Archive for July, 2010


The Price of Freedom

July 5, 2010

Sometimes, it’s helpful to state the obvious.

Today is the 4th of July. As we celebrate, let’s remember that our country has been at war for nearly a decade. Throughout this long and costly war, we’ve been told that “freedom isn’t free.” We’ve been told that freedom has a price. And we’ve been told that the price of freedom is paid by soldiers and bullets and bombs.

An idea that gets repeated over and over starts to sound like common sense. After you eat your lunch, wait thirty minutes to go swimming. Don’t put your eggs in one basket. Certain phrases are so ubiquitous, they can start to seem self-evident. But no matter how many times we hear it, it’s simply not true that war is the price of every freedom.

As Americans, we should do a better job of remembering our own history.

The women in our country have only had the right to vote since 1920. The automobile, the telephone and the airplane have a longer history than this. Not that long ago, over half the population was denied the right to vote.

This started to change during the movement to abolish slavery. In 1840, there was a big convention. For the first time in history, anti-slavery leaders from around the world were brought together under one roof. Important men made eloquent speeches. The women who attended the conference could only listen. In a discussion of human freedom, they were not allowed to speak.

Some of the women who were kept silent at the world conference decided to hold a conference of their own. They planned a two-day conference in Seneca Falls, New York. On the first day of the gathering, it was decided, only women would be allowed to speak.

A Quaker named, Lucretia Mott, was the featured speaker at the Seneca Falls conference, but she was not the most important organizer at the event. Elizabeth Cady Stanton drew up a list of resolutions for the assembly to consider. The document called upon women to assert their equality in every sphere of life: in the family, in business, in school, in church. Stanton also said, the time has come for women to vote. This was (by far) the most controversial resolution at the entire conference.

Not even Lucretia Mott was keen on promoting the right to vote. And when Stanton’s husband heard about the resolution, he decided to leave town for the sake of his reputation. The good people who gathered in the summer heat at Seneca Falls were the vanguard of the women’s rights movement. Even this forward-thinking crowd had a difficult time getting their minds around the idea of granting women the right to vote. Many of them felt it was too much, too soon.

Frederick Douglass was at the conference. He rose to speak in favor of the resolution. He said that denying women the right to vote diminished a government’s “moral and intellectual power” by half. The resolution passed.

Only one woman who signed the document at Seneca Falls was still alive when women were granted the right to vote in 1920. The process took 70 years. For 70 years, women marched on behalf of their cause. They wrote articles and and made speeches. Sometimes, they went to jail.

No military victory gave American women their freedom to vote.

While American women were fighting for the right to vote, our country was becoming an industrial giant. We were becoming a nation of steel mills and railroads, factories and refineries. Immigrants crossed the ocean, and rural people moved to the city. Many of them found work in the new industry, but the pay was anemic and the hours were long.

Some of the harshest working conditions were endured by children. Children were hired because they had nimble fingers. And they could fit into narrow places. And they would work for less money than the adults. Children might work for 14 hours each day, breathing in polluted factory air and surrounded by sharp, moving parts.

By the early 1900’s, Americans were starting to have doubts about child labor. One progressive organization hired people like Lewis Hines to take pictures of the children at work. Hines traveled all around the country. He took pictures of children at work in coal mines and canneries, glass factories and mills. The children who stare back into the camera look weary, and far older than their years.

Adult workers were less photogenic.

A factory near Chicago made luxury railroad cars. The people who worked in this factory were required to live in the factory town. During an economic downturn, the owner cut wages by 25%. But he continued to charge his workers the same amount for rent. The workers formed a committee, and asked their boss to lower the rent. Not only did he refuse their request, he fired three of them on the spot.

The workers decided to declare a strike. As a counterweight to the power of the boss, all the workers decided to stand together and refuse to work.

To support the factory workers, others who worked on the railroad stopped working, too. 150,000 people in 27 states and territories stopped working. The national railway was paralyzed.

A federal judge declared the strike illegal. Against the wishes of the governor, the President of the United States sent nearly 2000 soldiers into Chicago. The strikers were outraged to see federal troops march against them. There was a riot. The soldiers fired into the crowd, killing 12 American workers and injuring many more.

Over many years, the labor movement helped established norms, like an 8-hour workday. We have passed laws to protect children and to make the workplace safer for everyone. Today, employers can be help accountable for treating their employees unfairly. We’ve come a long way in the last 100 years.

No military victory has given American workers their freedom from corporate abuse.

The West Virginia Board of Education said that every child in our schools must pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States. The Jehovah’s Witnesses in West Virginia thought the pledge was idolatry, and they refused to comply. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court. The court upheld the freedom of a religious minority.

Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a public bus. She said, “People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” Her arrest led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It was a step toward asserting the civil rights of African Americans.

After a grim chapter in American history, people of influence and integrity stood up to Senator McCarthy and his anti-communist hysteria. Arthur Miller compared mccarthyism to the Salem witch trials. During the televised Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954, an attorney refused to be bullied and demanded of Senator McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

Over and over again, the wellspring of our freedom has nothing to do with military action. The threat to our freedom has nothing to do with a foreign government. We are free because people spoke out. We are free because people took action in the courts and on the street. We are free because the people before us have dared to live in freedom – even when that freedom seemed impossible to the rest of society.

The price of freedom is living in freedom.

Freedom is a gift. The author of Galatians wrote, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”

Freedom is a gift. It’s a gift that has already been given. We have the gift of freedom. It’s ours. But we must choose to live it.

When Moses came with news of freedom, the people didn’t listen. They didn’t listen “because of their discouragement and cruel bondage.” When Jesus came with news of freedom, the people didn’t listen. They didn’t listen because they couldn’t imagine any more freedom than they already possessed: “We are Abraham’s decedents and have never been slaves to anyone.”

Listen! Freedom is a gift. We have been set free.

The price of freedom is living in freedom.