May 18, 2011
Free at Last!
The other day I watched a PBS American Experience episode called Soundtrack for a Revolution. I saw television footage in that segment that I remember seeing while I was in high school. I didn't really understand what I was seeing back then: police dogs attacking nonviolent protesters, freedom riders pulled off buses that were then torched, people being clubbed by police, dragged by their hair, set upon by fire hoses, turning up missing, killed. Seeing those clips again resurrected the horror of the violent sixties for me, when John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy were all assassinated, over one million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans were killed in the war, and untold numbers were killed, injured, or maimed in the nonviolent movement for civil rights.
A portion of Dr. King's I Have a Dream
speech was also included in the episode, made all the more poignant by the contrast with the violence of the television clips: "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!" I wept, seeing that speech again all these years later, after countless viewings during Black History month. I watched it again today on YouTube, and wept again. You have to remember the violence to appreciate the full power of his words.
On Saturday I practiced telling the story of the Ten Best Ways (a/k/a the Ten Commandments) in a Godly Play/Faith and Play training. The background of the story is this: The Hebrews, enslaved in Egypt, have escaped on foot. They are following Moses and are being chased by the Pharaoh and his soldiers, who have horses, chariots and weapons. The Hebrews are afraid. They come to the Red Sea, an inland sea that is about twice the size of Lake Superior. They believe they are trapped, and they think they are going to be killed or enslaved again, with the punishment that comes following escape. Then God tells Moses to hold his staff out over the sea. And the water is parted so the people can cross.
The Ten Best Ways lesson begins at this point. The story is told in a "desert box" or sandtray, using small human figures and a tall mountain. I began: "The people came through the water to freedom! They were so happy they danced!" As I moved the figures over the edge of the blue tray into the desert, it felt very real to me. My own body's joy joined with the joy of the people as they leaped to their freedom. I could feel the rush of adrenalin, the bubbling up elation, the anticipation of being "free at last!"
Freedom is such a precious thing. I never knew freedom as a child or teenager, except inside of myself. I could create worlds with my imagination, read stories, watch movies, and I could feel free for awhile. But the reality of my physical life was not an experience of freedom. I didn't realize it then, of course. It was many years later when, as an adult in a therapy session, I could feel the relief of escape. And the burden of it.
Because it takes courage to be free. Rollo May, the American existential psychologist, once wrote, "The opposite of courage … is not cowardice, it is conformity." Conformity means that you go along with the crowd, you don't follow your inward leading. In order to resist going along with the crowd, it seems to me, one has to practice doing the things that help you be free. In my language, this is a "discipline" or a spiritual practice.
The people of the Civil Rights Movement practiced the spiritual discipline of nonviolence. They received the physical blows and attacks, the spitting and harassment. They fought back with music, words, and prayer, not with violence. Occasionally someone may have lost the discipline. Perhaps they bit the policeman who was dragging them by the collar, or yelled an insult at someone who had insulted them. But the Civil Rights Movement achieved freedom under the law for African-Americans because they had the courage to deeply practice the discipline of nonviolence.
When the Hebrews were marching across the desert to God-knows-(literally)-where, they began to complain. They were tired and hungry and scared. The first time Moses went up Mt. Sinai, he was gone for awhile. The people became even more anxious. They longed for the certainty of their enslavement, they longed for a God they could touch, a God they could see. They longed to conform to the life their captors had created for them! So they melted all their gold and made a golden Baal, a God of Egypt. Everyone there had presumably heard Moses tell them that if they committed to Yahweh, Yahweh would commit to them and lead them to the Promised Land. And probably not every last one of them felt at ease with dancing for the God Baal. But they did it anyway. So there was another level of conformity when those who were not led to dance conformed to the prevailing mood of the crowd. The people lost their courage, and their commitment to the discipline of monotheism. They made a graven image, and returned to the ways of their captors.
Personally, I like graven images. I have several in my home: Isis, Innana, Kuan Yin, Kali, Nut, Ix Chel, Brigid, Ganesha. My God doesn't require that I forsake these aspects of myself in order to worship with the Unity. My disciplines are different, but I must practice them in order to experience the freedom I seek. I must practice breathing, singing, drumming, and inward worship. I must practice physical movement, and healthy eating. My disciplines set me apart in some ways, since I avoid foods that are commonly eaten, and engage in some practices that are uncommon among Friends. Sometimes I feel an internal pressure to conform to what I perceive to be others' ideas about what is socially comfortable or Quakerly. I lose courage and I let go of my disciplines. When I do that, I am unfaithful to my freedom. I conform to my perception of what other people, not God, want for me. And then we all lose. Everyone loses my power, and my authentic, sovereign self, including me. Everyone loses what I could offer, if I were courageous enough to be free.
Quakers can also lose their freedom and leak their power through rituals of conformity. When we don't practice our discipline of mindful listening for the will of God in our Meetings for Business, we lose our freedom to discern creative ways forward. When we focus only on our own comfort without attending to the needs of the different, the poor, and the disadvantaged, we lose our freedom to live in harmony with the whole complement of humanity. When we allow ourselves to vent our frustrations about others in our meetings, rather than approaching the offending Friend personally, in kindness, we lose our freedom to be in unity. Every time we fail our discipline, every time we expect other Friends to conform to the prevailing Quakerly political attitude of the day, every time we recognize the "heavy" Friends of our meeting but slight the "light" ones, we are like the Hebrews, building our golden Baal of social and political correctness around which to dance.
It takes courage to be free. And when we have the courage, "… when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children … will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"