How’s Freedom Doing?

The Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek

A beautiful, compelling, urgent collective human yearning came bursting anew into the world this past winter. Long held at bay by an array of forces; long stifled by decades-old “emergency laws;” long suppressed by threats of arrest, torture and disappearing; long silenced by governments offering just enough security and stability in response to the specter of religious extremism; this beautiful, compelling, urgent human yearning went raging, marching, protesting, striking, singing, celebrating—and, in some cases shooting—across North Africa and the Middle East this past winter. It rattled the nerves of Chinese and Iranian ruling elites. It confounded western powers who weren’t prepared for its arrival and who, even now cannot anticipate where and when it will come to rest. It even—in a unique American form—spoke, drummed, rallied and prayed in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Columbus, OH where the long held, long cherished right of workers to organize and bargain for wages and benefits came under blistering attack from Governors seeking to weaken the power of public employee unions. A beautiful, compelling, urgent collective human yearning for freedom, for self-determination, for dignity—in a variety of places, in a variety of forms—found its voice this winter. And that voice thundered. It is still thundering now.

This makes me wonder: How’s freedom doing? Our theological theme for April is freedom. In my April newsletter column I said I like this theme at this time of year for a number of rea­sons. In this month we remember the April 4th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. We are mindful of the American civil rights movement which, at its core, spoke out of and to that same beautiful, compelling, urgent human yearning for freedom.  April is also typically the month when Jews celebrate the Passover Seder, which centers around the Haggadah, the telling of the story of the Jewish liberation from slavery in Egypt. The Exodus story speaks out of and to that beautiful, compelling, urgent human yearning for freedom. In fact, throughout much of modern history, people struggling for social, economic and political freedom have found spiritual sustenance in the Exodus story.

Likewise, Christians celebrate Easter at this time of year. The notion of resurrection—of mov­ing from death to life, from dark tomb to open air, from bound to unbound, from sadness to joy, from winter to spring—these are all movements towards spiritual—if not physical—freedom. Easter speaks out of and to that same beautiful, compelling, urgent human yearning.

I feel no small amount of pride when I note that Unitarianism and Universalism, the two liberal, historically Christian denominations whose merger created our Unitarian Universalist Association in 1961, were themselves born out of this same human yearning for freedom—in this case the freedom to follow one’s conscience in religious matters; to believe as one feels called to believe; to search for one’s own answers to life’s most pressing spiritual questions; the freedom of religious bodies to gather for worship, prayer and communion without state intervention or regulation; the freedom of congregations to conduct their own affairs without the influence of religious hierarchies. Both denominations emerged in response to a profound collective desire among clergy and lay-people to throw off the tyranny of older religious doctrines that no longer seemed theologically credible; no longer offered useful guidance for daily living; no longer felt relevant; no longer coincided with what science had discovered about the natural world; no longer engendered a human spirit that matched the character of their age. Unitarianism and Universalism were, in many ways, the theological and spiritual children of the American Revolution. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a faith that spoke of freedom, individual rights, conscience and dignity seemed to flow naturally from the political ferment of the Revolutionary era.

Among the early Unitarians especially, the notion of spiritual freedom was pervasive. In his sermon “Spiritual Freedom,” preached before the Massachusetts Governor and Legislature in 1830, the Rev. William Ellery Channing thundered, “I call that mind free which…calls no man master, which does not content itself with a passive or hereditary faith, which opens itself to light whencesoever it may come; which receives new truth as an angel from Heaven, which whilst consulting others, inquires still more of the oracle within itself, and uses instructions from abroad not to supersede but to quicken and exalt its own energies.”[1] For today’s Unitarian Universalists such words are as potent now as they were 180 years ago. Freedom continues to be a central Unitarian Universalist value. What, then, are we to make of this ‘freedom cry’ bursting anew into the world this past winter? How is freedom doing?

