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02 July 2011

Visions of Freedom

On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass, social reformer, orator, writer and statesman, gave a speech at an event commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence, held at Rochester's Corinthian Hall. It was biting oratory, in which the speaker told his audience, "This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn." And he asked them, "Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?" Within the now-famous address is what historians have called "probably the most moving passage in all of Douglass' speeches":
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy ...

Thirty-four years after Douglass spoke those words, in 1886, the Statue of Liberty was dedicated. But even that statue, symbolizing the American dream of freedom and equality, bears in its history reminders that freedom and equality were still far off.  Most people think that what they see today represents the original intent of the artist.  Not so.

That's because when Auguste Bartholdi presented the original model to New York City officials, it was rejected as "unbecoming".  Why?  Because the offending model showed an African American woman thrusting her left hip forward; she strides over broken chains at her feet, and in her left hand she clutches a segment of the manacles which formerly bound her. The artist's vision had produced an image alluding to the end of slavery, but New York City officials were not willing to face history.

What would Frederick Douglass say to us, living 159 years later, as we once again approach the 4th of July? How much more comfortable would he be with us and our celebration? Perhaps not so much. The history of freedom is fraught with pain and failure. We always fall short of our visions. We in the church know and teach that every injustice committed is a slap to the face of our God, but that alone will not change our society or the thinking of the people around us.  This is where the revolutionary hope of Mary comes in. In Luke 1 she sings: 

The Mighty one has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

This is the hope of faith; it is revolutionary hope that has caused many an earthly ruler to tremble. Mary speaks in the perfect tense: "He HAS BROUGHT DOWN the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly, HE HAS FILLED THE HUNGRY with good things and sent the rich away empty". 

Mary speaks in the perfect tense because this is prophecy; when a prophet announces an event in the Name of God, it is considered done. Although Mary can't see her child as yet, she is pregnant with the Savior of the Nations; although the end of oppression is not in the sight of her eye, it is in the sight of her heart. She asserts that God HAS CHANGED reality, already.

Those who are being exploited now will be free -- and those who exploit them are scheduled to be fired. Racism, sexism, classism, ageism, homophobia and whatever other names we have for the injustices perpetrated every day have no room in God's new world. That new world is a done deal.

Mary's powerful vision is comforting, but it demands action as well. While the powerful would have us believe that all the human rights and liberties and freedoms were “given to us,” what is true is that it was precisely the little people like Mary and you and me who envisioned and made the big changes.

It is our task to be revolutionaries, to live ethical lives, to challenge injustice and those who commit it, to watch those who rule and to hold them up to the Word of God. It is up to the People of Faith to remind everyone that God is impartial. When we invoke God's blessings on our country, in the same breath we also need to invoke God’s blessings on all people on our planet and on the planet itself.

Fully aware that thinking that we are better than everyone else, along with the manic need to be “number one”, usually have led us into wars and destructive behavior, we need to affirm our deep connection to all people on this planet and invoke God’s blessing on all of us, together.

Luke 1:49-53

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