The Purpose of Freedom – Rev. Kristin Grassel Schmidt

In this country and in this church we think and talk about freedom a lot. Freedom is one of the core ideals that shapes this country’s sense of itself, and for Unitarian Universalists it shapes ours, too. Many of us who went to public school were taught to be proud to live in the “land of the free” and in churches like these we teach people about our faith’s freedom of belief, and that we come from a “free church” tradition. 

United States history is often written and told as a story of gaining freedom from England – freedom from British taxation, freedom from the monarchy. Yet early Americans, who once fought for freedom from England, from taxation without representation, turned around and enslaved and interred millions of Africans and people indigenous to the Americas in an unjust economic and political system cloaked in the guise of a liberated democracy and fueled by the arrogance of manifest destiny. So, every 4th of July I wonder, what are we really celebrating? What does this version of America’s birth story really have to do with our freedom? And how does it relate to the kind of freedom many leaders strive toward today? 

The thing about freedom is that it is, after all, only a symbol. It’s a word that means very different things to different people, and sometimes those things are even at odds with one another. I began college in 2001 and can remember the disconnect I felt when US troops invaded Iraq and Afghanistan in order to protect our freedom. Meanwhile, back here in Maryland the Gay Straight alliance at my college couldn’t even publicize when or where we met on campus out of fear for the safety of our members. In the 20 years since then, states all over the nation have suffered school shootings but can’t seem to pass gun control bills because the gun lobby argues that the 2nd amendment right to bear arms has no boundaries. Courts and juries all over the country continue not to hold police officers accountable for the deaths of unarmed people of color. And just last week we saw 43 senators, all Republican, vote to acquit the former president for inciting last month’s attack on the Capitol ostensibly because they believed he was simply exercising his right to free speech. This all makes me wonder: where does personal freedom end and the rights of the community begin?  

There are a lot of history buffs in this congregation, so some of you may know that our Unitarian Universalist faith is rooted in the same Enlightenment ideas that shaped this country. Like the United States, and like so many faiths before us, our faith was originally described in terms of what we’re free from, what we reject, or what we’re not. Freedom from biblical supremacy, freedom from predestination, freedom from fundamentalism, freedom from God for some. 

I know there are many who were initially drawn to Unitarian Universalism because of what it isn’t, but our faith is much more than what’s absent from it. Our freedom of belief is so much more than freedom from belief. In other words, instead of focusing on what we are free from, let’s focus on what we’re free for.

Over the years, our free faith has also sometimes struggled to understand the purpose of our freedom of belief. When we focus mostly on the freedom we have from things – from fundamentalism, from orthodoxy, from doctrine – our tradition runs the risk of robbing our heritage of what it does affirm and teach and have to offer our broken world. 

It’s often said that UU’s don’t just take a stand, we move. I’ve noticed a shift in our Association around theology, a shift towards openness, a shift toward embracing words and stories, symbols and celebrations of the spirit and heart as well as the mind. We’ll always have work to do in this free church tradition of ours, this big tent we’re called always to make even bigger, the circle we’re called always to draw wider, the community we’re called always to extend beyond the next barrier. And I think one of the biggest barriers we’re being called to overcome in this generation is the valuing of individual rights over and against what’s best for the community. 

It’s interesting how as a faith we so often highlight our freedom of belief as if it is the most important or even our only theological value. The truth about our tradition is that we value the community just as much as we do the individual. “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning” and “the right to conscience” are actually outweighed in our Principles by values about the community, including “the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all” and “acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth” and “respect for the interdependent web of life” and “justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.”

The idolatry of the individual shows up in different ways in our congregations. Sometimes it shows up as discomfort when people who have behaved inappropriately are held accountable for the harm of their behavior. Sometimes it shows up as  indignation when we’re told that something we said was hurtful and we’re asked not to say such things anymore. It shows up anytime and anywhere people feel their right to behave and express themselves as they wish is more important than the impact that behavior and expression has on the community. And if we are really about building Beloved Community, we must also be about learning how to be in community in more loving, accountable ways.

When we become a member of a covenanted community like this one, we make a commitment to behave in specific ways with one another. We commit to talking with people about our concerns rather than talking about them with others. We commit to striving to be kind while also striving to be truthful. When we choose to serve in positions of leadership we commit to placing what’s best for the community ahead of our own personal agenda. And in this way our freedom of belief is balanced by our accountability of the community. Because freedom without accountability simply becomes tyranny. 

As Unitarian Universalists we are free for the purpose of building the Beloved Community, where the inherent dignity of all members of the human family is affirmed, where the truth of the love that won’t let us go is proclaimed, and where our place as humble stewards, not owners, of the earth is lived out. 

Just as Midas learned in our Time for All Ages this morning, the gift of freedom comes with the responsibility to use it carefully. As people of this free faith, we are free to find space in our hearts to love and accept others; to find space in our heads to accept that despite our personal rigorous spiritual reflection, we might be wrong; and to find space in our lives to embrace the never ending need to learn and be stretched. As people of this free faith we are free for the purpose of making justice and building the Beloved Community. 

As the Rev. Rebecca Parker writes:

Your gifts – whatever you discover them to be – can be used to bless or curse the world.

The mind’s power, the strength of the hands, the reaches of the heart, the gift of speaking, listening, imagining, seeing, waiting.

Any of these can serve to feed the hungry, bind up wounds, welcome the stranger, praise what is sacred, do the work of justice, or offer love.

Any of these can draw down the prison door, hoard bread, abandon the poor, obscure what is holy, comply with injustice, or withhold love.

You must answer this question: What will you do with your gifts? Choose to bless the world.