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Freedom Is Not Free – 1/12/2014

It is a rare thing that I see an actual movie in an actual theater. There’s the expense, to begin with – I am now old enough to be frustrated by how much ticket prices have increased from the days of my youth. But mostly there’s the question of finding time among the competing responsibilities of work and home. A parent and a partner and a worker, I have promises to keep, as Frost said. He was talking about why he didn’t have time to go exploring in the woods, of course, but I suppose I don’t get around to that very often, either. It’s just far easier for me to wait until the movie becomes available for viewing on my computer screen, and watch it over the course of two or three nights.

So it was a great personal accomplishment and no small feat that I actually did manage to see a film a little while ago. Every now and then I hear about a movie that needs to be seen in the theater or is best not seen at all. I was told that Gravity was one of those films, and having now seen it, I would agree. The story is about astronauts drifting, spinning, and careening through space. Far, far, far above the earth the characters spent most of the movie falling in a way that looks like flying. They seemed weightless, unconstrained by the pull of the earth, free of so many basic limits, even the concepts of up and down, or the ground beneath your feet keeping you bounded to two dimensions. But it was a spectacularly dangerous and terrifying freedom. When the action on the giant screen and the thunder from the surrounding speakers made me feel like I was going through all that, like I was spinning and careening along with the astronauts on screen – I wasn’t sure I could say I was enjoying it. And perhaps that was the point: that there are extremes of freedom of which we ought to beware.

Both for the theme and the subject, it reminded me of a scene from a Simpsons episode of some years ago. Homer the astronaut floats gracefully through the space shuttle, almost dancing on air. Until he realizes he cannot stop, and crashes into the ship’s glass-walled ant colony. For a moment, we see inside the colony to the tiny forms of the ants, and their chittering sounds are even translated for us at the bottom of the screen. They watch powerless as the human form barrels towards them, shattering the glass and spilling them out into the shuttle. Liberated from their glass enclosure the ants cry out, “Freedom! Horrible freedom!”[i]

This message is one of an ongoing series, offering possible definitions of important terms in our theological vocabulary. The subject this morning is the meaning of freedom – of the word, as it can be understood in our tradition, and of its place in the world. Freedom is a very important word – it might be fair to say that as a nation, it is our favorite word. In our particular religion, freedom is also right up at the top of the list of our most cherished values. It’s so important to us that A. Powell Davies, one of the great Unitarian ministers of the 20th century, described his religion in part as,

“The religion that says freedom!–freedom from ignorance and false belief; freedom from spurious claims and bitter prejudices; freedom to seek the truth, both old and new, and freedom to follow it, freedom from the hates and greeds that divide humankind and spill the blood of every generation; freedom for honest thought, freedom for equal justice, freedom to seek the true, the good and the beautiful with minds unimpaired by cramping dogmas and spirits uncrippled by abject dependence.”[ii]

This spirit of questioning, challenging, and seeking in pursuit of liberation has led our tradition to intersect with more generalized, secular movements whose watchword is freedom. In 1966, 214 young men turned in their draft cards in protest of the war in Vietnam during a ceremony at Arlington Street Church in Boston. 67 more chose to burn their cards, using a candle that was said to have belonged to William Ellery Channing, the grandfather of American Unitarianism. Importantly, Arlington Street’s minister, Jack Mendelsohn, was against the draft card burning – he opposed the war, but thought the destruction of the cards was needlessly flamboyant and confrontational. But, he agreed to let the activists who organized the event conduct it in the way they felt would be most effective. He knew and trusted them enough to give them the leeway – the freedom – to do as they thought best. It was neither the first nor the last example of public protest involving Unitarian Universalists. It’s something we are known for. In 2011, the filmmaker Michael Moore addressed the Occupy encampment outside city hall in Oakland, CA: a large crowd living in tents for weeks in the heart of a busy downtown, trying to bring attention to bring attention to economic inequality and a broken political system. In his remarks, he said, “The media and the power establishment is having a hard time figuring this out. So, be patient with them. They are used to just a few people showing up with a few signs and then they go away and have a meeting in the basement of the Unitarian Church. God bless the Unitarians, by the way.”[iii]

We speak with reverence about the free and responsible search for truth and meaning to which we are called – a freedom which our spiritual ancestors yearned for, suffered for, in some cases died for. Yet, as the recently deceased minister Gordon McKeeman observed, we often seek the truth, “with considerable apprehension lest we find some, only to discover that finding a truth compromises our freedom by demanding our allegiance to it.”[iv] Another of my departed colleagues, Rev. Dr. Forrester Church argued that our love of freedom came from a context that has almost entirely passed away: our ancestors were heretics in times when heresy was dangerous. That is much less the case for us. “Today,” he said, “our problem is not bondage, but bondlessness. Most of us are already free. We don’t need more freedom. We need the resolve to employ the freedom we have responsibly. We need to invest a little of our precious freedom, and bond ourselves to others in redemptive community.”

The problem of boundlessness is indeed very real. Every moment of the day we have a vast array of options at our fingertips for what to do with our energy, our resources, our time: our lives. But viewed critically, for even a moment, so many of these choices feel as frightfully empty as the vastness of space. We can feel as though we are hurtling through the vacuum, ungrounded and unable to stop. So I agree with the sentiment of Forrest Church’s words but I have to quibble with his phrasing – this is a sermon about words and their meanings, after all. The problem, as I see it, is not exactly that we are too free, and need to be bonded together again. It is that we are made captive by our boundlessness – and we need to be bonded together so that we can be liberated.

