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  • Reverend James Squire


Music transports us to another day and age. I was transitioning between Duke University and Duke Medical Center to Swarthmore when I first heard those piercing sounds of Janis Joplin singing “Freedom’s just another name for nothing left to lose.” The song in which that line appears is an anthem in, Me and Bobby McGee. It was was composed by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster, was recorded by several, but remains today the song of the tortured soul of Janis Joplin. Then and down through the ages, it has become like a Zen Buddhist Koan, a paradoxical riddle subject to interpretation in many different ways, for it dealt with that theological/philosophical construct of “freedom.”

As Judith Viorst so eloquently put it in her book, Necessary Losses, the rhythm of life is loss and gain that is found each day that we live. We have heard that word, freedom, like a clarion call as we have listened to discussions of everything from being vaccinated and having the right to abortion. Its strength is its problem. It is subject to great individual interpretations and tends to rise to the occasion the more intense a situation appears to be. For soul sister Janis, it was about “free love” and “free to live life with abandon.” She died young of a drug overdose.

But that line still seems to haunt us. “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” The following is what it means to me. Our challenge as a nation and as individuals is we each have to search for what it means to us particularly as the ground of decency has shifted in our country. Discussion needs to resurrect it to be a core value once again with a common understanding.

Freedom is at the heart of that ethical construct “freedom vs. responsibility.” DeTocqueville, the great commentator on American life, went to the one word that defines us and what is important about America when he said, “Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom.” Hence, our dilemma as people and as a nation.

In Ethics freedom is linked to free will meaning the freedom to choose. I spend time, because of how I choose or was chosen to live a particular life, with people who have suffered tragic losses. I have had my share as well. The feeling that sometimes arises is one of freedom in the form of the words “What else can you do to me, life? You have taken what is most valuable to me away!” Sometimes, like the people of Kentucky looking at the home that they lived in all their life gone, freedom doesn’t enter the picture. Those people are standing on the ground of loss. Freedom will come in the future when people rally behind them to rebuild.

I have not seen any ware in Washington where people discuss what freedom really means except getting their own way usually at the expense of others. Certainly, anyone watching the Army/Navy Game this past weekend knows what freedom means to our troops. We are moved by their dedication and sacrifice.

At the recent memorial service for Bob Dole, there was a theme in the addresses honoring him. He disagreed strongly with others’ policies, but he was never disagreeable and attacking of those who saw things differently than he did. I believe that self-restraint is a major ingredient in a just society. In Ethics we state your freedom stops where mine begins.

With Freedom comes responsibility. There is a place where this can be seen in a graphic fashion. It is in the recidivism rate, return of prisoners to prison. Two out of three people who go to prison will return within three years of being released. Seventy five percent return within five years.

There are many causes including prison itself which is not a therapeutic environment. Prisoners return to the same place where their crimes took place and are tempted once again to ignore laws. Wilson Goode, former Mayor of Philadelphia, has worked to break the intergenerational bonds of prison where a son follows father there.

There is another reason that is not discussed or researched much. Why do prisoners go back so frequently? It is the ethical law of freedom and responsibility. When you enter prison, your day is set for you, the structure is in place, and meals are served to you on schedule. You have nothing to lose except a sense of responsibility. That is a high price to pay.

Be careful of people who are on the outside of those prison walls but citizens and politicians in our nation who don’t take responsibility for their actions. That lack of responsibility could cost all of us our freedom because, “Freedom is just another name for nothing else to lose.”

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