What is Freedom? Thoughts from Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace

“The lady of the light holds the torch of freedom

the lady of the light holds the torch of freedom

the lady of the light holds the torch of freedom

freedom for you and me.”

This is the song coming from my daughter’s room.  I love her patriotism, but tonight with all the headlines of the day spinning in my head I am wondering, what does freedom really mean?


The lady of the light holds the torch of freedomthe lady of the light holds the torch of freedomthe lady of the light holds the torch of freedomfreedom for you and me.


When I was in medical school I spent a month in Uganda serving the Batwa Pygmies. They were an impoverished people, their babies died of malnutrition, their women died in child birth, their men were consumed with alcohol.


But it had not always been this way.  The Pygmies share a story like our own Native Americans and native cultures all over the world.  As a nomadic people they had survived successfully for centuries.


In the early 90’s their hunting ground was deemed a sanctuary for the Mountain Gorilla.  The Batwa were relocated into settlements where they faced a lifestyle that was unknown to them.  They didn’t know agriculture, they didn’t understand commerce.  All that had been valuable and functional to them suddenly became worthless.  They were displaced by only a few miles yet they were strangers to their land. And while they remained free under the terms of the law they were as captive as if they had been put in jail.


We are reading Wendell Berry in our reading group and he addresses this idea,


“Amid the outcries for the liberation of this group or that, we will know that no person is free except in the freedom of other persons, and that man’s only real freedom is to know and faithfully, occupy his place.”


Freedom it seems, isn’t an idea that can stand alone, it always asks, freedom from what? and then freedom to what? unto what end? Recognizing that every gain in freedom always requires a sacrifice of the freedom of another.


At our formation, freedom in the  USA  meant that the British let go of their control over us.


The same freedom that lets me speak my mind without danger also requires  that I have no control of the billboard outside my neighborhood flaunting a large breasted woman who is daily recommending an augmentation to myself and my daughter.


I am free to own and control my property but it requires that my neighbors respect my ownership, and restrict themselves from using my land for their own purposes.


The Mountain Gorilla are free to roam without danger of being hunted because the Batwa have given up their lands.


So how do we decide which freedoms are worth protecting and upholding? Who is the judge of which freedoms have a greater net benefit than harm?


In the US today it seems we are set on granting freedoms without direction. We battle any and every standard for the sake of  “freedom” as defined as  individual self expression.


From Berry,

“We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. And this has been based on the even flimsier assumption that we could know with any certainty what was good even for us. We have fulfilled the danger of this by making our personal pride and greed the standard for our behavior toward the world . . . We have been wrong. We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us.


Berry points to traditional cultures like the Batwa, as teachers. Not that they are an especially holy people, nor are they free from the universal desire for self preservation and the temptation to exploit others for their own means.  But what they had (though have now lost) is  a deep cultural heritage, one that taught each person his place among others and in the world.  One that placed restrictions in order to live in a more purposeful and sustainable way.


“We still have not, in any meaningful way, arrived in America. And in spite of our great reservoir of facts and methods, in comparison to the deep earthly wisdom of established peoples we still know but little.”


Yet as Christians we have a unique heritage to guide us, a history that teaches us, “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. . .” We understand that we are only free as we pursue freedoms that draw us to bear more accurately the image of God.  Any freedom that pulls us from God leads only to the brokenness and captivity of our own souls.


Tonight I am every so grateful to be in a country that grants me so many freedoms, one that stands up for the freedoms for others around the world. But if we continue to be a country that stands for freedom alone without asking unto what end, we will also grant ourselves the freedom to destroy ourselves.

“The lady of the light holds the torch of freedom

the lady of the light holds the torch of freedom

the lady of the light holds the torch of freedom

freedom for you and me.”



Thanks for being here, I’d love to hear your thoughts.




This post is part of a series of reflections on The Art of The Commonplace. For more Liturgy of Life, subscribe or follow on facebook. To learn more about our reading group, click here, or check out our facebook group. We would love to have you read and ponder along with us.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *