On Independence Day: When Were You Set Free?

Red, White & Blue Cupcakes
Celebrate. It’s Independence Day!

These past two weeks, I’ve had lines from a chirpy children’s choir song in my head.

Freedom isn’t free… (bum, bum, bum, buh)
Freedom isn’t free… (bum, bum, bum, buh)
You’ve got to pay the price, you’ve got to sacrifice, for your liberty.

We sang this song as fresh-faced preadolescents in a children’s choir in Ohio’s heartland in the 1980s, grinning and bouncing with show-choir motions during the “bum, bum, bum, buh” rhythm section. We sang it in parades. We sang it at Spring concerts. I’m sure we sang it at the local VFW when they invited us each year to offer the program near Veteran’s Day and gifted us with small, pearl tie pins in thanks and a plea that we children would never forget the attack on Pearl Harbor that forced the United States into World War II.

But it’s been a roller coaster of a month for freedom and its cost. Many of us are still reeling from the martyrdom of nine Christians in Charleston, S.C. They had gathered for Wednesday night Bible study. They welcomed a young white stranger into their midst, and then he murdered them specifically because of their black skin and the powerful role their church has played in movements against slavery and more recent injustice.

Many of us are still trying to grapple with the deep racism and white supremacy that enabled that attack in a “free” country.

Many of us also are celebrating the Supreme Court’s decision one week ago to uphold marriage equality in all 50 states, including Ohio, which had one of the most daunting prohibitions against same-sex couples and their access to the rights other married couples enjoy. I honestly did not think I’d see that day in my lifetime, and I spent the morning weeping off and on, thinking of the many people I’ve known who now — at least legally — are free to marry whom they choose.

One of Jesus’ first interpreters, Paul, wrote a lot about freedom. In one letter, he wrote, “It was for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians, chapter 5)

What does freedom have to do with our spirituality? And how is it related to independence? Or interdependence? We wondered together last Sunday as a group of us Jesus people, atheists, agnostics, and seekers shared good food and great company for the “Freedom & Independence” edition of my faith community’s monthly Collaborative Meals.

And here is how we tackled it: “Tell us the story,” I said, “of a time when you were set free.”

People shared lyrics from songs and tales from college, stories of the end of interior oppression as well as external slavery. Do you know which story was my favorite? It was the story an atheist told about the first time he was set free from a (very oppressive) idea of God. He felt free enough to tell it. And I rejoiced that he did.

Before we shared the personal stories, we kicked off the conversation with a children’s picture book about a mouse in Hong Kong who sets free a carved wooden dragon to fly through the sky over lands “you and I have only dreamed of.” This time, one of the dragon’s lines jumped out at me:

“If you could free me, you could come with me, little mouse,” the dragon said. Free me. And you could come with me.

It reminded me of a truth uttered by President Barack Obama last week in his eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a state senator and pastor murdered with eight others at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. “Clem understood that justice grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other,” Obama said, “that my liberty depends on you being free, too.”

As a follower of Jesus, I can celebrate an atheist’s release from the narrative of a Divine Punisher in the Sky because my liberty depends on him being free, too.

Sometime during your celebrations this Independence Day weekend, ask someone to tell you the story of a time when they were set free. Then listen. Your liberty depends on them being free, too.

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