If you are truly free, then who do you serve?
169 years ago, Frederick Douglass took the podium at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, NY. Douglass was born a slave in 1818 in Maryland, not far from here. In 1838, Douglass escaped from slavery in Baltimore and, soon after, became one of the most prominent members of the abolitionist movement. In 1852, the Ladies Anti-Slavery Society of Rochester invited Douglass to speak at their Independence Day celebrations. Douglass opted to speak on the 5th, rather than the 4th. Ten years before the beginning of the Civil War, Douglass took the podium and delivered what would become his most famous speech, titled, “What to the Slave is Fourth of July?”
Douglass begins his speech by praising the merits of American freedom. He talks about the Revolutionary War, the Declaration of Independence, the struggle for liberty, and the founding fathers’ noble plans for a freed society. He speaks well of the American Dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
But then the speech turns. Speaking to a largely white audience, he says, “This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn…” Douglass goes on to argue that Independence Day is a meaningless holiday for a slave, who still suffers under oppression. Not only is it meaningless, it’s an insult. Douglass says, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.” The celebration of July 4th, Douglass said, was to rub freedom in the faces of slaves, to flaunt independence and liberty before those who were enslaved and oppressed.
In so many words, Douglass argues that freedom is not true freedom unless everyone is free. It is a lie to celebrate freedom when fully one-seventh of the population is enslaved. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The same can be said of slavery and freedom. Slavery anywhere is a threat to freedom everywhere. So long as even one of us is enslaved, none of us are truly free.
169 years after Frederick Douglass’ speech, a lot has changed. The formal institution of slavery has ended in this country. 55 years later, women gained the right to vote. Another 50 years after that, segregation ended. It took time, but black men and women finally gained the full rights of citizenship in this country.
Even still, we are blind if we think that slavery no longer plays a part in our world. According to the Global Slavery Index, 40.3 million people are still in slavery around the world, three-quarters of them women. When you buy laptops, computers, cell phones, clothes, fish, cocoa, or sugar, there’s a chance it was produced by someone in slavery. Human trafficking, which is the selling of human beings for labor or sex, is a multi-billion dollar industry, world-wide. 1 in 4 victims of human trafficking are children.
But lest you think that human trafficking is only something that happens in other countries, it is estimated that about 10,000 girls and women were victims of sex trafficking during the 2019 Super Bowl. The number of sex trafficking victims has increased by 40% during COVID. And it’s happening right here in our back yard. Route 15 is notorious for it. Pennsylvania supposedly ranks as the eleventh worst state for sex trafficking.
There are other kinds of slavery beyond the institutionalized forms. Drug addiction is a form of slavery where the user becomes enslaved to a substance. Abuse is a form of slavery where one person manipulates another through physical or emotional violence. St. Paul even talks about being enslaved by sin.
Slavery, in all its forms, isn’t dead. It’s flourishing.
In his July 4th speech, Frederick Douglass looks most disappointingly at the church. Speaking of the Fugitive Slave Act, a law that allowed slaves who escaped to the north to be captured and returned to the south, he says, “I take this law to be one of the grossest infringements of Christian Liberty, and, if the churches and ministers of our country were not stupidly blind, or most wickedly indifferent, they, too, would so regard it.”
I wish I could say that the church sat at the forefront of the abolitionist and civil rights movements, but it’s not true. Small portions of the church played a big part in the freedom of black people in this country, but a significant population of the church supported slavery and denounced civil rights. Martin Luther King, Jr. says something similar in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” He says that white moderate Christians like us are the greatest threat to equality in this country. That’s hard to hear.
We should have the opposite legacy. People should look at us and say, “Look. There are the liberators.” But they don’t.
Maybe part of the problem is that we don’t really understand what Christian freedom looks like. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that freedom is a primarily personal and self-oriented thing. Freedom, to us, means getting to do what I want to do. We are concerned about our own personal liberties, and that’s not necessarily bad. But for a Christian, personal liberty is not the whole truth; it’s not even half of it.
In his powerful work The Freedom of a Christian, Martin Luther makes some staggering claims about freedom. He argues that, in Christ, we have been made free and are subject to no one. But then, immediately, he says that in Christ, we have become slaves and are subject to everyone. Now, this kind of talk has been used to justify the institution of slavery and that’s not what is going on here.
Luther essentially argues that the faithful Christian can live in freedom because his or her salvation lies entirely in God. But, he adds, the faithful Christian uses that freedom not for selfish gain, but only in service to his or her neighbor. As a Christian you are free, yes, but you then use your freedom to become a servant to your neighbor. Christian freedom doesn’t look like going out and doing whatever you want; Christian freedom looks like loving and serving your neighbor.
If our freedom leads us to care for our neighbors, to be servants of our neighbors, to be connected to our neighbors, then it really is true that none of us are free unless all of us are free. As long as my neighbor is enslaved, I am enslaved too. We are all united in Christ; your burdens are my burdens.
If to be free means to love your neighbor, then we as a church should be world-class liberators. The church should be known for the way it frees people from slavery in all its forms and leads people into new life in Christ. So often, though, we don’t free people. We just shame them. A woman comes to us and tells us she has been raped and we shame her and say, “were you asking for it?” A black man comes to us and tells us he has received systematically unfair treatment and we tell him “slavery and segregation are over; it’s all in your head.” A woman ODs on OxyContin and we shake our heads and say, “these drug addicts get what they deserve.”
All these people suffer from injustice. Will we help liberate them? Or will we condemn them? To paraphrase Isaiah, the spirit of the Lord God is upon us, because the LORD has anointed us; he has sent us to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners. As a church, do our words proclaim liberty? Or do they just make people more enslaved?
Our psalm today is all about mercy. The psalmist writes, “Our eyes look to the LORD our God, until he has mercy upon us.” The psalmist waits with eager longing for God to show him mercy. There is no more merciful act than freeing someone from slavery. That is what God did for Israel when they were in Egypt and Babylon. That is what Jesus did for us on the cross.
On this 4th of July, you will see all around you the phrase “God bless America.” One commentator had an intriguing idea: what if, instead of asking for blessing, we asked for mercy. What if we said, “God have mercy on America.” After all, as Lutherans, our primary preoccupation is not with blessings, it’s with grace. What if we asked God for the grace, the mercy to become liberators. What if we asked God to have mercy on our nation so that we, as a nation, could have mercy on each other? Because at the end of the day, I would much rather have mercy than blessings; and I’d much rather give mercy than blessings.
So on this Fourth of July, as you celebrate your freedom, remember those who still struggle in slavery. And may God give us the mercy to liberate them, just as God has liberated us.