John Bennison Words and Ways | UNBOUND: FREEDOM, LIBERTY and the GIFT OF LIBERATION


Declaration graphicA Commentary for the Observance of Independence Day, 2015

A pdf version to print and read is HERE.




Liberty and Freedom: People – especially politicians, it seems – frequently use the two terms interchangeably, as if they were the same thing. But while civil liberties can be legislated and personal freedoms can be infringed upon, there is something autonomous about personal choices and actions that can never ultimately be denied or encumbered. “Freedom is not something that anybody can be given,” the late author and civil rights activist, James Baldwin, once said. “Freedom is something people take, and people are as free as they want to be.”

Two stark and recent examples of this distinction of unbridled freedom would be the lone gunman who shot and killed nine people in a Charleston bible study group, and the reflexive response of the victims’ families from that faith community to even mouth the graceful words of forgiveness. Individuals can entangle themselves and others in the worst sorts of ways; while others find the capacity to become unbound from that which can kill body and spirit.

An earlier commentary considered the two ideas of conscience and consciousness as a spiritual component and practice of human experience. These comments are written as we approach our nation’s annual observance of the Independence Day holiday; exploring what might constitute a progressive Christian perspective of a kind of liberating “freedom” that is comprised of loosing the bonds of all the little deaths we die, and binding oneself to that which can irrepressibly spring once more to life.


On Liberty


“Without Thomas Jefferson and his Declaration of Independence, there would have been no American revolution that announced universal principles of liberty. … Without Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, there would have been no Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom, and no basis for the most precious clause of our most prized element of our imperishable Bill of Rights – the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

― Christopher Hitchens, author, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything


The Supreme Court hands down its majority opinion on same-sex unions, making it the law of the land. It expands the definition of marriage to include all adults in loving, committed relationships, with the freedom to legally marry whomever they wish.

Some opponents, of course, are quick to see it as an attack on religious freedom; claiming it not only despoils the so-called traditional definition of marriage, but further compels conservative evangelicals and other similar types to accept values they hold to be contrary to their own convictions and conscience.

In actuality, legalizing same-sex unions nationwide is not about who is free to bind themselves to another person; but rather about a civil liberty that has been established (or imposed) to protect some of our fellow citizens against anti-discriminatory practices.

This is just one example from a single week of headlines. On another front, Obamacare moved one step closer to being a fait-de-complet; taking away the freedom of individual states to deny federal subsidies if they had previously refused to set-up exchanges for the uninsured.

On another front, the legislative branch moved closer to freeing up the Administration’s hand with regard to future fast-track international trade deals.

Meanwhile, the temporary freedom for two escaped cons in upstate New York came to end; along with some alleged accomplices that have found themselves thrown in the clink.

And in California where I reside, the governor signed legislation requiring mandatory vaccination for school children, taking away the parents freedom to decide for themselves.

In the maelstrom of daily life our worlds seem to be defined to one degree or another as being more, or less, free; based on the choices made by ourselves, and others. It seems to be a process of entangling and untangling, when given the opportunity to do both. There is our personal, individual freedom of choice that can never be denied or usurped; while there are also certain inalienable rights our system of government declares to protect and defend.

This is the distinction and relationship between our liberties that are constituted and legislated, and our inherent freedom (some would say “endowed by our Creator”) that can never be denied, but only suppressed; all while recognizing those outward expressions of that inherent freedom can be dubbed anything from civil disobedience to unfettered anarchy.

In other words, we are always free to choose that to which we would bind ourselves; regardless of the possible consequences of such a choice. The real question underlying this undeniable principle is who, or what, will be the basis for expressing such a personal freedom.

On Freedom


One is free to keep promises, or break them. One is free to obey a set of laws, or not. There may be consequences for exercising your freedom to do as you choose, but the idea of “defending freedom” is an errant proposition. It is the provision of certain liberties – or alack thereof – that may, or may not, protect and defend certain expressed acts of freedom.

But furthermore, there is a kind of intentional and creative kind of freedom that can be a greater expression of one’s will and intention; a choice that is exercised in the desire for a kind of meaning and purpose that transcends exerting one’s right to free expression or action.

Jean Vanier is a Canadian Catholic philosopher, theologian and humanitarian. He is also the founder of L’Arche, an international federation of communities spread over 35 countries, for people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them.

“To be free is to put justice, truth and service to others over and above our personal gain or our need for recognition, power, honor and success,” Vanier asserts. “When we cling to personal power and success, when we are afraid of loosing social status, then we are in some way denying our humanity; we become slaves to our own needs, we are not free.”

In other words, freedom is ultimately not a self-serving proposition. Otherwise it can lead to are forms personal entanglements and entrapments that are anything but freeing. To find something worthy of surrendering one’s freedom and binding yourself to it is an ultimate expression of true liberation.


