effective. The royal court hgot very nervous and nothing is really getting done. I can have anyone I want killed, but really, that's apparently not so motivating for everyone else. It has become clear to me that I have to strike a pretty careful balance in everything I do. Fear is helpful, but I can't rule effectively if I don't keep them... what is the word? happy?

Dear diary: Have been trying a bit harder lately to keep people happy. I've even been letting them have a little bit of freedom in their service to me! Well, they seem to like that, but it can very quickly get out of hand. One of them actually disagreed with me today. I'm proud that I didn't have him killed for that though. A few hours of torture and he seemed to be back in line.

Dear diary: Well, the torture plan wasn't too successful either. As soon as he had a chance, that advisor and his family disappeared. Clearly, Pharaoing is about more than controlling people. Why didn't dad tell me this stuff? I am going to have to give people enough freedom so that they feel motivated - although not so much freedom that they actually threaten my authority

Dear diary: Another day, another crisis for the Pharaoh! Now it's the Jews. They've been in Egypt for a long time - no one can remember when they got here. Apparently, they were a tiny minority at first but then they started to get more numerous. Grand-dad came up with a great plan to deal with them - he made them slaves and put them to work building our great monuments. It was genius really: got the Jews under control, gave us free labour for public projects, and it artificially keeps wages low. Grand-dad was a heck of a Pharaoh! 

Of course the Jews didn't like it too much, but dad found that doubling their labour, cutting their food rations, and increasing the beatings usually kept any trouble in check.

Well, now they've got some outsider speaking for them named Moses. He dares to make demands to me! Imagine! He actually wants these Jews freed from slavery!

I didn't have him killed because it might make more trouble, but I certainly won't free those dirty people with their strange customs. What a mess that would be!

Dear Diary: This Moses character is proving an even bigger problem that I expected. He's using some kind of magic on Egypt - or claiming to anyway. We've had huge numbers of frogs appear, we've had locusts, and lately there's been a big epidemic of boils. Ouch!

Moses is claiming credit for all of this. I don't believe it, of course, but my people are getting spooked. Now what?

I can't leave things as they are with the anxiety in the population, but I can't give the Jews their freedom - it would be an economic disaster! Besides, if they get freedom from slavery, who knows what they'd demand next!

I think this is a time for some clever compromise. I'll try offering them a few hours off each week and less promise to use slightly less harsh beatings.

Dear diary: It's gone from bad to worse with the Jews. They had no interest in my generous compromise and that Moses actually threatened that worse things would happen to the Egyptian people if I didn't give into his demand. You can be sure I didn't cave, of course. But now, there's been a problem with the rivers turning red and people are getting hysterical thinking that Moses has turned them to blood. To make matters worse, there's been a really bad childhood disease going around and more children than usual are dying. And guess what? Moses is taking credit and people are blaming me for not doing something. I'm stuck between a pyramid and a hard place.

Dear Diary: The hysteria has got too much now. I've decided I have to act. I can't free the Jews and let them stay here - freed slaves will ruin everything. We need control over them. Instead, I'll free them and give them just a few hours to get out. Of course, they've got nowhere to go, but that's not my problem. Let them die free in the desert! 

Daddy would be proud.

Dear diary: Finally, rid of those pesky Jews and the country can go back to normal. I'm glad to see the back of them. Of course, we'll need to enslave someone else to keep wages low, but that shouldn't be too much of a problem.

Oh - a little embarrassed about this but I kind of lost a few thousand soldiers in the process of getting rid of the Jews. 

I had a change of heart at the last minute and - instead of actually letting them go - decided to kill those trouble-makers as they fled, but something happened with the river they were crossing and a whole bunch of my guys drowned.

No problem. I've got complete control again. 

If their families or my advisors complain, it will be the last thing they ever do. 

It's great to be Pharaoh.

There are always other perspectives on everything, aren't there?

This month, we've been exploring the subject of generosity. We live in a world that has nearly forgotten what true generosity is as we think about generosity in terms of gift giving and - tragically - reinterpret generosity as something we do because, ultimately, we think it will benefit us in the end!

The ancient documents I found - and the Passover story - talk to us about freedom. Whether you look at the liberation from slavery from the perspective of the oppressed and powerless or from viewpoint of the powerful oppressor, it's clear that freedom is one of the most enormous gifts we might ever give. 

You will probably, as I do, bristle at the notion of giving freedom as an act of generosity. Freedom is a right - not a gift for someone to give to us. Mary Wollstonecraft should not have had to ask for equality - it should have been given automatically. People living under oppression everywhere are being denied their basic rights. It should not be a question of generosity but of an essential and necessary way of being. People have the right to be free. No one should be able to abridge that freedom.

