(The Liberty Bell, housed in Philadelphia and photographed by
Tony the Misfit on Flickr – , CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11201228)
Let freedom ring!
That is the last line of the first stanza of a hymn I grew up singing, entitled “America.” (The hymn is better known by its opening line, “My country ’tis of thee.”) It was written by an American Baptist seminary student, Samuel Francis Smith. Smith later helped to lead the mission society I serve. Smith wrote this hymn in 1831, and it was first performed at Boston’s Park Street Church, 189 years ago today, July 4, 1831. When Smith wrote it and the children’s choir first sang it, they believed that America was, indeed, a “sweet land of liberty.” It was. But not yet for everybody.
So, 152 years later, when another American Baptist pastor chose those three words as the refrain for the closing moments of his message to a congregation of more than 200,000, he did so precisely because it was still not yet true, for everybody. As Martin Luther King, Jr., addressed those who had assembled for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, on August 28, 1963, he issued a clarion call that Smith’s words be made true. For everybody.
King said he and the multitude of marchers had come to the nation’s capital, in a sense, to “cash a check.” He called upon America to make good on the “promissory note” embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. That promissory note was the proclamation that all persons had been created equal, and had thus been equally endowed by their creator with “unalienable rights” to, among other things, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” When King spoke, over a hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation (and nearly a hundred years after the ratification of the 16th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution), the legacy of centuries spent enslaving our sisters and brothers still weighed heavily—and very unequally—on the people of our nation.
So, Dr. King called his listeners and the nation to “let freedom ring”–to a degree, and in ways that it still did not.
And does not… yet! The light of freedom shines brighter now, the sound of freedom rings louder now than in 1776, 1831, 1866 or 1963. But no, we are not “there” yet.
The long slow process of learning to fully “let freedom ring” continues. And, it is a process that is not only long and slow, but hard. As Nelson Mandela said in the midst of a parallel struggle (using the words of Jawaharlal Nehru, in yet another parallel struggle), there is “no easy walk to freedom, anywhere.” The first half of 2020 has made it clear that in the U.S.A., the walk must continue. Statistics on mass incarceration, on deaths at the hands of law enforcement officers, and on diagnoses and deaths related to COVID-19, all of that data received—and continues today to receive—an enormous exclamation point, as millions of American citizens rise up to call for “liberty and justice for all.”
Today, July 4, 2020, there is much to celebrate. And there is much to correct. There is much for which to give thanks. And much for which to give the offering of ourselves and our best efforts. It is always a temptation, especially on the part of those least affected by a struggle, to declare victory too soon. It is a temptation, especially among those who have already begun to taste the maturing fruit of promises, to claim that fulfillment has come, the struggle is over, the journey complete. But we are still very much on the way.
The path between the ancient Hebrew Scripture, “proclaim liberty throughout the land” (Leviticus 25:10) and the July 1776 ringing of the bell on which that proclamation is inscribed is exceedingly long, complex and uneven. The United States of America is not ancient Israel. Nor is it the Kingdom of God.
And yet, with all the appropriate caveats and disclaimers, I think
I believe that same Lord calls followers of Jesus in the U.S. today to seek the shalom of this place. Not for a few. Not for the many. But for everybody.
Let freedom ring!
May the Lord cause your life to resonate–to ring!–with the freedom of Jesus, who came, not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life to rescue humanity.
P.S. One of the ways I have continued responding to the COVID-19 crisis is by reminding myself and others of the beauty of God’s good creation through photography. I’ve been posting photos to Facebook and also to Unsplash–a place to share photos without restricting their use. It has been fun to interact with folks about them–and to see them getting used in wonderful ways. I am grateful for beauty–even in the midst of so much death and destruction–and for the opportunity to see and share it!
P.P.S. I have been deeply touched by the generosity of folks in the midst of the gut-wrenching–and for many, life-shattering–economic crisis that has been provoked by the measures taken to stem the tide of COVID-19. (The plunge would have been slower, but far deeper and longer-lasting, had such measures not been taken.) Thank you for making this ministry part of what God is doing through you, even in the midst of the crisis!