At first I thought it would be easy to answer this question. Freedom is doing well! Look: millions of people across North Africa and the Middle East are in the streets, calling for change. I thought it would be easy because these revolutions all look similar from afar. They’re all happening at the same time in countries with longstanding dictatorships.[i] They all boast gatherings of tens if not hundreds of thousands of people in central squares in major cities calling for the dictators to leave; for political reforms; for an end to emergency laws; for economic development and jobs. But the more closely I look, the harder it is to fit any single one of these revolutions into a general pattern; the harder it is to say with complete confidence, freedom is doing well. Each revolution has its own unique circumstances, presents its own unique challenges.

In Bahrain, for example, the conflict lies between the Sunni Al-Khalifa family (who has been in power for more than 200 years) and an impoverished Shiite majority that has been systematically excluded from power for generations. Protestors appear to be maintaining a nonviolent stance, yet the government has sanctioned some violence against them. The presence of a massive United States naval base also appears to complicate this situation. In Yemen the conflicts are more tribal than religious. There is a longstanding secession movement. Al Qaeda fighters operate there and the United States military conducts regular operations against them. Here too, protestors appear to be maintaining a nonviolent stance while the government has responded violently. In Libya, where ancient tribal tensions also exist, Muammar Gaddafi made the decision to apply brutal force against protestors who, in turn, resorted to armed struggle, setting up a new government and trying desperately to organize an army. Now the United Nations has sanctioned the creation of a “no-fly zone” and western powers have been bombing Libya for two weeks. In Egypt and Tunisia government officials largely—though not entirely—resisted using violence; protestors remained largely—though not entirely—peaceful. In both countries the dictators stepped down very quickly but the path to political reform has been murky at best. In Syria the government is violently crushing the uprising with the backing of Iran and help from Hezbollah.

Historians will be figuring out the similarities and differences between these revolutions for years to come. For now, they are all ongoing and I find it difficult to answer the question, “How’s freedom doing?” Yes, freedom is doing well given that millions of people have gone into the streets to demand political and economic reforms. On the other hand, the willingness of so many of these dictatorships to use deadly force against protestors tells me that freedom will not come easily, will require more than large rallies in central squares, will require extensive, unified, sustained organizing and struggle. We said these words from Frederick Douglass as we opened our worship: “this struggle may be a moral one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without demand; it never did and it never will.”[2]

I have some evidence that a capacity to make such demands and a capacity for extensive, unified, sustained organizing and struggle is emerging—has been emerging—in at least some of these countries. The best example comes from Egypt. In fact, while many observers claim that events in Tunisia gave rise in Egypt to spontaneous mass protests, that’s not exactly true. Planning and organizing for such protests had been taking place as far back as 2008. The events in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that ousted Hosni Mubarak were not entirely spontaneous.

An Al Jazeera program called “People and Power” tells the story of Egypt’s April 6th Youth Movement.[3] It describes a young student named Ahmed Maher who began organizing this movement in March, 2008, using the American social networking internet site Facebook.[4] Maher and his colleagues were organizing young people to support striking textile workers El-Mahalla El-Kubra north of Cairo. The workers had planned an April 6th strike to protest terrible working conditions. By the time of the strike, Maher’s Facebook page had attracted 70,000 friends—far beyond his wildest dreams. He turned out thousands of strike sympathizers and the April 6th Youth Movement was born.

After that first strike the movement continued to dream up actions to draw attention to government corruption and unfair labor practices—anything that might inspire more people to work for democratic change. They had successes and failures. They were continuously harassed by police, arrested, even tortured. But they kept organizing. Along the way their leaders received training from Srdja Popovic, the leader of Otpor, the nonviolent Serbian mass movement that toppled the dictator Slobodan Miloševi? in 2000. According to Al Jazeera, Popovic introduced April 6th to the strategies and tactics of nonviolence. When mass demonstrations began in Cairo in late January, April 6th was the primary organizer, and nonviolence was the primary philosophy. We can see nonviolence most clearly in the dignified way protestors related to police and soldiers.

