Here is an old story about an archaeologist who was digging in the desert in Israel. He came upon an ancient mummy. After looking it over, he immediately called the curator of a famous natural-history museum.
“I’ve just discovered a 3,000-year-old mummy of a man who died of heart failure!” said the archaeologist, with great excitement.
“Well, I guess you’d better bring him in,” said the curator. “We’ll check out your findings.”
A week or so later, the curator called the archaeologist back. “We’ve carbon-dated the remains you brought in, and I can tell you you’re absolutely right. The mummy is 3,000 years old. We also did a medical autopsy and have confirmed that the man did die of heart failure. What I’d like to know is: how in the world did you know all this, from a quick examination out in the field?”
“That was easy,” said the archaeologist. “I found a piece of papyrus in his hand that said, ‘10,000 shekels on Goliath.'”
Ever feel like a quick failure? New Year resolutions already broken? You wanted to be moving to a new you but it’s a new year and the same old you.
Erwin M. Soukup has compiled what he terms “The Seven Steps to Stagnation”:
1. We’ve never done it that way before.
2. We’re not ready for that.
3. We are doing all right without trying that.
4. We tried it once before.
5. We don’t have money for that.
6. That’s not our job.
7. Something like that can’t work.
Soukup admits that “there’s probably an eighth step, but we’ve never looked it up before.”
–Quoted by Martin E. Marty
in Context, 15 April 85, 5.
The Book of Exodus does not start out very well.
There is slavery. There is hatred. There is oppression. There is stagnation.
And centuries of slavery have dimmed the hope for liberation.
After the initial attempt Moses and Aaron make to Pharaoh to free the Israelites fails, Moses reproaches God saying “Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has dealt worse with this people; and still you have not delivered Your people.” (Exodus 5:23)
And yet we know the story gets better. And we know the ending: freedom! Although it is a curious freedom.
Rabbi David Wolpe observes that the Israelites, having been slaves, are freed only to then receive God’s law. At first glance, this might seem to encumber them yet again. But slaves are subject not to law, but to will. The more law, the freer. Listen to R.W. Southern in his classic The Making of the Middle Ages discuss the development of law:
“The higher one rose toward liberty, the more area of action was covered by law, the less it was subject to will. The knight did not obey fewer laws than the ordinary freeman, but very many more; the freeman was not less restricted than the serf, but he was restricted in a different, more rational way. Law was not the enemy of freedom … The most highly privileged communities were those with the most laws.
We tend to think of law as a fetter, restricting our freedom. But we only have freedom because of law. Without traffic regulations we are not free to safely drive, without property laws our homes are unprotected. Internal life can be liberated by law as well. Jewish law seeks to regulate us in order to elevate us. Practiced with wisdom and compassion, halacha — Jewish law — gives the chance for one’s spirit to be free.”
–Rabbi David Wolpe, Off the Pulpit for August 18, 2011. sinaitemple.org. Retrieved October 4, 2017.
Liberty of course is not only about tying ourselves to something bigger. It is also about giving up on what I will call the chains of perfection. One of the most iconic symbols of the United States of America is Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell. The bell is noted, of course, for its unsightly crack, which appeared just after its arrival in Philadelphia in 1752, as it was being rung for the first time. The Whitechapel Foundry in London had delivered a flawed product.
What was to be done? Sending such a heavy object back across the Atlantic for repair was a daunting proposition. A couple of local foundrymen, John Pass and John Stow, repaired the crack — and inscribed their own names on its side.
All was well for the next several decades. The Liberty Bell called the members of the Continental Congress to their meetings, and was very likely rung on July 8, 1776, to mark the public reading of the Declaration of Independence.
In 1835, as it was being rung to commemorate the death of Chief Justice John Marshall, the crack reappeared. This time, it was not repaired.
In 1865, as President Lincoln’s body lay in state in Independence Hall, the bell was placed near his head. The verse from Leviticus 25:10 inscribed on its side was visible to the thousands of mourners who filed by: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land and to all the inhabitants thereof.”
Some may think it strange that such a cherished national symbol should be marred by an obvious flaw. Yet, the flaw has now become a part of its character.
It is emblematic of the country itself, which is not perfect. As this line from “O Beautiful, For Spacious Skies” attests, we can only turn to God, asking that, by grace, the broken may be made whole: America! America! God mend thine ev’ry flaw, Confirm thy soul in self-control, Thy liberty in law.
Besides being bound to freedom and the brokenness of freedom there is also the responsibility of freedom.
Besides the Liberty Bell there is the Statue of Liberty. The Statue of Liberty is a familiar icon of American democracy, but few Americans have examined Lady Liberty closely enough to realize she is trampling on a set of broken shackles lying on the ground at her feet. The shackles have a very specific meaning that has been all but lost to popular memory.
It was a French abolitionist, Édouard René Lefèbvre de Laboulaye, who first conceived the idea of the French people giving such a statue to the United States. At the time of the Confederacy’s surrender, de Laboulaye rejoiced. At a Paris dinner party, a young sculptor, Frédéric Bartholdi, heard him propose the idea of a massive statue celebrating the Union victory. The statue would eventually be called “Liberty Enlightening the World.” It would demonstrate how the abolitionists’ hard-won victory was a shining example for all humanity.
With the support of de Laboulaye, Bartholdi became not only Lady Liberty’s sculptor, but also her chief fundraiser. A subscription campaign in France paid for the statue, and a corresponding campaign in the United States paid for her massive pedestal — a significant work of engineering in itself.
Bartholdi’s original design called for Lady Liberty to be holding a broken chain, symbolic of the freedom the Union victory had won for the American slaves. Even though the statue’s 1886 dedication took place more than 20 years after the Confederate surrender, feelings still ran strong. That aspect of the design was considered too provocative. Bowing to the realities of fundraising, Bartholdi revised his design, placing in Lady Liberty’s hand, instead, a tablet symbolizing the rule of law. Yet, he refused to abandon de Laboulaye’s original vision of the statue as an abolitionist monument. Bartholdi moved the broken chain from her hand to the ground under her feet.
There the chain and broken shackles remain to this day, a symbol of the vision of liberty for all God’s children that thrilled the world at the end of the Civil War.
Liberty continues to be a fragile ideal that must be struggled over, at times even fought for.
If as a country we feel that we are stuck we should remember that this is not the first time nor will it be the last.
Complaining is not the answer.
Doing something about it is the answer.
Leonora Teasdale reminds us of our task:
“Whatever we may say about the prophets of old, they were all visionary leaders who helped those around them envision the new reality that God wanted to create or was already at work creating in their midst. With Isaiah came the vision of God’s making a way where there was no way in the wilderness (Isa. 35:6), of springs breaking forth in the desert (Isa. 35:8–10), and of a peaceable kingdom where wolf and lamb shall lie down together.
“I personally believe that what the church today most longs for are visionary leaders who speak to their people of an alternative future that can be believed and embraced and lived into. Like much of society around us, the church can easily fall prey to cynicism and despair. But the best antidote to such despair and cynicism is the alternative vision of God we glimpse in the gospel: a vision of a universe made new, whole, and fresh by a God who loves it inordinately and will not rest until that which is upside down is turned right side up—until the justice, righteousness, and shalom of God cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.”
Leonora Tubbs Tisdale
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From stagnation to liberty: so much we can do to keep the torch lit, accept the broken bell and never stop working for freedom for all.