Freedom: Anticipating Independence Day

Christianity’s roots go deep into the rich soil of Judaism, so it’s no surprise that Rabbi Barry Marks’ recent reflection on Torah and freedom in these pages sounds familiar. “Freedom is never absolute and must always be circumscribed and conditioned by considerations of the common good,” he wrote.

In other words, relationships are at the heart of the law, creating a circle called “the common good” that includes God, all of God’s people, and all of creation.

I will refrain from listing the ways in which concern for the common good is absent from our nation today, except to say that what some consider freedom has nothing to do with what is common or good. Nor is it liberating.

After:Rabbi Barry Marks: The Limits of Freedom

Christians sometimes recognize as saints those who care about the common good. The Saints possess a deep inner freedom that sustains them, even as they harbor the tensions and face the opposition that have made them known as troublemakers during their lifetime.

I think of three such people on the American Catholic Church’s shortlist for canonization. Besides the fact that each comes from a place to which we Dominican sisters have a connection, what they have in common is oppression and freedom – a freedom born of the relationship with the Legislator and the people for whom the law exists.

August Tolton, a priest in our diocese, escaped slavery in Missouri by crossing the Mississippi into Illinois near Quincy during the Civil War. After his ordination in Rome, he returned to Quincy to face rejection from his fellow priests, who seemed mostly concerned that their white parishioners were flocking to the “Negro church” to hear August’s beautiful preaching – and carried their Sunday offerings with them. Despite this rejection—so severe that he was transferred to Chicago—August made it known that he wanted to be buried in Quincy among the very people who rejected him.

Descendants of Nicholas Black Elk, who died in 1950, still worship at the parish in South Dakota where Sister Barbara Bogenschutz, a native of Springfield and Dominican, serves as pastoral minister. He was a Lakota holy man and a staunch Catholic, who, holding his two traditions in reverent tension, was suspected by members of both. Unwilling to abandon his Lakota or Catholic traditions, Nicholas possessed the freedom to adopt and integrate them.

After:Sister Beth Murphy: The Catholic Roots of Labor Day

Sister Thea Bowman, a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration from Canton, Mississippi, was already dying of cancer when she addressed the U.S. Catholic Bishops in 1989. She began her remarks with the question, “ What does it mean to be black and Catholic? and responded to it with a slave song: “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child…far from home.” As she finished her speech, in which she gently chided her audience for her insular patriarchy, she somehow persuaded hundreds of bishops to hold hands in civil rights fashion and sing along. “We will vanquish”.

During their lives, these saints demonstrated a great inner freedom rooted in their relationship with the Giver of Law and their commitment to the common good. This enabled August, Nicholas and Thea to hold on to the contradictions they experienced in their church and society and to remain faithful to God and to tolerate the blindness of those who were unable to fully grasp freedom at which they were called.

How did they manage to hold these painful contradictions and still love so deeply, constantly, freely? Not in bondage to their personal desires or the will and desires of others, but in the deep personal relational freedom they experienced in loving relationships. It is for this kind of freedom that God has set us free. Happy Independence Day.

Sister Beth Murphy, OP, is the Director of Communications for the Dominican Sisters of Springfield and lives at Cor Unum House, where Dominican women accompany young adult women on their spiritual journey.

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