What does freedom look like? Who bears the face of freedom?

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By Fran Salone-Pelletier, Religion Columnist

 In the past number of weeks, the media have called our attention to a variety of atrocities. Heading the list is the mass kidnapping of nearly 300 young Nigerian schoolgirls by the militant Islamic Boko Haram. Not far behind are the multiple incidents of abuse and murders seen both locally and nationally.

TIME magazine recently featured articles on date rape, saying America’s campuses are dangerous places for young women. One college town even earned the dubious honor of being named America’s Rape Capital.

Turn a few pages and read the headline, “Bring Back All Girls,” a piece about human trafficking written by Belinda Luscombe. Then move to the fatally flawed capital punishment delivered by supposedly quick, painless and humane lethal injection. The injection was lethal, indeed, after the convicted murderer spent excruciating final minutes thrashing in pain.

This was the major content of one magazine. It is repeatedly reported across radio waves, on television screens, in books and newspapers, and networked across cyberspace. Bondage appears to be the trump card. It is sensationalized even as we proclaim the ideal of liberty and justice for all. It commands prime time even while we stop to celebrate our national heritage of freedom, our remembrance of victory on the fourth of July.

Some might ask, “What’s wrong with this picture?” It would seem we humans are more concerned with enslaving others than with freeing them. Might we be filled with fear of radical freedom? Are we afraid of the consequences of being free? Or is our understanding of freedom flawed? Do we perceive our freedom to be diminished by the freedom of others or enhanced by it?

As I pondered these thoughts, I recalled past meetings with various individuals involved with prison ministry. These are special people, individuals who are deeply spiritual and profoundly human. They are people who adhere to a commitment once it is made. They are truly free.

They are also men and women who have found both life and learning from their ministry in the local jail and prisons. They found what they thought, at first, they would be giving to others. As I listened to their stories, offered without revelatory detail about the inmates, I heard the words “brother” and “wise man” and “great leader” and “simple wisdom.” Had I not known they were referring to their weekly excursions to correctional facilities, I’d have thought they were talking about Bible study groups in churches.

In fact, I was struck by a paradox that shook me to the core. Incarcerated men were freely sharing their understanding of God, their experiences of God, their relationship with God. Locked up, locked away from society as punishment for their deeds, they were learning freedom anew.

By contrast, many who are free to come and go in social circles lock themselves up, lock themselves from the liberating presence of God. They commit themselves to institutions of bigotry and hatred without any thought of the bondage in which they are now held.

Stunned, I thought, “Who is truly free?” What does a free person look like? Who wears and bears the face of freedom?

I am not advocating a life behind bars as a response to those questions. I am not suggesting all who are incarcerated are benighted saints, nor am I stating churchgoers are sinners. I am simply reflecting on a paradoxical reality. I am musing about the human need to be locked into a relationship with God — God by any name — to be led into whom we truly are, men and women made in the image and likeness of God. I am ruminating over our necessity to be imprisoned by such an overwhelming reality and thus become truly free.

When I listened to the tales told, I heard the gospel story being proclaimed and repeated in the words and actions of prisoners. I heard of men who are good Samaritans, who stop to help someone who is not of their kind, who is morbidly flawed and devoid of any ability to help himself. I heard about leaders who rose naturally from the group. Flawed yet faithful, saved yet sinners, they were recognized by all as the ones who would offer release. They would show the way by following the Way. They would dismantle the bondage of disbelief by accepting all as they are — not leaving them as they are, but by evoking a change of minds and hearts.

I saw the glow on the faces of the speakers as they told the stories. They shone with an ecstatic delight because their presence with imprisoned men was graced with godly freedom. They knew it was not their freedom they brought to the prisoners. It was the freedom of the inmates that graced them. They saw freedom to be good when the inmates could have wallowed in evil. That freedom graced the ministering ones. While they knew their words brought the inmates closer to God’s word, the truth was the presence of the incarcerated ones and the stories they heard brought them closer to God, as well. It was a win-win situation. It was an experience of radical freedom.

Rape and abuse are not unknown realities to the inmates. Kidnapping and torment are not strangers to them. Hatred and ignorance still plague their steps. To be brought back to their homes and families is not yet a possibility. Life retains a sense of the unreal. There is a sense of enslavement as prison doors clang shut, barring entry or exit. What is real, what is true, is their freedom to open other doors, the doors of their true selves. What is true and real is the opportunity to receive God’s gift, God’s grace to become who they really are: images and likenesses of God. It is a different kind of human trafficking. It is trafficking with the divine who wants us to be free, free to love and be loved, to give and to receive.

This freedom is costly. It is the dawn’s early light, which comes with the price of dark nights. It comes on shores dimly seen through mists of the deep. It is a star spangled banner, the flag of saved sinners, of men and women freed from the perilous plight of self-imposed enslavement. It will wave, and save, o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave. It’s what freedom looks like.


Fran Salone-Pelletier has a master’s degree in theology and is the author of “Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives,” lead chaplain at Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center, religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer and grandmother of four. She can be reached at grammistfran@gmail.com.