Inspiration & The Quest for Freedom

Chalice lighting

In this place, let all people be free
Let us leave at the door the bondage of needing to have the right beliefs
The right skin
The right accent
The right education
The right class
The right politics
The right health
Let all be free to be themselves
Accepted as they are
By the light of this flame, let us work for a world where all are free

Gravity’s Law, by Rainer Maria Rilke

How surely gravity's law,
strong as an ocean current,
takes hold of even the strongest thing
and pulls it toward the heart of the world.
Each thing -
each stone, blossom, child -
is held in place.
Only we, in our arrogance,
push out beyond what we belong to
for some empty freedom.
If we surrendered
to earth's intelligence
we could rise up rooted, like trees.
Instead we entangle ourselves
in knots of our own making
and struggle, lonely and confused.
So, like children, we begin again
to learn from the things…
This is what the things can teach us:
to fall,
patiently to trust our heaviness.
Even a bird has to do that
before he can fly.

From, A House for Hope - John A Buehrens

Martin Buber once told a parable to illustrate this point. In the beginning of the modern world, he said, around the time of the American and French Revolutions, three ideals were said to walk hand in hand: liberty, equality, and what was then named fraternity, which we might today better called human kinship.

Then something happened. In the turmoil of revolutions and time, the three became separated. Liberty went west—to America first of all. But alone it changed its character, said Buber, becoming mere freedom without responsibility—freedom to exploit the land, to exploit other human beings, and freedom from community and from obligation rather than the freedom to fulfil an inherent purpose or promise.

Equality went east, and it also changed. It became the equality of the gulag, the equality of the masses all waving the same "Little Red Book:'

Meanwhile, the sense of authentic human kinship went into hiding.

Message by Rev Andy Pakula

The first day of the Jewish festival of Hanukkah takes place this coming Wednesday. When I was a child, my family celebrated Hanukkah. There were a few special things that happened in this eight-day holiday. We kids were given gold-foil covered chocolate coins. I didn’t think they existed at any other time of year, so it seemed very special. Now, they’re everywhere of course. There were fried potato pancakes called latkes to eat. Apparently, some lucky families had fried jam doughnuts as well. My family didn’t believe in having too much sugar or fat. We were deprived.

One of the big unusual things that happened was that we lit the candles on the 9-branched candelabra called a menorah. For each of the eight nights we lit one more candle, so the first night there was only one, the second night two, and by the eighth night, all of the branches were lit. We played a game with dreidels - four-sided spinning tops that were marked with a Hebrew letter on each side. Everyone put some of their chocolate coins in the middle. If you got a good spin, you took take half of the pot or even all of it if you were really lucky.

And, perhaps most importantly to me at the time, we got gifts. Not big ones but lots of them. One each night. We were so busy with the frying, the gifts, the chocolate, and the low-level gambling that we talked very little about the deeper meanings of this holiday.

The custom of eight candles and eight nights comes from a story that when the Israelites recovered their holy temple from the desecration of an occupying enemy, there was only enough special lamp oil for one night but that oil miraculously burned for eight nights. The so-called miracle is a small one and what’s obviously much more important is freedom. Freedom of religion, freedom from occupation, freedom to live as their cultural and tradition told them to live. Freedom.

Freedom has been one of the most powerful themes in human longing. As long as there has been warfare and slavery and occupation and oppression, there has been a yearning for freedom. Wherever words could be written or remembered, the songs and stories of freedom were carried and conveyed throughout generations. In the Jewish tradition, this was ever-present. Our story was one of occupation after occupation and oppression after oppression. The same story resonated with African slaves in America, who sang “Go Down Moses”, linking their struggle to that of the Jews enslaved in Egypt.

Today, the word 'freedom' has a lofty sound to it - it is almost a sacred word. Like justice and love, it seems an unalloyed good. Anyone who is fighting for freedom is on the side of good. Anyone who is limiting, or wants to diminish freedom, is in the wrong. The struggles for basic freedoms continue. Slavery has not ended. Nations and peoples are occupied or controlled by tyrants. Millions languish in prisons for non-violent crimes. The cry for freedom is still loud in our world.

In democratic nations, there is great freedom for most people. Imagine the difference from how it was just two centuries ago. Slavery was legal in the British Empire. There was indentured servitude. Petty crimes could be punished by deportation to the colonies. Some 200 different crimes could be punishable by death. Hangings were commonplace. Even picking pockets or stealing food could lead to the gallows. Unitarian worship was considered blasphemy and was illegal in England until 1813. Now, the very idea that any kind of religious practice would be illegal in this country seems absurd.

Although it’s not perfect, our government is a government mostly elected by the people. The Royals no longer exercise unchecked power over the people. This is not to say we are completely free. As long as discrimination keeps us all from having equal opportunity - no matter the colour of our skin, the class of our parents, our disabilities, sexual orientation, or gender identity - there is more work to do in securing freedom.

But there are other ways in which complete freedom may not be quite so desirable as it may seem. The most obvious is that if we are to have a civil society with safety and opportunity for all, we must necessarily prevent one citizen from harming another. And so, we have laws that abridge our freedom to shoot, stab, assault, endanger one another with reckless driving, or steal from one another. Thus, the state is expected to act to limit certain freedoms in order to guarantee others. It limits our freedom to limit each other’s freedom.

