Free at last!
I think it was in the autumn of 1941 (when I had entered first year high school) that the popular painter Norman Rockwell came out with his now famous illustrations of the Four Freedoms. We were not at war yet but we were sympathetic to Great Britain in its stand against the totalitarian system of Nazi Germany. Indeed President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill had met on an American cruiser in a bay up in Newfoundland in August of that year to frame what has been called the Atlantic Charter – a declaration of Four Freedoms to which the democracies of the West were dedicated.
Now “freedom” was something the United States embraced way back in 1787 when Congress approved what is known as the Bill of Rights. The first two clauses speak of the free exercise of religion, freedom of speech, of the press, the right to peaceable assembly and the right to retain arms. But when President Roosevelt first stated the Four Freedoms of 1941 in his State of the Union address he repeated the ideal of freedom of speech and worship (in keeping with the Bill of Rights) but added two more: freedom from want and freedom from fear. The freedom from want no doubt expressed his political philosophy embodied in such programs as Social Security. It meant that nobody should be subject to extreme need anywhere in the world. Freedom from fear meant nobody should have to put up with ruthless dictatorships, for example.
I remember well Norman Rockwell’s paintings – especially the freedom from want illustration showing an extended family on Thanksgiving Day, the aging parents laying down a platter containing a huge turkey upon a table full of other traditional foods and surrounded by the smiling, laughing younger members of the family.
But if we ponder our heritage of all such freedoms it comes across more often as having to do with “my rights” or as “freedom from” something. We don’t want to be oppressed. We want to be valued. Often in the last 70 years if comes across in terms of such songs as “I did it my way” or expressions like “I gotta be me” or in spiritual quests that take one far away “from the madding crowd” – like to India or Antarctica! Freedom seems to mean don’t crowd me; I should be able to do as I d----d please. It seems almost anti-social.
Is this what the Bible, what the Gospel mean by freedom: “Don’t tread on me”? The freedom to which the Gospel calls us is the freedom to love, to care! I mean I look at myself. In what way am I really in bondage? In what way am I kept bound, restrained, enslaved? I want to love, to break loose, to care but how much am I handicapped by the inherited prejudices of my ancestors, the party politics of my environment, my parents’ constant warnings not to trust anyone, the paranoia I pick up reading the news, the threat of failure in school, the presence of competitors who are more savvy than I, the precarious nature of my economic existence, my own sloth . . . I could go on listing the things external and internal that hold me back from doing the thing I really want to do which is ultimately to love, to care, to relate, to be generous, to be courageous, to be my best self, to be Christ.
May that not be the freedom that Martin Luther King longed for when he cried out “Free at last, free at last; thank God Almighty I’m free at last!”