July 4, 2008 Reflections on Freedom and the Color Orange...

At this moment I am relaxing in a lovely retreat center called Richmond Hill located in the city of Richmond, Virginia. Two streets over is St. John's Episcopal Church where in 1775 Patrick Henry cried out in words that still ring in American ears - " Give me liberty or give me death." So, let's reflect for a moment on the meaning of freedom on this Independence Day, the birthday of the United States. Apologies in advance for my rambling. This question troubles and challenges me and so in an attempt to work through the angst I offer my own musings. I'll begin by simply asking the question, " What is freedom?" With so many people today using the word in so many ways it seems good to have some basic understanding... if possible. According to one source, President Bush in his second inaugural address used the word " freedom" or liberty" 49 times in twenty minutes. Evenly spaced that's more than twice every minute. Hmmm...

Question: What does George W. Bush mean by the word freedom? Do you/I share that meaning?

If we look in Webster's dictionary here's what we get: freedom is "the state or quality of being free". Right. It is the " absence of coercion in choice". Freedom is " liberation from slavery or domination or things onerous." Webster also says that freedom is the capacity to " choose without coercion."

As we try to understand and live freedom in our varied contexts we need to ask even more questions: Freedom from what? Freedom for whom? Freedom to be or do what? There is personal freedom, social freedom, religious freedom, political and economic freedom, intellectual freedom, sexual freedom... The list is endless. Common to all these freedoms is the element of choice. And of course, the consequences of our choosing. Not to mention the boundaries of our wise choosing. Freedom may be said to be the relative victory of choice over coercion and the wise navigating of our choices given the likely effects of our various choices. But what if the choices are rigidly controlled and the necessary information to make good choices is very limited and very difficult to obtain? In U.S. society today our mainstream media seem to be afraid to ask the tough questions and rarely give us in depth reporting on a wide variety of topics. Given the widespread desire in this country to end the Iraq war why not have a media forum on how to do that? Many in Europe and elswhere look at our two-party political system and ask" Where is the real choice?" In that context are we free? And what if our choices seem driven by our internal obsessions, and without by the cultural forces at work in our dominant culture? How free are we?

Ever since September 11, 2001 the color orange has grown in the American consciousness. The threat level is orange. The advisory level is orange. We are on orange alert. I once thought that our national colors were red, white and blue. Now, shades of anxious orange seem to be our national color scheme. As I travel this summer I am repeatedly reminded via public announcements in train stations and airports that I need to be on the alert to "report anyone or anything that seems suspicious". At one such moment in a subway train as the doors closed and the announcement was heard several of us looked around at each other and smiled. I wonder who appeared the more suspicious. I didn't feel very free at that moment. Freedom in any social context seems to require a basic trust in others otherwise one is caught coercively in a fearful mind. Freedom from fear and the freedom to trust appears to be a fundamental requirement for any healthy social interaction and the glue that holds a well functioning society together. But in that little train all crammed together trust was definitely discouraged and we were encouraged by way of a public political warning to look at each other as potential objects of fear. How free are we? Against the backdrop of orange anxiety are we free to trust , to relax, to enjoy each other, not to mention the ride? Is such a climate of fear conducive to building human happiness?

George Orwell once wrote about a futuristic society that would distort the original and essential meanings of certain words . Such words as freedom would be used to diminish and eventually eliminate the reality of freedom itself. In the name of freedom , freedom is destroyed. Are we all that far from that society now? And in a sense is this anything new? Didn't Jesus encounter the same kind of misuse of language and meaning in his day? Did he not work to reclaim the essential meanings of such words as freedom, neighbor, faith, even the word God? Clearly , at that time with the people Jesus encountered, he did everything possible to open the eyes of the blind both literally and metaphorically. His passionate mission was to " liberate and set free the captives". This all embracing transformation reached people in both their personal and political lives.

A story... In 2003 I was sitting in a cafe in an American city talking with a very good friend about just about everything when the topic of conversation switched to politics. We were expressing our opinions freely when suddenly she stopped and lowered her voice and asked me to do the same. I forgot to tell you that my friend worked for a government agency. I asked what the matter was and she responded by saying that she was afraid of being overheard and that if someone in the office heard her expressing her opinions she could easily loose her job. Understandable? Perhaps. But at that moment the conversation seemed to be taking on the ubiquitous color of orange. My friend wanted to continue to serve in this government agency and to do that she was required to support the government's policies. Is this freedom?
Flashback to a Bob Dylan song...remember " You Gotta Serve Somebody"?

Again, I do apologize for these meandering musings that may or may not get anywhere. It's just that I feel a deep urgency regarding this issue. To be human is to be free. To become more fully and joyously human is to deepen and develop our freedom both personally and politically. It is clear to this writer that we are living in a time and especially in this place of western affluent culture when our essential humanity is being seriously attacked. More than any " war on terror" or " war on drugs" there is another more profound war being waged. And I believe we all are in it and in many ways we all share in our responsibility to become more and more aware of what is happening and how to engage in it in whatever ways we can as active peacemakers.

In closing , I want to point to one of the most influential teachers of the twentieth century - Anthony De Mello. De Mello , a beloved teacher and retreat leader, died in 1987. As a Jesuit priest he was from time to time getting into trouble with the Vatican theological police. There was a time his writings came with a Papal warning. That alone sparked my interest. He was utterly convinced that freedom of thought and feeling was being threatened in his Catholic religious context and he was determined to do something about it.
Anthony De Mello wrote a little book called, " The Way to Love" and in it he really defines in a most simple and troubling way the concept of freedom. To be free is to become more and more aware of our cultural programming, and to drop all of our obsessive attachments. For De Mello this process ( which can take anywhere from a few minutes to one's entire life) of awareness and letting-go is the very heart of human freedom and the key to human happiness. As I have reflected on this little book for some years now it is true for me that as I learn to drop my attachments of fear, false beliefs, attachments to things and people that I once believed could somehow " make" me happy or miserable I seem to be entering into that growing and glowing place of freedom and happiness.
Awareness is everthing and all I need to be aware of is this precious and present moment. Everything I need and everything you need is there.
My prayer is that we all can become and help each other to become more and more aware, less and less fearful and attached to our false beliefs - personal and political , less orange and more green, and that together we will continue to work, play, think, feel, speak, pray, fall down and get up, laugh, cry, live and love, and be the creative and joyous human beings that we all truly are! May it be so.
Blessings of freedom, dear friends...
Stefan Andre

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