Pastor Bob’s Neighborhood: “THE FREEDOM WE CRAVE” (Thoughts on rising above injustice, protests, and violence)

NYPD Chief Kneels with Protestors saying, “This has got to end.”

There is a dominant American myth of hitting the open road and finding our freedom. Leaving all the constraints of our everyday life behind and finally being set free to do anything (everything?) we want to. It even sounds good just reading it right now! 

Freedom is a concept at the very core of what our country values. We are a nation built upon the notion of individual freedom as the most important characteristic of our rights as a human. Every person in the U.S. has been ingrained with the teaching that of all the values and principles of our democratic republic that we cherish – the freedoms of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are the ones we will protect more than any. Indeed, we will fight for these rights! 

Those Americans now in the street of the U.S. cities protesting a lack of these freedoms for certain segments of our citizenry – specifically, but not exclusively, African-American men – are acting out of a place inside of them that yearns for freedom and justice for all. That’s what they were promised. And what they’ve never had. After all: No Freedom/No Justice. 

But, the freedoms they are manifesting in their marches and protests exceed the boundaries of the freedoms for others. There is rarely, if ever, a justifying reason for violence, vandalism, and destruction. Yet, our country, like the history of the world itself, is filled with such acts of protest that sometimes bring about change for the better. We cannot argue that the violence and destruction hasn’t captured our attention and at least brought about a personal interest and national conversation about the issues of the relationship between police officers and African-American men. 

But having an interest in these issues doesn’t mean we are getting the answers we need. Each side, or perhaps we should say every side, of this issue in our country will have a prescription to offer to us as the remedy for the problems and/or the response to the injustices. Now here’s the hard but honest truth: the answers to these issues … and all the other conflicts and injustices that confront our country and the world, will never be found outside of the individual and in the world we live in. 

There is no remedy for the problem of sin and selfishness in our judicial system. The hardness of our hearts is not rectified by the keeping of the 10 Commandments. The freedom to protest and petition our government does not result in a spiritual transformation of the citizens so that such issues like discrimination and oppression never surface again. Our young country has a Bill of Rights and an independent judiciary that offers us one of the best legal responses to these kinds of human failings known in the world. But those are responses … not remedies. 

The remedy for sin does not come from the world, but from a power outside of the world, that has intervened into our world to save it from itself. This power is the only thing that can solve the hardness of our hearts and the sin of self-centeredness. We should look for our freedom there!   

Indeed, even the freedom that we think we crave so much — to hop into a 1976 Camaro and hit the highway, cruising out Route 66 to the Pacific – is not really a remedy for the freedom we crave. At best, it’s a temporary fix, not unlike an addict getting a fix he needs for the short term … over and over and over again. 

Yes, freedom is what we crave, but we keep going to the wrong dealer! The American Dream is not so much about our freedoms as it is our constraints. Our culture has created a vision of freedom that works for the economy, for our social and political institutions, and for the stability of families and communities. Or so we’re taught. But it is not working for the freedom of many individuals. Actually, this type of freedom puts us all in a soft and easy confinement – something we can live with but never satisfy our true desire for self-determination. 

We are taught and trained to think that we’re free when we can decide what’s good for us. Sounds right, doesn’t it? If everybody would just stop doing things their way, and do things my way instead, then we wouldn’t have these problems! But therein lays the problem. Our will makes us feel better, at least temporarily, but it only creates more conflict in the end. 

The events of this week in cities across the U.S. are the same as the events that have filled the history of human existence on this globe, each and every day. From Cain and Abel to George Floyd, human sin lays it’s dark and ugly reality on the canvas of the way of life we so hope for. These things are not new, they aren’t temporary, and they aren’t unique. They are in fact, universal and eternal; part of human nature. They are the result of individuals believing that their true freedom is based on their ability to determine what’s good for them. And anything or anyone who gets between them and their freedom is in a danger zone of hate wherein violence becomes an acceptable and not uncommon response. 

And then there is the other way. At some point in the quest for this notion of personal freedom, one finds themselves exhausted … and unfulfilled … and even regretful. A whole life dedicated to a personal freedom that doesn’t and can’t bring the peace and fulfillment that we all truly crave – the freedom to truly be free … free to become the divinely inspired and uniquely created person that God crafted each of us to be … a very particular kind of person in this world … and one who is happy, joyous, and … yes, free! 

There is a way through this. James K.A. Smith sums it up this way: “It is a terrible and terrifying thing to know what you want to be and then realize you’re the only one standing in your way.” It’s at this very point, however, when you can decide to begin anew – to plan your escape from the “you” you have made of yourself and commit to finding a different life that’s based on the “you” that God created you to be. 

Then comes a critical moment when you realize that you cannot go down this new road by yourself. No Camaro is able to take you to this Promised Land. There is no Route 66 that ends in this kind of personal freedom. You need the help that at first seems impossible, beyond human ability. And you’re right! As long as you keep trying to find your satisfaction in the material things of this world you stay caught in a cycle where you are more and more disappointed in those things, but yet deeper and deeper embedded with them. But with God … escape from this treadmill becomes possible. 

A spiritual epiphany occurs when you realize that you can trade your illusion of self-autonomy, and that sense of illusory freedom that comes with it, for a dependence on something greater than yourself … to fully achieve the freedom you are seeking. The Good News is that there is a power stronger and better than your own willpower, and is just waiting for your call. In the rooms of NA and AA we call this our “Higher Power.” Of course, it’s “God.” With God we can take on a posture of dependence that liberates us – a reliance on someone in our life that releases us to be who we really are. When God moves into our own will, we are given the gift of knowing the true good … and now we have not just the desire to pursue it, but the power to achieve it as well. 

Smith says it is at this point that we receive the grace that only God can give us – and has been waiting to give us for so long! When that grace comes, we know it, because it feels like an infusion, a transplant, a resurrection, a revolution within, and it feels like the freedom you have craved your whole life. 

Looking at our nation today … reflecting on our own feelings and emotions … praying for God to come to us and heal us and make us whole … isn’t it time to start with ourselves. All people need and crave the same thing: a freedom that doesn’t produce winners and losers, but instead results in peace and justice for all. Isn’t it time we “put on the Lord Jesus Christ?” The freedom He offers is not a permission to do whatever we want. It’s a freedom that gives us the power to do God’s will … which is exactly what we were created to do. 

And doing exactly what we were created to do is the true freedom that we all crave.

What the world needs now, is love, sweet love; No, not just for some, but for everyone!                                   

Pastor Bob