What Freedom Means Now (Dr. Anthony Stringer)

Lift every voice and sing of freedom. Lift every voice and sing of the Balm in Gilead. Lift every voice and sing of peace, even in a time of war. Lift every voice and sing. We’ve sung the Gospel and had the good news sung to us.

From Capetown to Hong Kong, from Soweto to Tianemen Square, this has been the music of the revolution. This has been the music of liberation. This has been the music that has transcended the particulars of time, place, and circumstance, to articulate something deeper. To articulate something deep within the human spirit which we all recognize. These songs speak to a common yearning at the core of our being. And it doesn’t matter whether we are Christian, Buddhist, or humanist, we can appreciate what these songs say to us. It doesn’t matter what vocal accent we bring to the chorus, the sound rings true. Arising from the throats of the Zulu, crossing the lips of the Chinese, and echoing through the chambers of a German cathedral, the sound rings true.

It rang true in Nazi Germany. Before he became internationally renown for his writings on ethics and theology, for his leadership of the anti-Nazi Protestant Confessing Church, and for his advocacy on behalf of Jews persecuted in Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer spent a year studying at Union Theological Seminary in New York. There, he was befriended by a fellow seminarian who happened to be African American. This friendship introduced Bonhoeffer to the Abyssinian Baptist Church of Harlem, where he first heard the Gospel music that would sustain him the rest of his life. What moved him about this music was its passion and its idealism. Bonhoeffer also wrote of being struck by the irony of 1930s America which welcomed and embraced the music of the black church in its greatest concert halls, while excluding black people from all but the most menial forms of participation in the life of this nation.

The bespectacled and scholarly Bonhoeffer carried that sense of irony and the music that inspired him back to his native Germany and introduced Gospel music, albeit in a German accent, into the Protestant Confessing Church whose leadership he would assume during Germany’s darkest days. Think about it, the songs you just sang to us, the music of black America being sung in Nazi Germany, bringing light and spirit, keeping hope alive in a nation plunging into darkness and death.

Bonhoeffer’s efforts on behalf of the Jews, his involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler—-a plot that nearly succeeded, brought this scholarly lover of black music, brought this theologian and poet to death by hanging in a German concentration camp. He had been banned by the Nazis from preaching, banned from teaching, and finally banned from any form of public speaking. But he never stopped singing the Gospel. Before his death, Bonhoeffer was stripped of his clothes, humiliated, and forced to walk naked to his gallows, where he died just three weeks short of Germany’s defeat and the end of the war in Europe.

Though a Christian his entire life, Bonhoeffer’s final theological ideas, written down while he was imprisoned, envisioned what he termed a “religionless Christianity.” He was writing from the perspective of a German theological scholar whose educational roots were partly in a Harlem Baptist church and who was about to be executed for his advocacy on behalf of Jews. So of course his religion was ecumenical. Of course his perspective was that of a universalist.

Bonhoeffer went from being a religious pacifist to a participant in what could have been history’s most important assassination. What got him to this point was not certainty that what was he doing was right. There was no objective, absolute moral certainty in Bonhoeffer’s ethics. There was no advance justification for our decisions and actions, we would all have to face judgement some day for what we chose to do, or for what we chose not to do. Inaction in the face of evil was not a moral option for Bonhoeffer. It was in fact, an act of complicity in the very evil from which we would avert our eyes.

The courageous thing, the moral thing, the only thing a human being of high moral character can do, said Bonhoeffer, in the face of evil is to choose a course of selfless action, a course of action guided by the needs of one’s neighbor and for Bonhoeffer, also guided by the example of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is what led Bonhoeffer from scholarship to discipleship, from teaching to acting in the world for good. Bonhoeffer humiliated, naked, walking to his death, I believe and I trust he was humming a Gospel tune. There is a balm in Gilead.

If Bonhoeffer was struck by the irony of a nation that honored a music but not the makers of that music, I am struck by the irony of Juneteenth, a holiday celebrating freedom, arising in Texas. That is an irony. Most of you know the story, whether you are from Texas or not.

