"If you love somebody, set them free. Free. Free. Set them free." Of all the songs to come to mind during this Independence Day weekend, this one rings in my head. Sting, the artist, did not have America's freedom celebration in mind when he coined these words. Honestly, the song has little to do with patriotism; it is more of a ballad of love lost and letting go. Nonetheless I dare to invoke it, as the words resonate with the spirit of autonomy that is so pervasive on July 4. "Set them free. Free. Free. Set them free."
Each year at this time, our country focuses on liberty, the red-white-and-blue, and "My Country Tis of Thee." I am grateful to live in the U.S.A. and the freedom this affords. Yet, what about persons who are not so independent -- the unemployed who rely on federal subsidies, children whose schools are closing due to no fault of their own, and yes, the millions of Americans in the prison system? Although the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 reversed the disparity between crack and cocaine convictions implemented by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, the prison rate remains exorbitant. Over 2.2 million are still behind bars. The Texas execution total is at 500 and counting. Forty-eight percent of persons in federal prisons were convicted of drug offenses, according to The Sentencing Project. A reversal in policy three years ago has not flipped today's prison numbers. So many are not free.
President Obama recently backpedaled his decision to support access to the morning after pill. Thus, women and girls of any age can go to the local drugstore and purchase Plan B One-Step without a prescription or parental consent. Abortion rights proponents applauded this retraction. Pro-life supporters expressed much ire. Whether one stands to the right or the left of the issue, the reversal itself is indicative of a political climate of "180 degree" moves. It is representative of the precarious state of individual freedom in the United States.
This freedom was at stake when the Supreme Court struck down Arizona's voter identification requirement. The same freedom or right to live was in peril before the Court dismantled the Defense of Marriage Act. It is this freedom that hangs by a thread because the same justices gutted Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act.
However, the fight for liberty is not confined to American soil. Protesters seize bus stations in Brazil, as they battle economic exploitation. In Istanbul, opponents of Prime Minister Erdogan storm Gezi Park to prevent its destruction in lieu of a shopping mall. These citizens contend for ecological freedom. Egyptian men and woman counter President Morsi to be free of his political rule. "If you love someone, set them free."
In his letter to the church at Galatia, the Apostle Paul speaks about what it means to be free. His message to the believers in this Roman province does not mention abortion. There is no commentary regarding parks, prison population or voting rights. Instead Paul expresses concern that the Christians in this community desire to return to practices purporting racial and ethnic conformity. Such is the stance of agitators or malcontents who question Paul's teachings. Members of this incendiary group declare that Gentile Christians must adhere to Jewish customs to share in the "Christian community." As a Jew himself, Paul does not discard his heritage nor make any recommendation to do so (Galatians 3.21). Instead he encourages the Galatian believers to stand free in who they are as Gentile Christians (5.1). They are not to preoccupy themselves with physical expressions of a spiritual belief. This was a former way of thinking. There is no need to revert to this way of being. They are free to be who they are in Christ Jesus.
Paul encourages the Galatian converts to stay the course and help each other remain true to their God-given identity. They should bear with each other and share one another's burdens (Galatians 6.2, 5). Paul further admonishes tenacity and steadfastness (Galatians 6.9). Together the believers are to persevere and not revert to past ideologies or practices. Communal accountability and mutuality are tantamount. Yet in order to make such strides, they must move forward. These new Christians cannot return or succumb to any spiritual or social bondage. Paul reminds them they are indeed free.
The state legislature in North Carolina recently repealed the Racial Injustice Act. The Act allowed death-row inmates an opportunity to appeal their sentences. If inmates could prove racial bias tainted their cases, a prisoner's road to execution could be converted to life without parole. To be in prison is one matter. To have one's hands tied while in prison is another type of enslavement.
In response to the Racial Injustice Act reversal and other attempts to turn back the hands of social and political time, men, women, and children across racial, religious, and gender lines have organized "Moral Mondays" and "Witness Wednesdays." Thousands gather on the steps of the capital in Raleigh and risk arrest for the rights of their brothers and sisters in jail--physically and economically. The purpose is not to say that persons have not committed crimes. The point is not to argue that people just want government handouts and leftovers. One does not dare suggest that there are not repercussions for irresponsibility or heinous, uncivilized acts of violence and disrespect. However, in the non-violent spirit of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, and Ella Baker, marchers who pour on the state legislative building are determined to "not grow weary in doing what is right (Galatians 6.9)." For from Istanbul to Cairo, from Rio to Raleigh, from women's rights to gay rights to voting rights, until all are free, none are free.
Editor's Note: ON Scripture - The Bible is a series of Christian scripture commentaries produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks. Each week pastors from around the country will approach the lectionary text of the week through the lens of current events, providing a religious voice that is both pastoral and prophetic.