Thursday, February 2, 2012

When Freedom Is More Than a Platitude

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion. -Camus

Presidential election season is upon us in full force and aren’t we all thrilled about that. The Republican hopefuls have debated one another more than a dozen times. Here is what we have learned so far.

Newt Gingrich surged to the lead in December until Mitt Romney’s supporters shelled Gingrich with television ads in Iowa bringing up Newt’s previous marital problems.

Romney looked like he was going to win the nomination in a romp until questions were raised by Gingrich about Romney’s time at Bain Capital and just how he went about making all those millions.

Ron Paul has been chided as an out-of-step extremist on foreign policy issues by all the other contenders. Even so, Paul has outlasted some of the other candidates who deemed him unelectable.

The candidates have gone to great lengths to distinguish themselves from one another, but there is one word or theme that will get them to hold hands and sing Kumbaya in a hurry: freedom.

When American political campaigns get rolling we are guaranteed to hear endless sermons from the candidates about how much they love freedom. Hearing politicians talk about freedom is like listening to Southern Baptists talk about the Bible. It all sounds the same and it can get old in a hurry.

But here’s the thing. As cynical as I am about the way politicians go on about the importance of freedom, I actually think they are right. Freedom is a key ingredient to any recipe for a meaningful life.

Nothing reveals the importance of having the freedom to choose than not having the freedom to choose. In other words, if you rob people of choices, you will quickly see their souls shrink and their hopes fade.

I witness this dynamic regularly. When I work with counseling clients who were trapped as children in abusive homes, it can be hard for them to believe there is anything of value in them many years later. The shame of the abuse haunts them, and even though they had no choice to be a part of it, they still feel responsible.

Other clients are trapped in marriages where they feel unsafe to say or do what they wish. This lack of freedom to speak or act produces great anxiety and despair.

Where I see this painful dynamic played out most consistently, though, is with my LGBTQ clients. Few people understand the limits of a life without choices better than gay and transgender folks.

Our state is entering the most public and vigorous debate about freedom for LGBTQ citizens in its history. The vote on May 8 to determine if same-sex marriage will be forbidden in the North Carolina Constitution is a critical event. How much more basic of a human right can there be than the freedom to choose whom you will love and marry?

But there are so many other situations where LGBTQ individuals have their basic human freedoms tested. Does a gay couple feel free to hold hands at the mall? Can a transgender employee go to work as the person they really are, not the one on their birth certificate? Can you take your partner home for the holidays when you are not sure how the family will react? In a culture where the homophobic message of exclusion is reinforced by the government and the church, LGBTQ people face daily questions about how free they are to push back against those stifling limits.

The thing is, no politician, pastor, or parent can give a gay or transgender person freedom, or take it away. Freedom is a birthright for each and every one of us. Straight Americans wallow in their freedom unconsciously. They don’t even have to think about the choices they make. Sadly, this is not true for LGBTQ Americans. Almost every expression of their freedom carries risk. But in taking the risk to live as the free souls that we are, we discover the true liberation of being free.

There is an absurdity to a group of people running for President of the United States, all of whom champion the cause of freedom, but each one willing to deny that freedom to millions of citizens because of their sexual identity. Such hypocrisy is not new, and it isn’t going away soon.

Real freedom, though, doesn’t wait for permission to express itself. Claim your birthright and, as Camus said, “become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”

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About Me

former pastor who is now a pastoral counselor and consultant (mckinneycounseling.org); married with two teenagers; progressive in my politics and theology