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Rev. Chuck Freeman

Rev. Chuck Freeman

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Elijah's Empty Chair of Freedom in Oslo

Posted: 12/10/10 04:17 PM ET

A Jewish elder speaks during the Passover seder:

"At each table there is an empty chair, an extra cup of juice, and one remaining piece of matzoh. Jewish history tells of a beloved prophet by the name of Elijah, who appears in times of trouble to bring promise of relief, to lift downcast spirits, and to plant hope in the hearts of the downtrodden. The injustice of this world still brings to mind Elijah who, in defense of justice, challenged power."

Friday in Oslo, Norway Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo was represented at the award ceremony by an empty chair.

Xiaobo was unable to be in Oslo to collect his gold medal and his $1.4 million prize. He is just one year into an 11-year jail sentence for subversion because he penned an open letter calling for democratic reforms in China.

His wife has been under house arrest since her husband's prize was announced. His brothers have been told they won't be allowed out of the country.

Since nobody can collect the prize, the Nobel committee has decided to put an empty chair on the podium, with a portrait photograph of Liu Xiaobo behind it.

Thorbjorn Jagland, chairman of the Peace Prize Committee said on Thursday,

"It is a signal to China that it would be very important for China's future to combine economic development with political reforms and it is support for those people in China who are struggling for basic human rights. This prize conveys the understanding that these are universal rights and universal values."

In Liu's stead, Liv Ullmann, one of Norway's most famous actresses, read a text from Liu's final statement on Dec. 23, 2009, entitled, "I Have No Enemies." The essay expresses Liu's compassion for his adversaries and his hopes that he will be the last one in China to be incriminated because of speech: "Freedom of expression is the foundation of human rights, the source of humanity, and the mother of truth. To strangle freedom of speech is to trample on human rights, stifle humanity, and suppress truth."

Liu helped to organize and disseminate a document called Charter 08, which called for sweeping political reforms in China, including the freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and freedom of religion. It reads in part:

"The Chinese people, who have endured human rights disasters and uncountable struggles across these same years, now include many who see clearly that freedom, equality, and human rights are universal values of humankind and that democracy and constitutional government are the fundamental framework for protecting these values."
Elijah's chair remains empty with graceful dignity and powerful, prophetic clarity. The Seder liturgy draws to a dramatic close. An elder opens the sanctuary door, and makes this bold pronouncement: "The door is opened, reminding us to be open to the hope for a better world -- to hold on to the dream that we may live in a world without hunger, slavery or any kind of injustice. We invite Elijah to come to our Seder."

The congregation responds: "May the all merciful send us Elijah the prophet to comfort us with tidings of deliverance. Let us open the door for Elijah!"