Site icon Jake Owensby

Who Gets to Be Free?

Freedom and equality are core values of the United States. As we celebrate the colonists’ bold declaration of independence from imperial forces, we honor their actions best by asking how faithfully we presently embody the values upon which they based their decision to separate from the English crown.

Pairing freedom and equality is not an accident. Our political ancestors understood at least abstractly that each person will be free only when every person is free. 

I say that they understood this in the abstract because no small number were slaveholders. The land they sought to govern themselves they had seized from indigenous peoples by force. Women would not exercise the vote for well over a century.

The founders believed the principle that every person has inalienable rights in equal measure. That’s what it means to say that we are free. We are equally free. Justice involves the equal distribution of those rights to all persons. Apparently, the founders were also blind to their assessment of others as not quite full persons. Not deserving of the rights they had claimed for themselves.

It’s possible to interpret the founders’ thoughts and actions as a kind of myopia. Their point of view was a product of their historical period and social location. All that would be necessary, should this be the case, is a corrective intellectual lens. To help them see brown and female others as persons like themselves. Then, given their commitment to freedom and equality, the founders would automatically grant the same to everyone. Simply everyone.

But there is another possibility.

Freedom can be detached from equality. When I seek to secure my own freedom at the expense of another, my freedom is not freedom at all. It has devolved into mere privilege. “Protecting my freedom” becomes code for guarding what I have accumulated and securing my own power and status. And if protecting my freedom means robbing others of theirs, then I can feel justified in doing so.

That’s how empires have worked since the time of Egypt. A few enjoy privileges and comforts at the expense of the many. The freedom of the powerful comes at the expense of the powerless.

The genius of our Declaration of Independence is the pairing of freedom with equality. To exercise authentic freedom each of us must seek to secure and protect that same freedom for everyone.

My friend Bishop Rob Wright of Atlanta posted a meme on social media that exposed an imperial impulse lodged in the American heart. The meme shows a boy in a cage watching a fireworks display. He observes our celebration of freedom from behind bars imposed upon him by our government. A government that says it is legitimate only when it secures freedom for all.

But I also see another impulse in our American heart. The Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements, the Poor People’s Campaign, the women’s marches across the country remind us that true freedom cannot be detached from equality. Everybody is free or nobody is free.

It is Independence Day. A day to seize our freedom by working tirelessly for the freedom of all.

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