The Meaning of Liberty


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The Meaning of Liberty

Liberty is a word we use infrequently these days. Perhaps our sense of individualism in America has rendered this word less relevant at a time when most in our society have a sense of freedom and independence. Closer examination, however, reveals a reality in the lives of many that is far from this ideal. I have been reminded of this through the stories of two individuals who recently visited our campus, sharing experiences that paint a very different picture.

Teri Jendusa Nicolai tells a story of incredible domestic abuse. Her three-year marriage to David Larsen ended in divorce in 2001 following an escalating pattern of control, isolation and battery. Eventually courage overtook fear and she found refuge in a shelter. Even after the divorce he sought to control her life through the logistics of joint custody for their two children. Despite ongoing tension in this broken relationship, she happily remarried and began a new chapter of her life. Her ex-husband, however, was unwilling to release her from bondage. In 2004, he beat her with a baseball bat as she arrived to pick up her children. Binding her with tape, he stuffed her in a garbage can and transported her to a storage facility in a bordering state. There he placed the garbage can in a locker leaving her to die. In the bitter cold she began to freeze in the unheated space as she suffered with serious injuries. She managed to place a muffled call with her cell phone aiding the investigation. She was found about 24 hours later with severe frostbite and hypothermia. All of her toes were amputated and months of recovery followed. David Larsen was convicted of kidnapping and attempted murder and will spend the rest of his life in federal prison.

Teri tells her story as a way of sharing how domestic abuse gradually surfaces and how to detect the early signs. Her advice on how to help those imperiled by this type of bondage was very informative. As I listened, however, I was impressed by her joy, her deepened faith and her hope for the future. I think she rediscovered the meaning of liberty in her life. The freedom from oppression is so sweet that she seeks every opportunity to let her story inspire people to lift themselves and others from bondage and find the liberty she now enjoys.

Haider Hamza was born and raised in Iraq. Now 24 years of age, he tells a story of the oppression of a dictatorship spilling into the oppression of war. His life as a journalist was born of necessity. The U.S.-led invasion of his country in 2003 disrupted normal economic activity. His search for income led to work as a photojournalist serving major news organizations in the United States. He chronicled the early years of the war from the initial invasion to the devastation of societal infrastructure. Through these images, he shared the immense tragedy of war. His own family directly was impacted as his home was attacked. His deep personal loss was muted, however, as he gave a very clinical assessment of the war and all he witnessed. As photo after photo passed on the screen with his careful description, the pain and suffering of the war was overpowering. Iraqis initially viewing U.S. troops as those who would bring them liberty, experienced the inevitable violence of war in their homes and families. U.S. troops seeking to be liberators increasingly were viewed as perpetrators of violence resulting in a sense that the Iraqi people had traded one form of oppression for another.

The remarkable insight Haider offered was that this war, like all others, will end. This will continue the task of rebuilding a country and restoring hope. It was his hope for the future that surprised me the most. An audience member asked him, “At what point did you love Saddam Hussein the most and at what point did you hate him the most?” He responded by saying he loved him and hated him the most on the very same day – the day his own home was attacked. He loved him wishing the stability of life he once knew despite the oppression of a dictator would still be there, and hated him for what he had brought upon his country. Today Haider lives in New York, completing graduate study and continuing work as a journalist. He has known oppression from many sources, but is now finding liberty as the simplest freedoms bring new possibilities for his life, and hopefully for the lives of many others in the years ahead.

The idea of liberty was on the minds of the founders of our nation. The experience of oppression caused them to stand for the belief that all of humanity has certain God-given rights from which we cannot be separated by any individual or form of government – “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” We dare not lose this ideal as a driving force in our personal and national psyche. To do so could cause us to forget the values inherent in our democracy. These ideals most closely associated with Thomas Jefferson are represented in his words:

“Liberty is to the collective body,
what health is to every individual body.
Without health no pleasure can be tasted by man;
without liberty, no happiness can be enjoyed by society.”

