Spiritual and Historical Thoughts about Freedom

As I was reading and praying through today’s Morning Prayer from the Church of England’s Common Worship: Daily Prayer (2005), I was particularly struck by two Psalms that speak of freedom. Psalm 142 was written by David when he was on the run, hiding in a cave. In it he cries out to the Lord for deliverance, asking God to save him from enemies who are simply too strong for him. Verse 7, which the Daily Prayer uses as the beginning of a refrain, is the culmination of the Psalm: “Bring my soul out of prison, that I may give thanks to your name; when you have dealt bountifully with me, then shall the righteous gather round me.” (NKJV) As is so often the case, David’s spiritual poetry begins in distress and ends in expectation. But what I appreciated this morning was the refrain that followed:

“Bring my soul out of prison, that I may give thanks to your name.

God of compassion,
you regard the forsaken
and give hope to the crushed in spirit;
hear those who cry to you in distress
and bring your ransomed people to sing your glorious praise,
now and forever.”

The next reading in the Daily Prayer was Psalm 144, another Psalm of David about the God who preserves his people. Once more, David calls on God to save him from his enemies, and asks God to bring David’s people into blessing and prosperity. Again, though, I was struck by the way the writers of the Daily Prayer created such a thoughtful and practical refrain, repeating the closing line of the Psalm and then capturing the essence of the text in an application for my life today:

“Happy are the people who have the Lord for their God.

God our deliverer,
stir our weak wills,
revive our weary spirits,
and give us courage
to strive for the freedom of all your children,
to the praise of your glorious name.”

Because I’m a historian, my mind often wanders from whatever I’m doing, reading, or hearing into the world of history, making its own links with past events or ideas. Today, that wandering took me from “Bring my soul our of prison, that I may give thanks to your name” to the situation we’ve been in this past year, recovering from the 2013 flood that devastated our town. One of the hardest parts of the recovery for me has been the regular (not quite constant, but oft-present) spiritual/emotional sense of heaviness–a kind of bondage. We had something of a breakthrough from that heaviness this past week, and today’s reading was a reminder of just what a bondage that has been.

Moments later, I noticed two other kinds of deliverance, first the general need for “hope to the crushed in spirit”, and then (from the refrain from the Psalm 144 reading) my own need for the God who has delivered me to stir my weak will (how true) and give me courage (much needed) “to strive for the freedom of all your children” for the sake of God’s great name.

So often it’s easy to think of freedom as something political. As I pondered the meaning of freedom for all God’s children, my mind wandered to the costly civil war in Syria, which has claimed over 100,000 lives and led to the displacement of millions, and then to the 2011 Arab Spring across North Africa and the Middle East, in which thousands upon thousands of ordinary people risked their lives to protest for civil rights, economic opportunity, and political and social freedom. On my mind went, back to the 1989 Tiananmen Square Protest, when up to a million Chinese demonstrated against corruption and called for the rule of law and democratic reform, and the recent 25th anniversary of that event, during which Beijing was under heavy security, while thousands gathered in freer Hong Kong to protest.

Further back in time I went, reminded of Jews trapped and dying in the ghettos of Eastern Europe, awaiting “transport” East to death camps like Auschwitz and Treblinka. I thought of the recent 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, when Allied forces launched Operation Overlord, invading 80 km of Normandy coastline, with over 4000 vessels, 7700 aircraft, and almost 160,000 soldiers, including over 14,000 Canadians, fighting for the defeat of the Nazi dictatorship and the end of its enslavement of Europe.

Somewhere in there I also thought of the Swiss and German burghers and peasants I studied when I wrote my MA thesis on the Reformation in Basel. These urban craftsmen and rural farmers were captivated by the message of Luther and Zwingli, and protested (at times violently) against the oligarchic rule of merchants in the cities, the arbitrary feudal oppression of aristocrats in the country, and the oppressive religious teachings and church structures that held them in bondage. Concerning the religious and spiritual part of that bondage, the idea of direct access to God through Jesus was a powerful force in the time of the Reformation. It motivated the noble woman Argula von Grumbach to write a scathing letter to the University of Ingolstadt, quoting over 50 different passages of Scripture in her excoriation of the university administrators who had dismissed a young Lutheran scholar. It emboldened Swabian peasants to write Twelve Articles, a list of demands for the freedom to choose their own pastors, graze their cattle on common lands, hunt in the common woods, and generally find relief from the economic and social oppression of their overlords.

This is what I find so interesting. It’s easy to reduce freedom to a political concept, drawn from, say, the American Declaration of Independence or the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. We hear so much rhetoric–propaganda, really–about the importance of freedom in our current news cycles that it’s easy to become cynical about the idea. This is particularly so in an age in which regulation, information-gathering, and other aspects of government policy and corporate practice impinge ever more on personal privacy and individual freedom. But what both declarations make clear, and what historical and contemporary world events demonstrate, is that freedom is an innate–I would say, almost unquenchable–desire of human beings.

Scripture says the same thing. Whether it’s the rescue of the Children of Israel from the bondage of Egypt or of Christians from the bondage of sin and death, freedom is what God intends for humanity. As Paul put it in Galatians 5:1, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”

It gives me great pleasure to see such strong correspondences between the way my Christian faith says the world works and the way my historical activity says the world works. Mysteriously, we humans are hard-wired by God with a love of freedom. That’s worth remembering when we celebrate important historical anniversaries or follow current events online or on television. And it’s also worth remembering, as the Daily Prayer reminds us today, that God holds us responsible to work for the freedom of others.

“God our deliverer,
stir our weak wills,
revive our weary spirits,
and give us courage
to strive for the freedom of all your children,
to the praise of your glorious name.”

 

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