Of course, there will always be a tension around how much freedom the government can take to ensure other freedoms. In the United States, millions of people would consider it an unacceptable limitation of their freedom to be deprived of the right to buy and own assault weapons. Others agitate for the freedom to discriminate against LGBT people with the argument that not doing so limits their freedom to practice their religion. And, of course, the dispute continues about whether the state should be in the business of protecting human embryos and fetuses and so limiting the freedom of a pregnant woman to terminate a pregnancy.

There is another issue I want to consider. It is one that we might not usually think about but it seems more pressing in these times. And that is the question of how much freedom we really want and how much freedom is good for us. When the Israelites fought the occupying Seleucid empire in the 2nd century BCE, they were fighting for freedom from occupation and oppression. They would have had no understanding of freedom as we understand it today. They were a people with a shared way of being, a shared faith, and a shared set of stories that they turned to for instruction and inspiration. The freedom they were after was collective rather than individual. Their society was not free in the sense we might use the word. There were restrictions that we might see as deeply oppressive. They were not fighting for absolute freedom but for the freedom to return to their own way of being collectively but not individually free.

In our time and in our part of the world, beyond the freedoms of opportunity and safety, we have great individual freedom - freedom to choose our own path and our own way of being. We are substantially free of religious constraints, free of cultural constraints, free of family constraints, and free of the constraints imposed by tradition. This is a remarkable and, in many ways, wonderful development in our society. But are we ready for it? Are we capable of living with such freedom?

Constraints, in fact, can make life far easier. As I prepare for Sunday, I welcome the constraints of a familiar format for this hour. Yes - it’s almost always the same elements in the same order. Before I was a minister, I complained about others using such a structure. Now that it’s me and I’ve heard the complaints, I recognise that - without those constraints - preparation would be much harder and take much longer. Although it might be a bit tedious for some and it’s not as much freedom as we and I could have, it’s a lack of freedom I crave.

That’s a fairly trivial example and more trivial still is the average trip to a large supermarket. Try buying anything in such a place. An article from consumer reports in 2014 reported that in a typical supermarket they found 27 varieties of Crest toothpaste and 25 varieties of Colgate. That’s 52 varieties of those two brands alone. I don’t want that much freedom. Or, rather, I want to have the freedom to choose whatever I want and the freedom to choose to take my business to a shop that only has three varieties of toothpaste. So I choose to restrict my freedom in this way. I want the freedom to limit my freedom as I see fit!

In one of our readings today, Rainer Maria Rilke speaks admiringly of the constraints of gravity. He writes: “If we surrendered to earth's intelligence we could rise up rooted, like trees. Instead we entangle ourselves in knots of our own making and struggle, lonely and confused.” Without constraints, we can float rootless like a world released from the constraint of gravity.

In 1941, as totalitarianism spread across Europe, pioneering German psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm, wrote a book entitled Escape from Freedom. He sought to understand and explain why the citizens of a liberal and sophisticated society would willingly give up their freedom to a repressive fascist dictatorship. He concluded that great freedom can make people feel set adrift without the traditional structures to hold onto. This, he said can lead to feelings of isolation and fear. Comfort may then be found in a move away from freedom - toward authoritarianism and conformity.

Fromme wrote: "Modern man lives under the illusion that he knows what he wants, while he actually wants what he is supposed to want. In order to accept this it is necessary to realize that to know what one really wants is not comparatively easy, as most people think, but one of the most difficult problems any human being has to solve. It is a task we frantically try to avoid by accepting ready-made goals as though they were our own."

In today’s United States, the advance of freedom has caused a large portion of the voters to support a leader who has clearly authoritarian inclinations. This leader gives them the clarity they crave. No longer do they need to choose amongst complicated options - they can be comforted being told that there is only one way. And if they have any doubt, the president’s media pals say the exact same thing. I would like to claim that social liberals are somehow immune to this tendency, but I think the truth is that we just do it differently. We develop dogmas of our own. If you reflect, you may recognise that you have questions or doubts that you dare not express in certain left-leaning circles for fear of being condemned as not sufficiently enlightened.

The challenge of the movement toward increasing freedom is a deep one. We are the same animals we were when we lived in tribes, competed for dominance within those tribes and fought against neighbouring tribes. Our culture has changed but our brains have not. We still struggle against the unusual, the unfamiliar, and anything that conflicts with the norms with which we have been raised. The direction in which we are moving is the right one. Inclusion, acceptance, and equalising opportunities are the qualities that are essential for a more peaceful, just world - and perhaps for the survival of our species.

And yet, as John Buehrens describes in our second reading, we may have turned toward freedom at the expense of kinship. Indeed - our kinship as humans will always be in tension with our freedom. Finding our place in this tension is essential. So, let us be aware of the challenges of freedom for ourselves and for those who see the world so very differently. There is nothing to be gained by either side fighting the other into submission. The only path that leads to true freedom for all engagement, understanding, kinship, and love.

May it be so.

Closing Words

May we move inexorably toward freedom
So that all may have the opportunity to make of their lives what they choose
We must know though that the journey toward freedom is a hard one
It is one we can navigate successfully only when we know ourselves as one human family
When we look not only to those who like the motion but tend also to those who struggle with the speed and long to turn back
We must stand together in the march toward freedom
Or we will fall and fail as many divided
Let us learn to understand and to care
Let us learn to love
It is the only hope
May it be so