To reappropriate a phrase: freedom is not free. Freedom is the power and opportunity to make meaningful choices, to know that there is real purpose to who we are and what we do, and to act from it. The meaning is critical – this is not just about choosing between options, it is letting a sense of deeper consequence guide our lives and actions. Such meaning can only come about through context, connection, and relationship. We can’t get any of that floating alone, atomized and isolated in space – a feeling that our culture of non-participation and perpetual distraction seems calculated to achieve. In the film Gravity, the female protagonist finds herself literally alone in space. She was alienated from life on earth even before she left it behind, and the tremendous effort necessary to even hope for survival seems purposeless. That is, until, she begins to think about someone else – someone who isn’t even there with her, but to whom she is connected. Someone for whom she is something more than just an object, floating in empty space. That connection is enough to get her fighting again.

The great Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams described three tenets for a faith of free people: the first is that it cannot be unencumbered by meaning. It must hold that real meaning and purpose exist in the universe beyond the pleasure or whims of individuals – including each of us. The second tenet is that this purpose, this theological center – however we understand it – must find its richest expression in cooperation towards the common good. The third tenet is that no freedom is achievable without the power that comes from banding together, and then directing that power.

Without a context, some network of connection, there can be no real freedom. Without some larger thing to belong to, there can be no collective power. About 4,400 years ago, the king of Lagash, a city-state in what is now Iraq, issued a decree forgiving the debts of his subjects and freeing the slaves in his kingdom. His edict was the oldest appearance in writing that we have of the word amargi – the Sumerian word for freedom. Literally, amargi means ‘to return to one’s mother’.[v] Making someone a slave means taking them out of their context, robbing them of their ability to make promises or form relationships that can’t be arbitrarily broken or destroyed by someone else. The subjugation ends when they return to their mother – when they are restored to their network of human connection. There are other examples of similar patterns in human words for freedom. That English word itself is connected to the German word for friend.

But somehow we have come to have a popular understanding of freedom as the complete lack of rules, or expectations, or even requests from anyone else. The ancient Romans understood libertas as the power of unlimited control over other things – ‘things’ here including human beings. By its later days, Rome was an empire addicted to war, desperate for the gold and resources it could thus obtain, and for the residents of foreign lands it could capture and enslave. Limitations on what one could do with a possession – a bag of coins, a chariot, or a human being – were seen as infringements, obstructing the principle of ownership. Two thousand years later, Roman law still shapes our own society and way of thinking.[vi] So that all rules and ordinances for the public welfare such as building codes and laws to protect the environment, are attacked as eroding basic liberties. So that money can be ruled to be speech and its use a sacred right, only exceeded by the right to own any number of powerful weapons, and to take them anywhere you like. Freedom, an ideal grounded in connection to others, is now intermingled with a principle of absolute autonomy – perfect separateness from others in order to maintain authority over what is mine. The human value that is supposed to describe the ending of slavery has come to be defined by the ancient practice of it.

Eight years ago, an article appeared in the New York Times about an alarming trend: elephant violence was on the rise. In countries across Africa and Asia, reports of elephants attacking humans, other animals, and other elephants were on the rise. These were cases where the elephants were not being threatened or abused – the attacks were unprovoked. A team of animal psychologists had a theory as to why: poaching, habitat destruction and war were killing vast numbers of elephants, leaving orphans and widowed mates behind. The survivors lived with a ‘species-wide trauma.’ Elephant society was collapsing. The solution they proposed was to resocialize them with the same techniques used to help human survivors of war other serious trauma. Random violence is generally an act of desperation, an expression of powerlessness. It is a way of making a meaningful choice – a choice for a terrible, destructive meaning – when all the alternatives seem closed off. Backed into such an existential corner, we are inclined towards rage or despair or both. The only way out is to regain meaning through connection.

“The source of rights is duty,” Mahatma Gandhi said. In order to be free ourselves in a lasting, meaningful way we have to ensure the freedom of others. This, in turn, necessitates the responsibilities of community. And that is what congregations such as ours are striving for when we seek to live freely together. After A. Powell Davies described his religion as freedom from ignorance and freedom for equal justice, he turned back upon his audience, “As you have listened to me, have you thought perchance that this is your religion? If you have, do not congratulate yourself. Stop long enough to recollect the miseries of the world you live in…And…ask yourself this question: What are you doing with it?” It is up to us, as individuals and most especially as one community, to keep answering that ringing question over and over again: what freedom we have, we have because of others, and each other – our connections, our responsibilities, our promises to keep. What then shall we do with the power we have to do what is right, together?


[i] Season 5, Episode 15, “Deep Space Homer”,

[ii] From, “Is This Your Religion?”, in the collection of his work, “Without Apology.”

[iii] Video of his entire speech here:

[iv] As quoted in a Small Group Ministry Session Plan from the UU Church of Eugene, OR, March 2010

[v] David Graeber, Debt, p. 216

[vi] David Graeber, Debt, p. 203


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