Essays, Papers & Addresses

Let Freedom Ring

By The Rev. Dr. Donald E. Harpster

Sermon Delivered At The Union Church, Plymouth Notch, Vermont On Sunday, July 1, 2001 By The Rev. Dr. Donald E. Harpster, Professor Of History & Political Science At The College Of St. Joseph, Rutland, Vermont

“. . . proclaim liberty throughout the land to all it inhabitants.”
                                                                   – Leviticus 25: 10

“For he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freeman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a slave of Christ.”
                                                                                                                                                                     – I Corinthians 7:22

On this Sunday as we near the 225th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, we gather in God’s house to thank God for the blessing of liberty and freedom we enjoy in this our country, the United States of America. The outward symbols of our national heritage are all around us. Many homes proudly display the most familiar symbol, the American Flag. Many impressive displays of fireworks will light up the sky at night. Proclamations will be issued by local, state, and national governing bodies appropriate to the day. Although the original Liberty Bell is now silent, many people will make the pilgrimage to Philadelphia and read its inscriptions from Leviticus: “. . . proclaim liberty throughout the land and to all its inhabitants.” All of these things and events are but outward symbols of something of far greater importance – the spirit of freedom.

The Apostle Paul declared something similar in his discussion about circumscion. “For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God.” (I Corinthians 7: 19) for Paul, it wasn’t circumscion, which declares us to be free of sin, but our relationship with God. What is important is not the outward trappings but the inner spirit which dwells in people That is also true of our patriotism. While it is good to display the symbol of our nation , it is not the number of flags we put outside of our house, but the spirit of freedom in our hearts and the ways in which we act out our freedom which the flag represents.

Abraham Lincoln in speaking of our provisions for national defense likewise once spoke of the importance of this inner spirit.

What constitutes the bulwark of our liberty and independence? It is not our frowning
battlements, our bristling seacoast, our army and our navy. Our reliance is in the love
of liberty which God has planted in us. Our defense is in the spirit, which prizes
liberty as the heritage of all men in all lands everywhere. Destroy this spirit, and we
have planted the seeds of despotism at our own doors. – [Speech, 1858]

Later, Calvin Coolidge spoke about the inner nature of this liberty:

“Equality, liberty, popular sovereignty, the rights of man – these are not elements
which we can see and touch. They are ideals. They have their source and their roots in the religious convictions. They belong to the unseen world. Unless the faith of the American people in these religious convictions is to endure, the principles of our Declaration will perish. We can not continue to enjoy the result if we neglect and abandon the cause.” -[Presidential speech in Philadelphia commemorating the 150th
Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, July 5, 1926]

What is this spirit of freedom we honor today? First, we would definitely agree with the comments of our 30th President that it is informed by our Christian faith. The Founding Fathers of our country, like ourselves were nurtured in the Judeo-Christian heritage. Our Bible was their Bible. Their understanding of political and social liberty came directly from their belief in a Supreme Being. Words such as those from Galatians 5 – “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5: 1) had great impact during the time of the American Revolution. From the account in Genesis they knew that humanity is created in the image of God – free to make choices between Good and Evil. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time.” (Summary View of the Rights of British America)

Second, freedom or the right of people to determine their destiny is a fragile commodity indeed. This is one of the lessons we learn from a study of history. Following the lead of the United States, many other countries have had revolutions for the creation of individual human rights only to see those rights taken away in the name of a stable government by military dictatorships. Certainly this was the case of France during the Napoleonic era and of many Central and South American countries following revolutions in the 1820’s and 1830’s. There was a long history of the ruling general promising free elections but always in the future.

I can’t help but feel that one of the reasons for the fragile nature of freedom is that it is too easily taken for granted. In years past, I have had the experience manning a local polling booth as Judge of Elections in a ward in Shamokin, Pennsylvania. How apalling it was that only 20% to 30% of the eligible voters exercised that privilege during primary elections. Even presidents are elected with only about 50% of the electorate voting. With that kind of apathy one does begin to wonder whether we in modern-day America really deserve the privileges of a free society.

Third, freedom as we currently have it was a long time in developing. Our free institutions did not come into being overnight. The spirit of freedom was nurtured in countless New England town meetings, in colonial legislatures such as those in Pennsylvania and the House of Burgesses in Virginia, and in church councils. In all of these places the people and their representatives could speak their minds and make their wishes known on important issues of the day. In addition, just declaring our independence from the Mother Country did not make it so. Seven long and often discouraging years of conflict followed until Americans had a country they could call their own. Real independence was still in the future. Great Britain still controlled the seas and the War of 1812 had to be fought to insure American interests. Even during that conflict, our country was so weak in its defenses that the capital city of Washington, D.C. was engulfed in flames by an invading army. Still the spirit of freedom was quite selective and included only the rights of white males. Many years of struggle were to follow to insure civil and political rights for women and our black brothers and sisters. In short, the spirit of freedom has a long history in our land and it is still in the process of fulfillment.

Fourth, we live as a free people with more freedoms and privileges than in most countries, yet that freedom carries with it the necessity to use that freedom in a responsible way. Freedom does not mean license. In the words of one Supreme Court justice, it doesn’t mean we have the right to yell fire in a crowded room of people. Commenting on the excesses of the French Revolution, a time when blood literally flowed in the streets, Mme. Jeanne Roland stated, “O Liberty! Liberty! How many crimes are committed in thy name!. (Quoted by Macaulay in his Essay on Mirabeau) The biblical writes were well aware of the dangers of freedom. St. Paul in his letter to the Galatian church wrote: “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another.” (Gal. 5: 13). In another epistle, we find a similar statement: “Live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil, but live as servants of God. Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor!” (I Peter 2: 16-17). We have freedom and yet all freedom has its limitations in relation to the good of our neighbors. Justice is always seen as the other side of freedom. This is the meaning of the words to one of America’s favorite hymns, “O Beautiful For Spacious Skies”- “Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.”

Finally, freedom is like faith in that both only reach their highest level when they are shared with others. Our calling as Christians is to witness to the Good News that God sent his only Son into the world, and bought it with a price that all men, women, and children might have life and have it more abundantly. As Americans blessed with living in a free land, we also have an obligation to share that spirit of freedom with others. LET FREEDOM RING. This is our hope and prayer this morning. LET FREEDOM RING, not only in our country, but in the hearts and minds of all of God’s people in every land.