Between 1860 and 1861, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, North Carolina, Texas, Arkansas, Virginia, and Tennessee left the United States of America over the issue of slavery. Faced with the loss of eleven states in the span of one year, faced with the loss of much of America’s agricultural base, Abraham Lincoln made what would have been in Bonhoeffer’s ethics the only moral choice. It was also the only choice that could save this nation. In September of 1862, the North was not winning the war between the states. And the South was on the verge of negotiating foreign support for its insurrection. Had such negotiations been successful, that would have tipped the scales of war irrevocably in the Confederacy’s favor. The slaves had to be freed to assure the North would win the war. “If I could save the Union,” Lincoln declared, “without freeing one slave, I would do it.” But he could not.

And so in September of 1862, Lincoln threatened to end slavery and on the 1st of January 1863, he began to make good on his threat. Lincoln declared the slaves of the Confederate States forever free and two years later, on January 31st, 1865, Congress passed the 13th Amendment and abolished slavery everywhere in these United States. As Al Gore had not yet invented the Internet, the word of freedom was slow to spread. Word of their emancipation reached the slaves of Texas on June 19th, six months after the 13th Amendment passed. And this is where the celebration, this is where Juneteenth began. But oh, the irony.

Juneteenth is the oldest continuously celebrated African American holiday. Emancipation Day celebrations occur at different times in different parts of the country. January 1st in New York, Massachusetts, Alabama, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, and Maryland. February 1st in Philadelphia. May 8th in Mississippi. May 20th in Florida. June 19th in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and parts of Arkansas. August 4th in Missouri and Illinois. August 8th in Kentucky. September 22nd in Indiana and Ohio. But the Texas celebration on June 19th is the largest and the grandest. Perhaps it needs to be.

Yes, there is that irony. That Texas would give us both the grandest of the historical celebrations of black freedom and the greatest of contemporary threats to the freedom of us all. Lest there be any confusion, I do speak of our presidency when I speak of the threat to our freedom.

What else are we to make of the National Security Agency eavesdropping on the phone calls of an unknown number of American citizens without a warrant? What else are we to make of the NSA having gathered the phone numbers called and Internet addresses visited by millions of ordinary Americans, none of whom had any connection to any illegal or terrorist activity at all? What else are we to make of a super secret Federal agency with the technology, and apparently the president’s permission, to monitor, store, and listen to or read any phone conversation or email in the country? How else are we to view this but as an assault on freedom?

And lest you think I am betraying my liberal bias, let me inform you that this is Bob Barr’s list of concerns.1 This is what keeps Bob Barr up at night, a man who was one of the most conservative members of Congress and who worked for the CIA for almost eight years. This is Bob Barr’s list. We haven’t even gotten a third of the way through my list.

On my list: The warning received by ABC News, the New York Times, and the Washington Post that the Justice Department was tracking the phone calls of reporters in order to identify confidential sources of information. On my list: The revelation that Britain, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Bosnia, Macedonia, Turkey, Spain, Cyprus, Ireland, Greece, Portugal, Romania, and Poland may all be implicated in the secret transport of CIA prisoners to illegal prisons since 9/11, a covert operation estimated to have involved more than a thousand air flights.2 On my list: The indefinite holding of combatants at Guantanamo Bay without charge or trial; legalization of the seizure of library borrowing records of U.S. citizens; the attempts to silence or marginalize the government’s own scientists who think Global Warming may actually be something more than Al Gore’s latest publicity vehicle. The list of freedoms violated, freedoms ignored; freedoms abrogated goes on and on and on.

This being Father’s Day, let us ask, what would be the reaction of our nation’s founding fathers? What would they think of this presidency? Would they recognize in it, the America which they seeded for future generations? Would they? The answer, I fear, is yes. They would recognize it.

