Freedom: Celebration Amid the Mournful Wail of Millions | July 4, 2021 by Dr. Benton
Fellow citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy,
I hear the mournful wail of millions!
The opening words are from Frederick Douglass on the occasion of “independence day” 1852. Douglass was painfully aware of the nature of bondage and freedom. He knew of the “mournful wail of millions” that can drown out the “tumultuous joy” of the celebration of our nation’s independence. It is outrageous that we still need to hear this message almost 170 years later. The human tendency to hide what feels uncomfortable is strong. Yet we do find some who highlight this paradox…is freedom free?
Many of you know that this music is from Pharrell Williams. Although it is part of the soundtrack to a movie, I find it especially profound on this day, which celebrates our nation’s freedom. It highlights the wisdom of so many who have not been free. Nelson Mandela talks about being free when he was a child, playing near his mother’s hut. Later he was to gain a more realistic view of freedom and wrote:
A man who takes away another man's freedom is a prisoner of hatred,
he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else's freedom,
just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.
Mandela is speaking to the interconnected nature of our freedom. If we are free at the expense of others who are not only not free but who are victims of oppression and hatred…of discrimination and injustice, then we are not free. For, in the words of Dr. Howard Thurman:
Every living thing, including man…
every living thing belongs to every other living thing.
I can never be what I ought to be until the last living manifestation
is what it ought to be…for better or for worse,
tied into the idiom of everything that lives.
If I forget this, I profane God’s creation.
If I remember it I come to myself in you
and you come to yourself in me.
This is a reality that is becoming more and more unavoidable. The world is becoming smaller and smaller. It is getting more and more difficult to escape the “uncomfortable truths” of life, though many would like to. We are connected. We are “tied into the idiom of everything that lives.” We cannot pick up anything without finding that it is “hitched to everything else in the Universe.” Fritjof Capra dealt with this reality in his description of quantum physics. He wrote:
...a careful analysis of the process of observation in atomic physics has shown that the subatomic particles have no meaning as isolated entities… Quantum theory thus reveals a basic oneness of the universe. It shows that we cannot decompose the world into independently existing smallest units. As we penetrate into matter, nature does not show us any isolated 'basic building blocks', but rather appears as a complicated web of relations between the various parts of the whole.
This complicated web exists on the quantum scale and also on the human scale. There are no “basic building blocks” as we imagine but a “web of relations”. So, if we are connected in a unified whole, what does that mean for our independence…and our freedom?
Aretha Franklin’s performance was powerful. She was addressing the reality of being oppressed in a relationship…of the suffering, resentment and oppression felt by her character in the movie…having to work her fingers to the bone while her partner went off and played music with his friends. But of course there is a broader meaning to her song. We all must think about our situation and respond in a public way. We know that throughout history there have been so many courageous and outspoken prophets and freedom fighters who have exemplified this spirit. They knew that each of us had a responsibility to speak truth to power…it is our responsibility to speak for the voiceless…to utilize our opportunities for the benefit of the whole…the unified whole. For until “the last living manifestation is what it ought to be”, “I can never be what I ought to be.” Perhaps one of the best examples of the personification of taking this responsibility seriously comes from a true Freedom Fighter; Fannie Lou Hamer.
The story of Fannie Lou Hamer is inspiring. It may cause us to strive to fulfill the moments of our high resolve. It may cause us to take seriously the plight of the oppressed and the suffering of this world…of our mothers and of our Mother Earth. It may cause us to rise up and use our gifts and talents, our strengths and our creativity to further the level of freedom in the world…the level of healing from suffering and oppression. It may cause us to draw strength from her…a part of the unified whole so that we do not “profane God’s Creation.” Instead may we become evidence of true freedom…the freedom to, in the words of Dr. Howard Thurman “deal with the realities of one’s situation so as not to be overcome by them.”
May we not be overcome!