So what’s the status of liberty today? Sadly, there are many suffering under oppression in the U.S. and in countries around the world. Occasional news reports are insufficient to remind us that liberty is a challenge not simply for individuals but for societies. The work is both mine and ours. Central College’s campus ministries, along with intercultural life, CAB, FCA and InterVarsity, launched the Free|Five campaign March 27. The purpose of the campaign is to raise awareness about human trafficking and provide students and the community with opportunities to join the global abolitionist movement. Details can be found on the college website.

The International Justice Mission (IJM) is a partner for this campaign and the backbone for this global effort as it works to end slavery, sexual exploitation and violent oppression of people around the world.  According to IJM, these are the facts:

•    The total market value of illicit human trafficking is estimated to be in excess of $32 billion. (U.N.)
•    Each year, more than 2 million children are exploited in the global commercial sex trade. (UNICEF)
•    27 million men, women and children are held as slaves. (Kevin Bales, Disposable People)
•    1 in 5 women is a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime. (U. N. Development Fund for Women)
•    More than 1 million children live in detention, the vast majority awaiting trial for minor offenses. (UNICEF)

Let’s reignite our passion for liberty as Americans and extend hope to those living under oppression. It begins with us.

Photo by lschriekenberg

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9 responses to “The Meaning of Liberty”

  1. Liberty Wickman says:

    When I was in Ethiopia, I spent two weeks working with X-prostitutes. Every single one of the girls in the shelter had no education, no family, no home, and no other means of making money to eat without selling their one possession – their bodies. I like the quote you used “Liberty is to the collective body, what health is to every individual body. Without health no pleasure can be tasted by man; without liberty, no happiness can be enjoyed by society.” Their rights to individual health we stripped by a society stripped from liberty. Americans grow up into a world of opportunity, when will we be able to share our opportunities with those who have none? The girls I worked with were being trained in pottery, hair dressing, and embroidery; if they were young enough, they were sent to school. The smallest of opportunities and funds can go so far and make such a big difference, so why instead is there a multi billion dollar sex trafficking trade in the US? We need to end the corruption and begin living again for the land of liberty that we so long ago fought for.

  2. Retired faculty member says:

    Each of us as a citizen of the U.S. has been promised “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” by those who established our country, and by all those who have defended it since its founding. Still, we see a world where leadership has often denied and continues to deny liberty to many constituents.
    Realistically we know of groups within our own country who are also denied a full share of liberty by economic or political disparity. Certainly one important goal of liberal arts education must be to extend the rights and privileges of liberty and justice to our own communities, nation, and universally to all citizens of the world to the extent that this is possible. “Without liberty no happiness can be enjoyed..” One who has come to see others without liberty cannot stand by idly and expect to celebrate our own gift of liberty.

  3. Carol Davis says:

    Interesting that our forefathers wrote those wonderful words as their slaves served them tea. Today, we all hold liberty dearly, yet even now not everyone shares in it equally. Much has happened between that time and now — our leaders no longer believe we can have a nation of liberty while one man owns another. Then came suffrage, then the civil rights movement. Now we see the gay rights movement much as people of the 1960’s watched the civil rights movement.

    Our society has grown to include more and more people in this circle of liberty over the two hundred year history since those words were so eloquently spoken and written. Hopefully that circle will continue to grow in real terms.

  4. Leah Boyd says:

    Thanks for this post, Mark. In my pursuit of graduate social work at Loyola University Chicago, I have been shocked to learn about and witness the gross violations of individual liberty and human rights that are happening within the borders of the United States, specifically within the detention systems of our nation of “freedom.” Trapped in our immigration detention centers are survivors of human trafficking, legal immigrants and individuals petitioning for asylum because they are escaping horrors in their home country. Within our criminal detention centers, there are survivors of childhood abuse, domestic/community violence and individuals whose medical needs go unmet and whose substance abuse is untreated and ignored.

