I grew up 40 miles east of Selma, Ala., so the recent movie about the events surrounding Bloody Sunday in 1965 was especially poignant to me, even though I was born some years afterward. If your heart isn’t moved by the credits, which celebrate known and lesser-known heroes of the movement, with John Legend and Common singing “Glory,” you need to check your pulse.
In “Glory,” Common raps a line that has been ringing in my head: “The movement is a rhythm to us. Freedom is like religion to us.”
Freedom is the great foundation and experiment of America. It also is the heart of true religion, although many may disagree with me. In “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander,” Thomas Merton wrote that true religion always should make people personally and communally free. It always nurtures “freedom from domination, freedom to live one’s own spiritual life, freedom to seek the highest truth, unabashed by any human pressure or any collective demand, the ability to say one’s own ‘yes’ and one’s own ‘no’ and not merely echo the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ of state, party, corporation, army or system.”
Sadly, when people think of religion, they often think the opposite of freedom: Nigeria’s Boko Haram, ISIS, Westboro Baptist Church, the secretive, abusive practices of Scientology or any other number of negative examples.
Whenever religion’s adherents participate in violence, oppression, hate language or vicious divisiveness, we can be sure that no real religion is present. On the contrary, where God’s Spirit is truly present, there is freedom.
I’m concerned that as a nation we are increasingly embracing “tolerance” as our central thrust rather than “freedom.” Tolerance could be defined as “the ability or willingness to tolerate something … the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with.” Freedom, on the other hand, is “the power or right to act, speak or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.” Whereas tolerance puts up with something, freedom affirms and acts such that barriers are removed in the exercise of freedom for others. Tolerance leads to separation and exclusion (“you do what you do over there, while I do this over here”) while true freedom leads to reconciliation and embrace. Tolerance is essential, but it won’t bring us together. For that we need true freedom.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “No one is free until we are all free.” This idea echoes Jewish tradition with the biblical injunction to “love your neighbor as yourself,” and Hillel’s principle, “that which is hateful to you do not do to your neighbors.” It’s at the heart of every world religion, although some advocate such a posture only toward their own tribe.
When the marchers sang, “My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” they sang not only of a far-off hope but also of the light that illuminated and enveloped their steps. Glory shone in the march toward freedom. It is America’s glory and, I believe, the glory of God. May it be in our neighborhoods, workplaces and our civics. And in our religion.