Paolo Freire, the twentieth century Brazilian social theorist, wrote that “sooner or later being less than human leads the oppressed to struggle against those who made them so.”[5] We are seeing this dynamic coming to life across North Africa and the Middle East. People who feel the crushing weight of oppression resulting from years of dictatorship have found strength in numbers and are rising up. But Freire is clear that “in order for this struggle to have meaning, the oppressed must not, in seeking to regain their humanity … become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but restorers of the humanity of both.”[6] The April 6th Youth Movement appears to think and act this way. They have taken this principle to heart and this gives me hope for the meaningful progress of freedom.

On the other hand, I feel compelled to hold Freire’s idealism in tension with the more sobering assessment of Frantz Fanon, the twentieth century Martiniquean anti-colonial political analyst and psychologist who wrote: “National liberation, national renaissance, the restoration of nationhood to the people, commonwealth: whatever may be the headings used or the new formulas introduced, decolonization is always a violent phenomenon.”[7] He was writing about a different era in African history, but certainly the high levels of state-sponsored violence in response to these winter 2011 revolutions—even in Egypt—suggests to me that freedom remains tenuous and elusive at best.

What, then, are we to make of this ‘freedom cry’ bursting anew into the world? In the end I am deeply moved by what I am witnessing in North Africa and the Middle East. I feel I am seeing a kind of sanity. Not religious extremism—or the fear of it—that so often makes the headlines; not dictatorial power brokers beholden to the United States or Iran; but regular people, simple people, courageous people tired of the status quo and yearning to be free.

Their struggle reminds me that oppression is not only an outcome of dictatorships.  The United States has boasted a highly functional democracy for over 200 years but that has not prevented certain classes of people in this nation from experiencing profound forms of oppression throughout our history. The beautiful, compelling, urgent collective human yearning for freedom speaks here too; it speaks now, in our age, not only in our past—and I do think we caught a glimpse of it in Milwaukee and Columbus. I think we catch a glimpse of it when we advocate for universal healthcare or civil rights for immigrants. It is my hope and my prayer that we who care about freedom, as Unitarian Universalists and as residents of the United States, will feel a deep sense of solidarity with these Middle Eastern and North African revolutions; that we will pay attention to what we can do as a people to support and nurture freedom struggles in those countries, particularly those utilizing nonviolence; that we will also remain ever vigilant about abuses of power in our own midst, about oppression and injustice in our own midst; that we will continue to hold our government accountable when it needs to be held accountable; and that we will continue to conduct our lives out of a deep and abiding capacity to hear and respond to that beautiful, compelling, urgent collective human yearning for freedom.

Amen an Blessed Be.

[1] Channing, William Ellery, “Spiritual Freedom,” The Works of William Ellery Channing, D.D. (Boston: American Unitarian Association, 1877) p. 174.

[2] Douglass, Frederick, excerpted as “The Limits of Tyrants” in Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #579.

[3] Or see!/shabab6april on Facebook.


[5] Freire, Paolo, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Continuum, 1982) p. 28.

[6] Freire, Paolo, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Continuum, 1982) p. 28.

[7] Fanon, Frantz, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 1963) p. 35.

[i] Tunisia’s now former President Ben Ali, 23 years in power; Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 12 years in power; Morocco’s King Muhammed VI, 12 years in power, preceded by his father, King Hassan, 28 years in power; Egypt’s former President, Hosni Mubarak, 30 years in power; Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, 32 years in power; Syria’s Hafez El-Assad and his son Bashar al-Assad, 40 years in power; Jordan’s King Abdullah, twelve years in power since his father’s death in 1999; prior to that his father, King Hussein, 47 years in power. Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said, 41 years in power. Libya’s Muammar Muhammad al-Gaddafi, 41 years in power; the Kingdom of Bahrain’s Al Khalifa family, 217 years in power; and the House of Saud has ruled on the Arabian Penninsula almost continuously since 1744.