Free and Responsible in Times of Unrest

Originally delivered to University Unitarian Church on 7/5/2020 as part of Independence Day weekend. You can watch the service on the UUC website HERE.

Good morning friends. It is good to be together again, even if it is virtually. I hope that this Independence Day weekend has offered rest and community. The sun is beginning to peek out from the clouds and the promise of Pacific Northwest Summer is almost here. Yesterday evening seemed beautiful, sitting on the deck, overlooking the garden. The air was calm with our bees coming home for the night. Then my 5 year old came out of his room saying the fireworks were too loud for him to sleep.

I thought of the veterans I work with and how 4th of July is a complicated holiday. Many of them love their country and find meaning in their service, and also must find ways to drown out the bombs bursting in air because their experienced trauma on the battlefield cannot distinguish the difference between fireworks and munitions. And even though laws have been passed around shooting off fireworks within the city limits, the night sounded like a battlefield.

For a people who profess to “support our troops” there seems little care for the impact our freedom has on those who have served. Pointing to a incongruity between what is said and what it done. This year, our nation’s birthday feels complicated and subdued, and not just because of COVID. We seem to be collectively struggling with the pains of growing as a culture and community after 244 years of existence. We continue to learn the intertwined lessons of freedom and responsibility.

A popular slogan reads, “Freedom isn’t free.” It is usually associated with military service as a reminder of the price paid in human lives to keep our country safe. Yet I look at our summer of protests and cannot help asking the question, “Who’s freedom are we celebrating?” Many Black, Brown and Indigenous communities are marching in the street because they don’t feel free. #MeToo did not emerge as a hash tag out of nowhere. Nor did #BlackLivesMatter. The promises of the United States of America have been too long in coming. And perhaps because what is promised has not been delivered, it is instead a lie? That freedom is not for all, but only for some: the white, the rich, the powerful, the normative.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Our Declaration of Independence is a living document that set the foundation of multiple freedoms along our nation’s growth. We know at the time of its writing there were vast swaths of humanity who would not benefit from its ideals. What it did was set the stage for freedoms in the future, all of which began with fighting and struggle, protest and civil disobedience and civil war. Freedoms which were never guaranteed until they were wrested from the hands of the rich and powerful. Freedom of Black people from slavery. Freedom for women to vote. Freedom to marry, whether another color or the same gender. Our country has known nothing but struggle to live up to the ideals we preach; life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

As a minister and chaplain, I wrestle with the concept of “freedom” philosophically and theologically. This uniquely human virtue feels out of place in the world as it is a constant struggle to achieve. Our universe is more clockwork than not with its laws of motion and energy, gravity and time. There seems little room for freedom. Religion still wrestles with the balance of human will and how it interacts with the Ground of Being; how can all powerful, all good and knowing God allow human beings to do evil. It seems that God’s freedom is limited by our capacity to do what we want. Existentialists acknowledge that there is much to being human that isn’t free; our genetic code, our being born in time and place, our growth and development; all of which is dependent on our parents and our community. The self-made man is a myth. No one does life alone.

Philosopher Jean Paul Sartre would write that human beings are “condemned to be free.” Because of the crushing weight that comes from the human struggle with forces outside of one’s self that seek to restrain the human spirit in its becoming. And these forces of limitation are everywhere: government and laws, church and state, family systems and social groups all provide containers to push against. And we push against our limitations perhaps because we believe we are inherently more than what our systems tell us. We are capable of imagining freedom as an ideal and put in the work of creating it. Planets and suns, moons and stars care nothing for freedom. Nor the dirt under our feet. It seems that the only part of our universe that cares about freedom are the pieces in it that flourish; life. To be alive is to seek freedom.

From its very beginning on this planet, life flourished against adversity. Its advantage was evolution, adapting to overcome. And even then freedom wasn’t so much a concept as it was mathematics and biochemistry. A species would expand until it couldn’t. Eventually covering the whole planet with biodiversity that ebbs and flows in balance created over millennia. Here in Seattle we know what happens when the freedom of the natural world runs amok. My neighbors spent days of time and energy to remove Himalayan blackberry from their backyard, which had crushed out the plum and apple trees originally placed there. The only other thing that survived back there was the ivy. And now that it has been removed, there is nothing. At least until life finds a way.

As human beings emerging out of this spirit of life, we have an intrinsic drive to be free. Which is why our own faith holds freedom as a covenanted belief. We Unitarian Universalists believe in freedom because it is what our faith has struggled to have for millennia; from the time of Arius and through the Protestant Reformation. A freedom to find our own connection to and relationship with life’s ground of being, however it is named. And our principles are not just a gathering of ideas but a formula, much like the Declaration of Independence. They move from individual to the universal. Our faith begins with the existential reality that a human being regardless of context has in themselves inherent dignity and worth. No exceptions.

