Columnist Carl Kline: What does freedom really mean?


I’ll admit it; I’m confused. I’m not at all sure what it means to be “free,” in the political world we live in these days. Some believe I should be “free” from the constraints of a government that has been “weaponized” against the governed. Others are focused more on economic freedom; “free” from rules, regulations and taxes. Still others want the “freedom” to have as many guns and weapons of war at their disposal as they can afford, with 75 mass shootings so far in 2023.

Many resent any effort by government to interfere in their “freedom of choice,” when it comes to protecting their health; or they protest any effort to tell them what they can do with their own body. “Freedom of speech” is tested daily by lies on social media, and increasingly, in the halls of Congress; “freedom of religion” by a strident Christian nationalism. Teachers and librarians look confused and troubled, as their “freedom” to teach or share our history is restricted by politicians. The “freedom to assemble” in protest of environmental threats is restricted by corporations that hire law enforcement, and trigger happy officers that kill protestors like Manuel Esteban Paez Terán. Sometimes young men of color are not “free” to walk the streets, or drive a car, without the fear of police violence.

Fortunately, if we are able to leave the politics aside for a moment, there is another way to understand “freedom.” Two experiences come to mind. The first was a call I received in the chaplain’s office at Brooklyn Methodist Hospital, where I was serving a semester as an intern. The chaplain had just left, leaving me in charge. A patient was asking for prayer; would I please respond? Usually I went with the chaplain, who offered the prayer; but with some anxiety I agreed and traveled up in the elevator to her floor, all the time trying to construct a prayer in my mind.

I found the patient attentive and appreciative that I had come. After our greetings were concluded and as I prepared to offer my prayer, she began praying. It was a prayer of thanksgiving. She offered names and places and events and gatherings and so many things that made her grateful for her life. It was probably the longest prayer I have ever heard (except for one minister whose name I won’t mention). The next morning she was gone. That’s “freedom;” the ability to pass on to the world of spirit with a clear and peaceful spirit.

On another occasion, a minister friend I had worked closely with for several years was diagnosed with a health issue that gave him short months to live. He called me to let me know. Then he spoke about forgiveness. He wanted to make sure he had never offended me, and if so, would I please forgive him. And I was to be certain, that if I had ever offended him, he was extending forgiveness to me. I found out later this was a process he used with many, intent on leaving this world “free,” from any brokenness or regret in his past deeds and relationships.

One might propose that the best end of life is to leave it freely and peacefully, without regret, satisfied one has tried to fulfill their destiny. I often wonder if there was an unspoken prayer of confession in the mind of the man who held my hand in a death grip, as he passed to the other side. What was it that made him hold on with such intensity. Something un-repented; unforgiven?

Ultimately, we simply are free! We are free to do as we will. We constrain ourselves or not. Others constrain us with our agreement, or not. But true freedom, according to Nelson Mandela, “is not merely to cast off one’ chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” We don’t leave bodies behind!

Virginia Woolf tells us, “Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt, that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”

It’s true! You can censor the books and silence the teachers. But the fact that Thomas Jefferson, the primary writer of the Declaration of Independence, to establish a new nation founded on principles of freedom and egalitarianism, owned more than 600 slaves during his lifetime; more than any U.S. President. This is a sad fact of history that will not disappear. (And try as you might to rewrite history; Donald Trump lost the 2020 election. God rest his lying soul at the end!)

According to the Buddha, “No one outside ourselves can rule us inwardly. When we know this we become free.” Politics is not ultimately about our individual freedom. It is rather meant to be about our social well being; enhancing that freedom of others, of all. It’s complex enough that it will lead to disagreements and debate. But it need not lead to divisiveness, fragmentation and destruction. Those who are free inside can become agents of freedom on the outside. May our political leadership be more centered in soul force; in freedom more than in fear.

“We must be free not because we claim freedom, but because we practice it.” (Faulkner)