I have always thought of freedom as a political good. Because I was raised in a home with a father who believed in civic responsibility and who served for 42 years as an election precinct officer, the moment I turned 18, I registered to vote. And I don’t remember missing a single opportunity to cast my vote in local and national elections. Working for The Upper Room, whose mission is centered in creating space and opportunities for people to cultivate daily life with God, I am thinking these days about freedom as both a political and spiritual good.
Maybe one reason Eden appeals to many of us is because stories about Eden evoke the epitome of spiritual freedom. We long for a space such as Eden, a kind of paradise that would satisfy our longing for bodily and spiritual freedom… where our minds are free from worry? suspicion? fear? A space where each of us is regarded as fully human, made in the image of God? Perhaps it is easier to picture a natural idyllic place without humans! Perhaps the sages of old were merely reminding us that even in Eden, God’s creation is under threat by an evil that lurks inside the perimeter. Evil is the threat of freedom, and that is the ultimate concern of God.
In preparation for this article, I had a brief correspondence with my former theology teacher, M. Douglas Meeks, (Cal Turner Chancellor Professor of Theology and Wesleyan Studies Emeritus at Vanderbilt Divinity School, Nashville, Tennessee), about something he had said in class over 20 years ago! He graciously responded to my question with a summary I knew he would easily recall, “Creation is understood as God’s calling everything out of nothing into being.” And the Exodus is a reminder that “God will let go of nothing God has called into being.” For Meeks, the concept of freedom predates Eden. All of humanity was created to be free, and the perennial challenge of humanity is remaining free. I am convinced that concepts like chattel slavery, internment camps, death camps, mass incarceration, immigration detention centers, and sex trafficking each threaten the freedom by which we are created in God. These are sin and thereby against God.
The people of God have a rich and storied past of song, scripture, and dance celebrating the labor of God to set us free. Meeks recalls that even Jesus proclaims, “For freedom, God has set you free, therefore do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” Our greatest work yet is remembering freedom as a spiritual discipline at the core of the invitation of Luke 4, “to set the captives free.” These words do not merely refer to a spiritual bondage but also to physical bondage. Modern-day captors, like Pharoah, would detain immigrants in abysmal detention centers, relegate women to lower-paying jobs, and disproportionately incarcerate people of color. Our invitation to the spiritual discipline at the core of Luke 4 is contemplating human freedom in every corner of the world, starting with the ground upon which we stand.
The song tradition of the African American spirituals pens these words, “Freedom, O Freedom, freedom over me. Before I be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave, and go on to my Lord to be free.” It is the rallying cry of those just barely a generation removed from slavery remembering its brutality and declaring, “never again.” But as they sang, we sing together as one voice committed to the freedom that exists in Christ. Finally, perhaps, we have moments where we have tasted freedom, where freedom has never more felt so free. Where were you? Those are the moments that fuel the good news of Christ, “Whom Christ has set free, is free indeed.” July is a month where Black Americans have historically questioned the concept of freedom on American soil, nevertheless, we have been able to celebrate: freedom is always of concern to God, involuntary bondage is sin, and the liberating work of Christ is ever loosening all of our shackles! Therefore, let us work and imagine freedom while it is still day.
Rev. Dr. Amy Steele serves as The Upper Room Executive Director of Program and Dean of The Upper Room Chapel. Prior to joining The Upper Room, Amy was assistant dean for student affairs and community life at Vanderbilt Divinity School. Amy is a womanist social ethicist who has deep commitments to understand faith, preaching, and social justice. Her research interests include 20th century Black religious thought, especially the works of Howard Thurman.
Photograph by Aaron Burden / Unsplash