What is liberty? Stop for a moment and reflect on what words, images, pictures, and feelings come to mind in response to this question. Maybe you see a flag or words from a document. Maybe you see a picture of soldiers in battle or images of leaders. Maybe you hear a melody or the lines of a poem racing across your mind. What is liberty?
Liberty was one of the key myths on which the vision for our nation was built. The signers of the Declaration of Independence said it very clearly:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
A cursory search of the internet on the word ‘liberty’ provides a plethora of quotes from our country’s founders to current political leaders. Dictionary.com defines “liberty” as:
1. Freedom from arbitrary or despotic government or control. 2. Freedom from external or foreign rule; independence. 3. Freedom from control, interference, obligation, restriction, hampering conditions, etc.; power or right of doing, thinking, speaking, etc., according to choice. 4. Freedom from captivity, confinement, or physical restraint. 5. Permission granted to a sailor, especially in the navy, to go ashore. 6. Freedom or right to frequent or use a place. 7. Unwarranted or impertinent freedom in action or speech, or a form or instance of it: to take liberties.
Is the myth of liberty, held so strongly by the revolutionary leaders of the 18th century, still valid in our 21st century world? Or has the myth of liberty simply become a fantasy, a word used to protect the individual from his or her community? Does the the myth of liberty remain a “narrative pattern that gives significance to our existence” (May, 1991, p 15)? Or has the myth of liberty been reduced to that which we speak about but no longer live?
In 1991, Rollo May believed that our society had become a culture devoid of myth:
In such directionless states as we find ourselves near the end of the twentieth century, it is not surprising that frantic people flock to the new cults, or resurrect the old ones, seeking answers to their anxiety and longing for relief from their guilt or depressions, longing for something to fill the vacuum of their lives (p. 22).
In the context of the George Zimmerman trial outcome, the Supreme Court decisions making corporations people and striking down the heart of the Civil Rights Act, and the ever increasing gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” of our country is the myth of liberty still valid? Or have we, as a nation, shifted our thinking to belief in “taking liberties” rather than upholding liberty?
May (1991) says, “Our powerful hunger for myth is a hunger for community. The person without a myth is a person without a home…. To be a member of one’s community is to share its myths” (May, 1991, p. 45).
Our society no longer holds common myths about our freedom and fight for independence. The heroes of our nation go beyond the white northern Europeans who led the fight in establishing our country; instead, our heroes are of varied backgrounds, skin color, ethnicity, and culture. In addition, the heroes some of us hold high are denigrated and vilified by others. As a society, we no longer jointly rally behind causes, but rather fight one another over which causes have more virtue or value.
Our country no longer hungers for the myth of liberty; it is starving from its absence. In place of this myth, various groups have established their own set of beliefs and moral goals, all of which are designed to encompass a few but hold out the many. The myth of liberty is no longer about “liberty and justice for all,” but rather taking or demanding liberties for oneself. Of demanding the liberty to profile and judge those who look different from me or to take the liberty of placing my rights as an individual over the good of the community.
As a country, and as communities, we need to reclaim the myth of liberty, to see liberty as that which undergirds all of our society, no matter our culture, our spirituality, or our ethnicity. We need to again see the myth of liberty as the framework that holds us all together and enables all of us to move about freely and to enjoy the fullness of lives. We need to reclaim the myth of liberty as envisioned by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
What is liberty? I recently asked this question of my family, friends, and peers—I got one response, “Being able to live and participate in social, political, and economic rights and privileges.” May we all embrace the myth of liberty and extend it to all who inhabit our nation!
May, R. (1991). The cry for myth. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.
— Steve Fehl