Emancipation — Center for Action and Contemplation

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Inner and Outer Freedom

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

For the kinds of freedom and liberation that are needed today, I am going to use the word “emancipation.” Instead of focusing on the mere personal freedoms enjoyed by individual people, emancipation directs our attention to a systemic level of freedom. With the exception of those who are fully emancipated (which are very few indeed), we each live inside of our own smaller security systems of culture, era, political opinion, and even some quiet, subtle agreements of which we may not even be aware.

In the United States, we rightly revel in the fact that we enjoy certain rights and freedoms from restraints (free markets, free speech, the freedom to be secure and to defend ourselves). However, we pay little attention to the fact that these liberties can ultimately only offer us as much freedom as we ourselves have earned from the inside. If we haven’t achieved the inner freedom to love, we are totally dependent on the outer systems which, paradoxically, can never fully guarantee or deliver the very freedoms they promise. Our inability to recognize this has made our so-called freedoms very selective, class-based, often dishonest, and open to bias.

For example, are we really free to imagine that there could be better alternatives to our free-market system? We are likely to be called dangerous or un-American if we dare broach the topic. We believe in free speech, but we know better than to claim that money actually controls our elections, rather than “one person, one vote.” Does our freedom to protect ourselves with gun rights and limitless military spending give us the freedom to use the vast majority of the economic resources of our country for our protection? Even if it means not providing food, healthcare, or education for the same people we say we are securing?

When we place all of our identity in our one country, security system, religion, or ethnic group, we are unable to imagine another way of thinking. Only citizenship in a much larger “Realm of God” can emancipate us from the confinement of certain well-hidden, yet agreed-upon, boxes we have labeled “Freedom.” In fact, because these are foundational and necessary cultural agreements, we do not even recognize them as boxes.

To be fair, such boxes are good, helpful, and even necessary sometimes! These silent agreements allow cultures to function and people to work together. But my job, and the job of Christian wisdom, is to tell you that “We are fellow citizens with the saints and part of God’s household” (Ephesians 2:19), and thus “Our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20). We have been called to live in the biggest box of all, while still working and living practically inside of the smaller boxes of society. That is a necessarily creative and difficult tension, yet it is really the only way we can enjoy all levels of freedom. “In the world, but not of the world” was the historic phrase commonly used by many Christians, whereas today most of us tend to be in the system, of the system, and for the system—without even realizing it!

So, let’s use the word emancipation to describe a deeper, bigger, and scarier level of freedom: inner, outer, personal, economic, structural, and spiritual. Surely this is the task of our entire lifetime.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, “Introduction,” “Emancipation,” Oneing, vol. 3, no. 1 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2015), 11–12.

Image credit: Sun in an Empty Room (detail), Edward Hopper, 1963, private collection.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Only when we are able to “let go” of everything within us, all desire to see, to know, to taste and to experience the presence of God, do we truly become able to experience that presence with the overwhelming conviction and reality that revolutionize our entire inner life. —Thomas Merton
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