Spirituality for Today – February 2014 – Volume 18, Issue 7

Free at Last

Rev. Raymond Petrucci

A photo of Martin Luther King Jr.Life Magazine Photo

In an age that praises every form of entitlement, the idea of freedom resonates as a free-for-all. If one lives a solitary life on some deserted island far out to sea, perhaps that might be a functional understanding. Freedom, however, is quite another reality when applied to a society of people. An awareness of being a member of a community and of exercising virtues such as responsibility, justice, sacrifice, and equality come to the fore. In an interview with Rachel Zawila for St. Anthony Messenger, Bill O'Reilly, host of The O'Reilly Factor on the FOX television network, shares his perspective in applying Catholic morality to overall public policy, "…you don't kill people, you don't steal, and you also look out for other people on the same level that you look out for yourself." These words contain universal validity and contribute authentically to the meaning of living in a free society.

Freedom denied to any race or creed creates not only a people who hunger for that freedom, but also a people who know what freedom is. Black History month begins with the sorrowful reality of a people deprived of freedom. Two years before the arrival of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts, the African arrived in Jamestown, Virginia – a slave. Crops, like tobacco, required an intense amount of manual labor and the answer to that need was slavery. History records the vicious brutality of slavery and the horrible war that would bring it to an end. This month also celebrates the birthday of Abraham Lincoln who, as president of the nation during the Civil War, would emancipate the slaves by proclamation in 1863 and then by the passing of the Thirteen Amendment by Congress in 1865. The complete fullness of this hard-earned freedom is still evolving.

In respect to understanding the plight of the African-American and responding to it, Bill Clinton has been called the first "black" president. I would propose, given that same criterion, that James A. Garfield, if only he had survived the assassin's bullet, would have been considered the first "black" president. Sometime before his election in 1881, he spoke to an assembly of African-Americans about grasping not only freedom, but also the challenge of being free American citizens:

You were not made free merely to be allowed to vote, but in order to enjoy an equality of opportunity in the race of life. Permit no man to praise you because you are black, nor wrong you because you are black. Let it be known that you are ready and willing to work out your own material salvation by your own energy, your own worth, your own labor.

These are words depicting true freedom and the elements that give that freedom its dignity. Garfield came from poverty and knew what it took to make something of one's life both personally and professionally. One only can speculate how the issue of civil rights would have advanced through his leadership. Garfield's death was mourned greatly by all African-Americans as well as the rest of the country.

On an August day in 1963 in the nation's capital, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous I Have a Dream speech. He brought the vast crowd to thunderous applause by concluding his speech with reference to the old Spiritual, Free at Last: "Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last." The dream of freedom has an ultimate dimension. To be "free at last" is to be free, finally and completely free, of all the encumbrances that would separate a person from God. One can speak of freedom to do and of freedom to be, but the highest freedom is the freedom to love. On this mortal plane, we love imperfectly, we love insufficiently, and we love incomprehensibly. As limited and as misunderstood as freedom is, it is only as free beings that we can love at all. And it is only in God's perfect love that we truly can be free.