But, until we have built heaven and probably even then, some will always have more power than others. There will undoubtedly be at least a heavenly counsel leader or committee chair to keep things organised, right? Who makes sure the harps are tuned properly cared for? Who ensures that people don't leave their heavenly chewing gum on the puffy fluffy walkways?

In the real world, we elect leaders of congregations and countries. We give power to people because we know that leadership is essential for the functioning of most organisations.

And, of course, there is plenty of unearned power too... Power of men over women, rich over poor, white over non-white, native-born over foreign, straight over gay or lesbian, and the list goes on.

Those at the bottom end of the power structure demand freedom. Those at the top wonder about the wisdom of giving it.

At the bottom, the powerless know that freedom holds the key to advancing human potential. It holds the key to opportunity for future generations. It holds the promise that those at the bottom - or their descendents - might someday become those at the top.

From the perspective at the top of the power structure, the prospect of freedom is terrifying. Freedom is the pathway to chaos. Freedom is the pathway to disorder. Freedom is the pathway to the loss of power, influence, and comfort. Freedom for "them" means sacrifice for "us."

And both of these perspectives are accurate. Freeing the slaves in the US transformed the American economy. It destroyed fortunes for some and made fortunes for others. Whole ways of living disappeared as new ones appeared. There is a great deal of freedom here in Britain, but what would happen if working class people has as much freedom to access the institutions of power as those with more power? What if they could make the contacts that the Etonians and Oxbridgians can? 

As one of my Unitarian heroes put it in the 19th Century "The moral arc of the Universe is long, but it bends toward justice." We know that justice and freedom indicate the "right" direction for our society to move, but this is never as tidy or as easy as lofty words might make it seem.

Is it happening today? We only have to think of the sudden and increasing popularity of political parties that are based on opposition to immigration, opposition to marriage equality, and opposition to the accommodation of multiple cultures within British society.

The popularity of such views is not based on irrational fear. Everything they oppose does indeed have the potential to change the lives of the powerful in ways they do not welcome. To feel otherwise would require not a different understanding of the world, but an extraordinary kind of generosity.

For anyone with the power to give freedom - to actually do so is a tremendous act of courage. It is truly an act of generosity.

The Pharaoh in our story barely even came close to generosity. He knew all too well the potential consequences of freedom - as did the Jews - the people on the bottom of the power structure.

Freedom is dangerous. It is. It is terribly messy. It is in many ways awful. Winston Churchill made light of this truth when he famously quipped "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

What would it mean for us to be generous enough to give one another freedom?

At New Unity, we begin by giving each other freedom of belief. We don't say you're welcome here IF... where the "if" is about believing in God or Jesus or The Buddha or the Tao or Brahman or Allah or any number of stories or principles that are made the centrepiece of other religions.

And that's just the beginning. Aside from the beliefs they require, most religious communities are set up in ways that are designed to keep things from changing - to maintain control - to place tight limits on freedom. The last thing such communities want to see is some new person getting the idea that they might change something! 

"A different kind of candle?! What!! Who do you think you are? When you've been here 20 years like I have, then you can start asking about different candles! The nerve of some people!"

And remarkably - to their great credit - here we have a Committee that has declared that if you want to try to start something new and it fits New Unity's purpose and values then they will respond to you in one way only: "how can we help?"

I've talked about Pharaohs, governments, Committees and other elites, but we don't need to wield enormous power to have the opportunity to give freedom. Every one of us has times in our lives when we can liberate someone else. And it is almost always a struggle for us to do that. 

Think about our intimate relationships. We are constantly struggling with freedom and control. We want our loved ones to grow freely - to pursue their dreams - to become increasingly fulfilled - and we also want to make sure that doesn't actually alter our relationship in any way. This is not only your shameful failing - we all feel this way.

With our children - we yearn for them to expand their horizons - to become full themselves - but oh how that desire chafes against our own notions of what "should" be and our yearning for control.

Enabling others to have freedom most often comes at a cost to ourselves.  

How much freedom are you prepared to grant the stranger you encounter on the street or the bus or the train? When your expectations run counter to their needs, are you prepared to give freedom? To be generous in that radical way?

Author and activist bell hooks wrote about freedom as a consequence of love.

"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. That action is the testimony of love as the practice of freedom."

Love begins the practice of freedom. The love of which she speaks is a generous love - not a love that holds others where we want them to be, but that allows them to grow to where they need to be.

We are not exercising love if we are not prepared to give up something - to give away something - because freedom always has a cost to the one making room for its emergence.

Today, let us turn ourselves toward this kind of love - this liberating love. 

Let us turn ourselves toward a love that is not the imaginary and painless stuff of fairy tales but the love that is prepared to give away power and comfort and control - 

The lovely that is willing to accept loss so that all may gain and grow.