I say this, not because the founding fathers were slave owners. Indeed, though the well known Jefferson, Washington, and Clay and though the lessor known John Dickinson, Caesar Rodney, William Livingston, George Whyte, and others among the founding fathers, owned slaves, many more were opposed to slavery than were in support of it. Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, James Monroe, and a long list of lessor-knowns were members of anti-slavery societies. And many of the founding fathers who owned slaves, including Jefferson and Washington, were well-aware of its evils and hoped to see the practice at an end. Indeed, it was the widespread repugnance of the founding fathers to this hateful institution that led to the abolition of slavery in all the northern states and territories by the early 1800s.

But this first generation of American nation-builders were masters of the moral compromise. They could do, what Bonhoeffer would later argue should not be done by a moral person. Our founding fathers could look an evil in the eye and then avert their gaze. Whether they owned slaves, or not, they could know that slavery was a thing of evil, and still tolerate it out of expediency and necessity. They could do what Bonhoeffer could not do. To preserve a united front in the war with England, to preserve their fragile new union, they could consign the question of slave emancipation to a more convenient time and a more expedient place.

And this is much the same argument offered by the Bush presidency to justify its freedom abrogations. It does not defend eavesdropping, clandestine prison flights, or torture as things that are lawful and just. Rather it defends the abrogation of our freedoms, indeed the abrogation of our laws, as a necessity in a time of war. As an evil that must be tolerated for the sake of our security. Well, if the road to hell is paved with good intentions, our national history would suggest the path to enslavement is lined with evil expediencies.

I fear that our founding fathers would understand and approve the compromises of our freedom today just as they tolerated the abrogation of the rights and dignities of my ancestors yesterday. This is not to condemn our nation’s founders. It is rather, to highlight a moral choice they faced in their time and that we face in ours. You see, our founding fathers had two distinct views of liberty. And these two distinct views continue to play out today.

Some of our nation’s founders adhered to what can be called “natural liberty.” This view was articulated by Jefferson in his Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. Jefferson defined natural liberty this way: “Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights.” In other words, we are licensed by nature to do whatever we will as long as it does not harm our fellow man and fellow citizen. The words “man” and “citizen” are important here, for they define the boundaries of Jefferson’s natural liberty.

This liberty, this license to act out of self-interest leaves a nation unfettered in its treatment of those it does not recognize as man or citizen. The new nation had no moral obligation to recognize the freedoms and liberties of women, blacks, or the “Indian savages” referenced in the Declaration of Independence. Writ large, this is the natural liberty, indeed this is the natural right, that Bush lays claim to when he flaunts our laws because he is president, as well as international law because we are Americans.

Contrast this with Patrick Henry’s definition of a “civil” form of liberty. From a civil perspective, liberty is not a free pass from nature. Liberty, Patrick Henry said, “is not the right to do what one wants, but [rather] the right to do what one must.” This is a liberty grounded not in individual self-interest, but rather in the imperatives of morality, law and conscience. Civil liberty is the freedom to do the right thing, to follow the dictates of conscience, the freedom to do what is best for others, even if it is not best for me.

Writ large, this is the choice of a nation to embody the highest ideals even as it fights its enemies. It is the choice of a nation to be at its best, even as it confronts what it most abhors. It is a choice of a nation to value moral victory over military victory, knowing that the latter is transitory while the former endures.

This is the freedom of a Bonhoeffer. The free choice of morality over expediency, the free refusal to avert the gaze from evil, the free choice to be guided not by self-interest, but by the interests of all those with whom we share our humanity. Be they black, Jew, or Muslim.

Yes, we can protect ourselves by trampling national laws in order to abrogate our freedoms. Yes, we can gain a measure of safety by trampling international laws in order to abrogate the freedoms of others. But in the words of Benjamin Franklin, my favorite and I think the wisest of the founding fathers, “They that give up essential liberty to obtain…temporary safety…deserve neither safety nor liberty.”

May we, today, define and keep our liberty. And may we, today, deserve it.

1Barr, Bob. “Listen up; our rights are at risk.” Atlanta Journal Constitution. Sunday, May 14, 2006, Section D, pages 1 and 4.

2Sliva, Jan. “Abuse report links 14 EU nations, CIA.” Atlanta Journal Constitution. Thursday, June 8, 2006, Section A, page 3.