    I realize criminal justice and immigration are hotly contested topics and there are many lenses with which to view each one. However, I also am convinced that we cannot continue to function with the belief that human rights violations exist solely outside of US territory. To respond to your application of, “It starts with us,” I firmly believe that we need to sit across from our brothers and sisters who have been detained and listen their stories of detention; then we need to act and advocate for more just laws and humane treatment of those who are detained. I strongly believe that if you have not heard a story or seen a human face behind the “statistics” of an issue, you lack any authority to speak about it. We need to learn stories. We need to see the thirst and pursuit of liberty evident in every individual.

    There is an abundance of data I could reference, but I just want to include two recent bits of information, two different lenses, on each issue that are informative and relevant:

    US Immigrant Detention Report from Amnesty International:

    “Very Tough Love” a podcast about drug courts and a perspective of criminal detention from NPR’s “This American Life”:

    Again, thanks for the post. Keep advocating for compassion, justice and change.

    • Carol Davis says:

      Just an FYI, the tough love story depicts a program vastly different than most drug courts. They are generally fantastic programs which spend great time and resources for each individual, understand addiction and work patiently with addicts.

      • Leah Boyd says:

        Absolutely! Which makes the existence of courts like this one even more unfortunate. And, I’m sure Judge Williams has her own story to be listened to :). I am continually reminded of the complexity and difficulty in truly advocating for a “liberty” that reaches all parts of the collective, as Jim talks about below. Thanks for the addendum, Carol!

  5. Jim Weir says:

    “Liberty” As a collective, ala Jefferson is freedom of oppression by Government or Law. You cannot assign such a glorious concept as “liberty” to individuals who because of social and economic conditions lack freedom of choice. The wealthiest of individuals can be excluded from the concept of “liberty” while having the freedom and power delivered by wealth. And the poorest of us can embrace liberty as a principle that allows them to engage in the “pursuit of happiness” without the freedom that can be purchased by a measure of wealth.

    As a Representative Republic, the United States requires political leadership that understands the difference between liberty and freedom. Our leaders need to assure respect the power bestowed on them by the electorate, and to aggressively resist the forces of democracy that our founding fathers and the US Constitution strive worked hard to prevent.

    Democracy, the rule set by the majority, leads to loss of liberty, while instead the rule of law should prevail. The United States politically continues to drift towards allowing less Liberty, through engagement of policies for the “Collective Good” or as the preamble of the Constitution hints “promote the General Welfare”. A Democracy fails when the electorate finds out they can vote themselves the theft of the property, freedom and effort (dare I say, “Liberty?”) of of the productive minority.

    Nothing, in my opinion, will promote the general welfare as efficiently as preserving and fostering the concept of a collective, as we pledge to our flag, “liberty and justice for all”

  6. Thank-you so much for bringing more awareness to this important issue. As the founder and team-leader of the Free|Five project (and Central alum) I was so excited that the campus community wanted to join our efforts. I enjoyed my time with students and am so proud of the ways they have planned and worked for the freedom of others. If anyone would like to know more about the Free|Five Project they can visit our website

    Thanks again for all of your support! We deeply appreciate it.

  7. Andy Thompson says:

    Someone always feels compelled to take a swipe at our Founding Fathers; not coincidentally there’s an explicit (and derogatory) reference to “tea.” Our Founding Fathers weren’t perfect of course, but they produced a Constitution and Bill of Rights and a Declaration of Independence that enshrined timeless principles and demonstrated tremendous insight. Trying to apply 21st century values to 18th century leaders can be dicey; still they had the foresight to provide us the means to amend the Constitution, though they didn’t make it particularly easy.

    The USA remains a beacon to so many individuals and nations around the world with good reason. Liberty is precious, and has been purchased at the cost of many lives lost on multiple battlegrounds around the world. And yet that can’t prevent the demented horrors described by Dr. Putnam. We have hope because of our faith and due to the many examples of good we see in our daily lives. Without hope and faith, life can be rather meaningless.

    Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness–sound like key components to one heck of a mission statement!