Freedom. It’s on our minds this time of year. Most of us wax a bit nostalgic and valorize this great gift vouchsafed to us. A smaller number of folks will reflect on the promise of America’s experiment in democracy and mourn that we have defaulted on much of that promise (more and more, it seems, with each passing day). Langston Hughes great poem “Let America Be America Again” is a landmark of this kind of reflection.
Freedom. It’s even tougher for many in the church. How do we honor this most important day in our nation’s history without capitulating to those who want a rah-rah patriotic service on the Sunday nearest the 4th? It seems unwise (and perhaps harmful to one’s job security) to ignore it. But to turn that service into praise and worship session about America either. That is, well, to be blunt, blasphemy. What then can we do?
I’ve always practiced a minimalist 4th of July worship service and encouraged folks to attend civic functions where the patriotic observances happen. The best I’ve come up with is to craft varied reflections on freedom each year usually suggesting that, what its origin and promise, the greatness of America has become attenuated due to a sadly reduced notion of freedom. We have embraced the “freedom from” part of freedom, and inflated that to be the whole thing. Freedom consists in being free from every constraint, hindrance, or blockage that keeps us from doing what we want to do. And that is a magnificent thing! Except when it becomes the whole thing!
Except when there’s no room for the second movement of freedom, “freedom for.” Freedom to be committed to that purpose and people whose cause and well-being make life worth living. Freedom to give oneself to something larger and more profound than what meaning and purpose we can cobble together on our own.
Then I transition to some kind of exposition of the biblical notion of freedom which clearly encompasses both movements. Think of the Exodus. Freedom from Pharaoh and slavery, on the one hand. But the Exodus does not end till the people are bound in covenant to YHWH and he has taken up residence among the people in the Tabernacle. And suggest that this biblical notion of freedom provides us a way to reflect on and understand the direction of our country.
This attenuated notion of freedom creeps into our churches, however. A church sign near my home reads this week: “The greatest freedom is freedom from sin.” I responded on Facebook that, on the contrary, the greatest freedom is freedom for God.
That’s at any rate the tack I try to take to deal with the 4th. Hope it helps somebody out there.