Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had grown up, and went according to his custom into the synagogue on the Sabbath day. He stood up to read and was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.”
Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him. He said to them, “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” — Luke 4:16-21 (NAB)
I must confess that I have no stomach for the flaxen-haired, doe-eyed Jesus portrayed in most cinematic adaptations of the Gospels who seems to pout and sulk his way across ancient Israel stopping sporadically to look longingly off into the heavens. I am a fan of confrontational Jesus. I am a fan of the Jesus who raises his voice, who draws lines in the sand, who touches people who are supposed to be untouchable, who keeps the wrong sort of company, who breaks with traditions that seek to circumscribe God’s love, who gets himself chased out of town and nearly thrown off a cliff for the brazen suggestion that God might not favor one nation over any other (the summation of the above passage from Luke’s Gospel), who gave his life for the liberation of all. I like that Jesus. In fact, I love that Jesus. A lot.
Liberty is at the heart of the Christian message and those of us who claim this Jesus as our beloved must participate in his proclamation of comfort, emancipation, healing, and freedom for all those in bondage. Liberty is also at the heart of what it means to be an American. It should come as no surprise to us that there have been countless Americans of faith who have worked tirelessly on her soil for liberation. Women and men of Christian faith (and, it should be noted, a myriad of their sisters and brothers of other faiths) have battled against the abject evil of the Atlantic slave trade, the horrors of child labor practices during the Industrial Revolution, the denial of voting rights to women and people of color, the racism that undergirded Jim Crow laws and segregation, the crippling affect of poverty and homelessness on both urban and rural America, the systematic dehumanization of immigrants, and the epidemic of human trafficking that now plagues our nation.
Christians such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. have inspired generations of Americans by their dedication to proclaiming liberty to the captives and freedom to the oppressed. There are many more who have lived Jesus’ proclamation. They are lay people and religious sisters and brothers and clergy — perfectly ordinary folks you will never read about in any history book — who have dedicated their lives to making our nation a beacon of justice and liberty for all. We are called to be such people. We are called to echo Jesus’ proclamation in our families, our places of work, our communities, our places of worship, and in our world.
This summer our bishops have called us to participate in a “Fortnight for Freedom.” Many fear that our liberty to express our religious beliefs has been threatened by the HHS mandate and we have been called to pray and talk and work and demonstrate to show our resistance to said measures. But, with all due respect and reverence, what if in addition to this call to action we also focus our concern on those who are at this very moment living in bondage and crying out for justice and deliverance — the poor, the homeless, the trafficked children. What would happen if we humbled ourselves to be bearers of Jesus’ proclamation of liberty to them? What would happen if we dedicated the same amount of money it took to make bulletin inserts and stickers and signs and television ads and billboards to those whose liberty is truly in jeopardy? How many people could we feed? How many safe houses could we build? What sort of glad tidings could we bring to the poor, the vulnerable, the oppressed?
As we celebrate our liberty as American citizens this Fourth of July and as we discern our bishops’ call to action during the Fortnight for Freedom, let us be sure to also remember those living in our midst — in our country, in our communities, in our neighborhoods — who are in bondage. If we do not, then, in the words of Frederick Douglass, our “shouts of liberty” will be but “hollow mockery,” and our “prayers, sermons, and thanksgivings mere religious parade.”