The Raising of Lazarus – Fresco, Artist: Giotto, 13 C, Padua, Italy

On Liberation:

A Good News Example


While certain liturgical denominations of the Christian faith tradition in this country observe America’s Independence Day with specific scripture readings, the passage I have in mind is certainly not one appointed for that occasion. Yet the story of Jesus raising from the dead is all about the freedom of choice and the gift of liberation.

There is general consensus among most biblical scholars that the authorship of the Johnʼs gospel comes so late after the death and burial of the historical Jesus that the intervening years had sufficient time for a subsequent generation of believers to develop a highly stylized Christology surrounding this legendary figure; according him a messianic title, and co-eternal status with the Divine. Hence, there are the formulaic I am sayings placed on Jesus’ lips; e.g. “I am the vine,” “I am the bread of life,” and in this particular story, “I am the resurrection and life.”

Thus, the miracle story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead is typically read as a set-up piece for the words attributed to a soon-to-be resurrected Jesus. But, in fact, there were other sages and teachers that were contemporaries of Jesus, of whom similar stories of raising the dead are told. Apollonius of Tyana in Cappadocia (Asia Minor), for example, was a sage; following the teachings of the philosopher Pythagoras, who lived 5 centuries earlier. A Roman writer named Flavius Philostratus tells a similar story of Apollonius “wakening” one who was as good as dead.

Like just about everything else in the gospels, one can read miracle stories literally and then try to explain them; in which case, there is nothing particularly miraculous about them. Or they can be interpreted more credibly as myth and metaphor.

Whereas the gospel writer may have used this story as yet another test of the power of someone “believing” otherwise-unbelievable things (Lazarusʼ sister, Martha, in this case; doubting Thomas in another story, etc), the more powerful message is to be found elsewhere.

The more credible and meaningful message in the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead is not about some supernatural, miraculous resuscitation of a corpse; and whether or not one believes Jesus possessed such miraculous powers. Consider, we never hear what happens to Lazarus, subsequent to his reawakening. As such, it’s really only half a story. And what’s more, the story doesn’t claim Jesus was raising him to “eternal life,” but just returning him to this life; to one day die all over again, like the rest of us.

Furthermore, we can only guess or assume that whatever kind of a life Jesus’ friend had led up to the point of his terminal illness may not have been much different than the rest of us. Of course, he’d certainly lived his life under Roman occupation, and governmental and religious oppression, that was far more binding than the kind of governmental liberties we enjoy. But within that social, economic, political and religious straightjacket, he had the opportunity to freely make his own conscious choices; deciding what he would, or not do, and to whom or what he would bind or unbind himself.

That’s why there is such power in the words of the two commands uttered by Jesus when he stands in front of the sealed grave in which Lazarus is completely entombed and shouts those words of freedom, “Come out!”

Come out from whatever has bound you, even unto death. Lazarus stumbles out, still enshrouded in the tattered fragments of his old life. And, so to those gathered around — who constitute the social fabric of his life — Jesus utters the second command of liberation to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Lazarus is not just to be resuscitated, but liberated. It is an inalienable freedom that is to be ensured – some might even say enshrined – by those principles of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Now, some would say that the term, “pursuit of happiness,” only begs the question, of course. But that’s why we have politicians and judges, and the political and judicial discourse that argue in favor of what you or I believe will best represent our competing personal interests and those of the common good.


Lazarus Today

jesus at gay pride parade


In his majority opinion for the Supreme Court’s decision on same sex marriage, Justice Kennedy wrote, “No longer may this liberty be denied, (for) no union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.”

I thought of this excerpt as I listened to the lead plaintiff of this particular case, speaking in a post-decision interview. James Obergefell’s partner, John –with whom he had lived for decades of his adult life – had died several years ago of complications from ALS. The state of Ohio in which they lived had refused to recognize James as a marriage partner, or place his name on the death certificate. Though John was dead and gone, James remained bound both by a love as strong as death, and a social order that denied that love.

After the Court’s decision on same-sex marriage, Obergefell stood outside highest court in the land and held up a photo of his late spouse. “This ruling establishes that our love is equal,” he said. Then he added, “This is for you, John.” It was a Lazarus moment, in which someone once enshrouded was unbound and liberated.

In all the legal maneuvering and wrangling that goes on in a nation where individual freedoms are cherished and protected by those liberties we hold to be self-evident in an unending struggle to create a more perfect union, it was as if I could almost hear the echo of that earlier declaration, “Come out. Unbind him, and let him go.”


© 2015 by John William Bennison, Rel.D. All rights reserved.

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1 Comment

  1. Robert Cromey /

    I loved your distinction between liberty and freedom.


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