In 1971, Kris Kristofferson recorded a slightly altered Janis Joplin song that had a particularly haunting line about freedom. He sang, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose; freedom ain’t worth nothin’, but it’s free.” In spite of its melancholy treatment in that song, freedom continues to be a subject with powerful implications. ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ was not the first time that poetic philosophers have launched melodic messages into the world loaded with that idea, nor would it be the last.
The thought of being free can be compelling. This weekend we celebrate America’s declaration to the world in 1776 that from that point on, America would be free and independent of British authority. The hunger for freedom was strong in this fledgling nation, and its people were determined to assert their God-given rights, including the right of self-determination. You may recall that the King of England at that time had an entirely different view of that announcement than we did. Somehow he missed the whole thing about it being a lofty and noble ideal worthy of banners and fireworks and stuff like that. He had some fireworks in mind, but they were of a different sort altogether. He saw our ‘Declaration of Independence’ as a declaration of war. Imagine that. One man’s liberation is another man’s provocation. Either way, freedom is a powerful idea. It can represent the most noble of causes, but it can also be misconstrued and misunderstood. Freedom is an idea that can lend itself to manipulation and seduction, and can be twisted so as to result in the ultimate loss of the very liberties that were sought in the first place.
Wherever you find it, freedom’s DNA is always laced with inflammatory possibilities, because it has no definition except in reference to some form of real or perceived bondage. The elements of conflict, then, are already in place when the idea of freedom begins to emerge, and the intensity of the desire for it correlates directly with the degree to which that bondage has begun to feel like bondage.
Could the nature of freedom mean that there’s some truth buried in Janis Joplin’s lyric? It could be argued that freedom really is, after all, “just a … word”. Freedom isn’t a ‘thing’. It isn’t a machine, or a weapon, or even a piece of technology. Freedom has no arsenal that it controls, no army that it commands, and no central organization from which it projects power or delegates authority. It’s just a construct—just an idea. Freedom as an isolated idea by itself doesn’t rise up to challenge anything. That kind of freedom doesn’t threaten anything or antagonize anybody. Kris and Janis are right in that sense. To the degree that freedom is “just another word”, it truly “ain’t worth nothin’”, and to the degree that it remains “just a word”, it is, indeed, “free”.
Something remarkable happens, though, when the idea invades the mind and heart of a human being in bondage. At that point, freedom becomes something else, something living, something powerful, something invincible, and something that threatens oppression like nothing else can. Once firmly entrenched in a human heart, freedom will rise up in defiance of odds that are overwhelming. When the word becomes embodied in men, it ceases to be just a word. Freedom in that state transcends mere vocabulary, and transforms those it indwells. When freedom breathes in human lungs, and beats in human hearts, the weak find new strength, despair gives way to hope, courage displaces fear, trembling cowards become valiant warriors, and no longer can it be said that “freedom ain’t worth nothin’”—but at that point, it is no longer “free”, either. When freedom comes to life in men, the idea is incendiary, claiming it is reactionary, and asserting it is revolutionary. Because of that, approaching it tends to make us cautionary. The oppressors always appreciate that, because freedom doesn’t threaten them until men absorb it and embrace it.
Nothing motivates men toward the idea of freedom like the awareness of bondage, and the deepest heart-cries for deliverance rise from the binding constraint and pain of the shackles. To the degree, then, that bondage can be made to feel pleasant and comfortable, the idea of freedom slides quietly into Kris and Janet’s “ain’t worth nothin’” category. Bondage is not always inflicted suddenly and painfully. In many cases, it is the end result of a gradual and voluntary transition. Those who have freedom begin to take it for granted, and slowly begin to exchange its benefits for things that look attractive, that feel pleasant—even exhilarating, and that appear to be beneficial. The benefits soon become necessities to which we are entitled, and without which we cannot manage to survive. The softly padded shackles that come with them slip on easily, and freedom is extinguished. Self-determination and responsibility are replaced by anxious dependence, fulfillment is relinquished in favor of entertainment, and ambition gives way to complacency. Protesting voices against intrusion and restriction are drowned out by cries for ‘more’. The oppressors breathe a sigh of relief and proceed to design more attractively padded shackles as freedom’s pallbearers stand ready.
Jesus had some things to say about the idea of freedom. John reported one of His comments this way:
“Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, ‘If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31-32).
The response from His detractors is interesting. They thought they were already free, and resented the inference that they weren’t. Even though Israel was a conquered and occupied Roman province at the time, and though they were shackled by the greed and power-lust of a corrupt religious system, they declared that they had never been in bondage to anyone.
Freedom gets paradoxical in the hands of Jesus. It comes not through fighting, but surrender. Those to whom it was offered thought they didn’t need it, and thus rejected both it and the only One who could really provide it. “Freedom’s just another word…” to those who are comfortable in their bondage. The “truth” that Jesus offered rips the padding off our shackles and exposes them for what they really are. The beginning of freedom may involve some pain, but giving birth to living things always does.
© 2014 Gallagher’s Pen, Ronald L. Gallagher, Ed.S. All rights reserved.
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