The Second Continental Congress formally adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. It proclaimed that the colonies were free from England’s rule. It wasn’t true, of course, until the revolutionary war was over, but we celebrate this event in history as the United States’ Independence Day. And freedom is a beautiful thing. In fact, the Declaration of Independence states that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” But in the words of Angelica Schuyler (at least the Hamilton version of Angelica Schuyler), “And when I meet Thomas Jefferson I’ma compel him to include women in the sequel.” (WORK!) Because the freedom that the members of the Second Continental Congress imagined was not freedom for all people, but instead freedom for certain people.
Over the years, the people of the United States have done a lot of arguing about who ought to be included in this freedom and who ought not to be included. There has been plenty of disagreement about what freedom means. Because, if we’re being honest, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are good and important, but they are not unalienable. Unalienable (or inalienable) means that they are unable to be taken away from or given away by the possessor. And these things can certainly be taken away or given. This is not to say that they aren’t incredibly important, but we live under a government that has been giving and taking away life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness since the beginning. To this day, people of color, particularly black folks, are fighting for their lives. In the “land of the free,” people are scared to walk at night for fear that someone might assume that they’re a criminal. People are detained at the border and left waiting for months, if not years, to see if they might be granted asylum.
And, for the most part, I think that freedom is a good thing. Freedom to be who you are and the freedom to live in a way that fits those things that work for you. Honestly, I LOVE the freedom of speech the first amendment advocates for; I think it’s a gift to live in a place where I can’t be arrested or killed for the things that I say. I also recognize that freedom of speech is often wielded as a weapon (see: Westboro Baptist Church.) And while I don’t think we ought to be arresting people for saying awful, damaging, hateful things, I’m not sure how to protect people from the hate-filled messages they convey. I recently heard someone say, “Just because you Ameri-can doesn’t mean you Ameri-should.” Freedom, ultimately, can be a very dangerous thing.
When I think of freedom, I like to think of the freedom that the author of Galatians (a book of the Bible), Paul, talks about. He says, “You were called to freedom, [siblings]; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love. All the Law has been fulfilled in a single statement: Love your neighbor as yourself. But if you bite and devour each other, be careful that you don’t get eaten up by each other!” (Galatians 5:13-15)
Freedom, when used for good, when employed to work for the freedom of others, when used to foster love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control is a beautiful thing.
That’s the freedom I’ll be celebrating this Fourth of July. Not freedom that somehow stirs up a toxic nationalism and declares that our right to do whatever we want is more important than anything else. I’ll be celebrating the freedom that calls me to something bigger than myself. Freedom that invites me to willingly serve those around me. Freedom that makes me responsible for other people. That is freedom worth living for and freedom worth dying for. That is a freedom worth celebrating.
May we strive to be people who work so that our fellow humans might be free from oppression, the heavy hand of racism, and the cruelty of prejudice.