Tomorrow, millions of people across this land, will be celebrating our nation’s freedom. Many will be marking Independence Day by going to see the fireworks, watching Fourth of July parades, or just having a barbecue and enjoying time together with their family or friends.
One of the things I began doing a few years ago on the Fourth of July was to call a very special person in my life and in the life of my family. His name is Paul Anderson. Had it not been for Paul and his family, my family and I would not have been able to emigrate in 1987 from Poland to the United States. So on every July 4, I call Paul and thank him for helping me and my family arrive safely and settle in this country.
I tell him that he’s had an important part to play in so many good things I’ve experienced over the past 26 years that I’ve been living here — including discerning a Franciscan vocation and becoming a friar.
Ever since I started calling Paul on the Fourth of July, I also began to ponder on a deeper, spiritual meaning of America. About a year ago, I was listening NPR's, “On Being,” hosted by Krista Tippet. That day particular day at the beginning of July, she was interviewing renowned American philosopher and bestselling author Jacob Needleman about his book The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders.
This topic piqued my curiosity right away. Prof. Needleman began by acknowledging the shadow side of America and by pointing out various ways in which the American ideal of freedom had been compromised and betrayed over the course of our nation’s history.
Still, he argued that there was a profound spiritual wisdom and moral vision at the heart of the United States of America. Anyone who truly loves America and cares about its future, he said, must seek to rediscover the soul of America.
Needleman insisted that for the founders of this nation — among them Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass — freedom was not a license to obey one’s selfish desires. Neither was freedom reducible to external liberties. One could certainly speak of freedom from a political, economic, or religious oppression. But there was a deeper dimension of liberty, teased out by this question: What is freedom for? What is its ultimate purpose?
For the founders of this nation, freedom was that noble path leading a person to new horizons of self-knowledge and discovery of a divine presence within oneself and within the rest of God’s creation. Likewise, freedom was understood, not just as an abstract concept but also as a concrete way of living out of that truth, of self-knowledge for the common good.
Notice how different this is from a superficial notion of freedom, which, all too often, is interpreted as the right to pursue one’s own selfish interests, unencumbered by human conscience and in a way that is disconnected from the virtues of love, compassion, and solidarity.
For the founders of our nation, the right to freedom of speech meant far more than being able to say whatever one wants. Freedom of speech, Needleman explains, has a spiritual dimension and requires a certain discipline. The right of free speech goes hand-in-hand with an obligation to truly listen to the other person, especially when we disagree with him or her. Freedom of speech entails an inner duty to recognize a divine presence within the other person, a humility to recognize that as human beings we are prone to error, and a courage to embark on the common search for truth, however arduous or frustrating that journey may be.
According to Needleman, for the founders of our nation, both personal freedom and the soul of America are to be found in serving others, in transcending greed and our other selfish desires, in the life of virtues, and in being part of the majestic, physical, and moral universe.
Listen to the first line from the letter of St. Paul to Galatians: “Brothers and sisters, for freedom, Christ set us free.” Paul was a great champion of freedom. If he and the founders of this nation lived at the same time, on the same continent, they would surely been have been close friends.
St. Paul understood that freedom was not just about being able to choose one thing over the other; freedom was not about giving a free reign to the selfish desires or about taking an easy way and going along with the value system of a dominant society.
According to St. Paul, freedom found in Christ had deep, spiritual roots, an inner quality and a prophetic edge. The ultimate expression of freedom was to be found in serving another through love. The early followers of Jesus lived out this Christian vocation to freedom, in truly inspirational ways in the face of slavery, violence, and even cruel death. Their freedom was not an empty political slogan but a concrete reality demonstrated for all to see by their concern for the poorest and most vulnerable among them.
What does our Christian tradition and the founders of our nation have to say about our American society in which the rhetoric of freedom of choice or the rhetoric of freedom of markets are all too often detached from the larger moral or ethical considerations? Would they call our society to task seeing the idea of freedom being used as an empty, but politically charged, slogan or a travesty of justice, or as a deadly force that ends up violating human dignity?
What would the founders of this nation, or St. Paul, or Jesus himself say about those who take delight in appealing to the patriotic sentiments, revering the symbols of our national heritage, casting themselves as guardians of our national or religious traditions while at the same time exacerbating the scandalous economic inequalities in our country, subverting the common good, and sacrificing the future generations and our beautiful land on the altar of voracious greed?
This is something to think about for all of us.
The good news is that God continue to send prophets into our midst to lead us towards freedom — not just prophets like Elijah or Elisha, Isaiah or Amos, but also Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, Dr. James Hansen, Bill McKibben, the Nuns on the Bus, and countless other women and men. Whether they champion the rights of the undocumented immigrants, the unborn, the victims of human trafficking, or other causes of justice, nonviolence, economic justice, racism, or safeguarding God’s creation from impending ecological catastrophe, they are modern-day prophets pointing us on a path toward a civilization of love.
Those of you who have immigrated to this country may have your own “Paul Anderson” who has played a key role in lending you a helping hand when you came to this country. Or is there someone who has been instrumental in teaching you the true meaning of freedom?
If it’s possible, maybe you can call that person on the Fourth of July to say thank you.
Jacek Orzechowski, OFM, is a Franciscan friar and chair of the Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation Directorate for the Franciscans of the Holy Name Province.
Image: Freedom concept, Pan Xunbin / Shutterstock.com