I have a friend who regularly eats at the soup kitchen next door to Episcopal House. We often talk about the books we have been reading. A couple of years ago he told me he had been reading novels by James Joyce. I was a bit dubious because I have not known many people who could get through Joyce's dense prose. He said that he had, and without a Gaelic dictionary. I told him that I had just finished reading Between the World and Me, an award-winning book by Ta Nehisi Coates. I explained that Coates' main premise is that the American dream provides opportunity and privilege to people like me, who have the fortune to be white, at the expense of people like him, who are black. He was just as dubious at my comment, asking, "You didn't know that?"
There have always been a large number of people who refute Coates' critique, and who claim, with great pride, that America has always been a land of equal opportunity. Black History month seeks to set the record straight. Through countless stories, the historical record demonstrates that Coates is fundamentally right.
But in the last year or so, the historical record doesn't seem to matter much to an alarming number of political and religious, particularly Christian, leaders. Freedom is becoming merit- or faith-based, and the definition of merit and faith can readily be manipulated or abused. We end up with a truncated dream, which is anchored in scarcity, prejudice and fear – and justifies itself by saying that there just isn't enough privilege to go around, so we need to protect those who already have the right faith or earned the proper merit. Too bad for those who don't.
We can argue until the next election whether or not this all is a distortion of the American dream, but I can say – with prophetic passion, that it is a perversion of the Christian gospel. The writer of John's gospel says that when Jesus is lifted up, he will draw the whole world to himself (John 12:32). Not just some. Everyone.
Over the two hundred-plus years of the American republic, we have treasured the concept of liberty. The Liberty Bell and the Statue of Liberty are powerful symbols of our national commitment to liberty, which tends to be personal, if not private. These symbols celebrate and affirm the liberty to say what I want, liberty to worship how I want, liberty to go where I want. Liberty is vitally important. I deeply appreciate liberty.
Freedom runs deeper. It is communal. For Jesus, people aren't truly free unless and until freedom is offered to everyone. He insisted on it. We are called to do the same. Jesus’ modern mouthpiece, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., wound up his 1963 I have a dream speech with a clarion call to freedom:
When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and hamlet, from every state and city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children... will be able to join hands and sing in the words of that old Negro spiritual – free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty we are free at last.
We are either in it together, or we are not in it. We can celebrate our liberty, but we need to fight for everyone's freedom.