Because if there were exceptions in this first statement, arguments could be made for exclusion. And we, as inherited from our religious ancestors, know the price of exclusion in the form of silencing whether it was through the prison cell or the bonfire. Yet, we are not alone in this universe, and so our freedom moves outward to include how we aspire to be with each other; with justice, equity and compassion. Which is not ruled by selfishness but through support, of one another’s spiritual growth in the human project. And that this growth strives for a balance between freedom and responsibility. Which is our fourth covenanted principle: “We the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”

Our faith recognizes that between freedom and responsibility is the necessary balance of power between “Can I?” and “Should I?” One of the lines I love from the movie Jurassic Park as the protagonists struggle with seeing dinosaurs created for human amusement is delivered by actor Jeff Goldblum: “your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” And if we remember what happened in the movie, life found a way. There is a reason our bale blue dot of a planet is struggling with ecological catastrophe. It’s because we had the freedom to do with it however we chose without the foresight or the will to decide of whether or not we should have done it.

The word “responsible” comes from the Latin respondere, meaning to answer to. Our own word in English, to “respond.” So as we covenant to affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, to who or what are we responsible? From a theological perspective, I would say that eventually we are responsible to that source of life and love from which we all came. Which includes each other. Our freedom to search for truth and meaning is not done in a vacuum. It is always in relationship with other people and life itself.

Which is why our own faith struggles with this fourth principles. Everyone wants the freedom and yet it is painful to lean into the responsibility. I am completely free to, from this pulpit, say any number of things. This is one amazing part of our religion. There is no Pope or council of Bishops who can defrock me. I cannot be brought up on charges of heresy or deviance from doctrine. And yet, if I were to preach a theology of white supremacy, I would be held responsible to you all and to our faith. Not as a limit to my freedom but because of the injury such a declaration would cause to our siblings for whom white supremacy means their dehumanization. Just because I can, does not mean I should. We are better, together.

On this 244th anniversary of the United States of America, we are deeply feeling the dynamic tension created between freedom and responsibility. We are living a political, economic and religious system that says one thing: “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” And does another, as so many people have to fight this very system to be recognized as human beings. Just as cognitive dissonance is the increasing stress a human being experiences when holding contradictory beliefs, so too is our country writhing with the pain of political, economic and spiritual dissonance. And we will continue to do so until all are free.

There is no solution past this time that is comfortable. #MeToo is supposed to feel uncomfortable. #BlackLivesMatter is supposed to feel uncomfortable. #SayHerName is supposed to feel uncomfortable. I have heard voices say “I would support the movement if they stopped rioting. Stopped yelling. Stopped calling the police ‘pigs.’ Stopped being so disrespectful.” Yet no people under the yoke of oppression have ever gained an inch of traction until the escalation of conflict. We want our freedom from social unrest and not the responsibility that comes with preventing it.

“I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the [Black American] has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”

            These words were not written over the last few weeks but in 1967 by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his sermon The Other America. The civil rights champion of justice and freedom dedicated to nonviolent civil disobedience knew the origin of riots not as a disease but as a symptom. The actual disease being poverty, racism, sexism, bigotry, and discrimination. Diseases because they trouble the waters of civil society which says, at least in this country, that our health comes from being a “more perfect union” of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

For our religion and our country, our celebration of Independence Day is a call to remember our identity regardless of how painful, messy and hard the task. And just like the slogan “Freedom isn’t Free,” of course living together and flourishing is not without sacrifices. In this difficult time of COVID, we can not afford to ignore the other diseases which infect our community and country. Because they are just as deadly.

As we wait for a vaccine to be developed so we can reopen our country, our faith is poised to offer a vaccine for the human spirit. A vaccine which exorcises the demons of hate through the human capacity of powerful love. Our medicine is our covenanted principles, beginning with the self and moving outward into the community and to the Earth. When you wake up tomorrow morning, perhaps you can look at yourself in the mirror and pray, “I have inherent worth and dignity. I deserve justice, equity and compassion. I am free to grow and flourish and search for truth and meaning in my life. I have a right to my story and my destiny. I am committed to peace, liberty and justice for all. I am responsible, to myself, humanity and life.” Oh to go out into the world every day with that prayer, what miracles could it perform?

Perhaps it could breathe new life into these old words:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Siblings in faith, our prayers and our freedom has never been for us alone. But for ourselves, each other, and the generations who follow us in this human project.

The unrest in our religion and the unrest in our streets are struggles of identity as we are called into that dynamic tension of freedom and responsibility. It will always be a struggle as we cannot help as human beings but to wrestle against the boundaries placed onto us. Perhaps the grace given to us as a species is our evolution as a communal creature where we recognize we are all tied together in our pursuit of freedom. That we have a responsibility to ourselves, our community, the Earth and that Holy Spirit of Life and Love to not let our own freedom crush the freedom of others. Because of this, ours is a faith of abundance. A faith of freedom. And a faith of responsibility. A truly American faith which serves to keep us, and our country, in covenant with one another and the identity we profess. May we have the courage and strength, as a people of faith and as citizens of this country, to continue bending that moral arc of the universe toward justice. And now, more than ever, let freedom ring. Amen and hallelujah.