Reflecting On Os Guinness’s “Can Freedom Last Forever?” This Juneteenth

      I’ve been editing my Facebook feed lately, trying to add more positive and uplifting posts as it is easy to become overwhelmed by negativity in a time of injustice. I’ve been trying to remember that sometimes (too many times) I’ve been preaching to the choir and that maybe the choir needs a rest. In preparation, I’ve been reposting this weekend and today about Juneteenth, the day that the Emancipation Proclamation was finally enforced at the western edge of the former Confederate states, where many slaveholders had migrated to escape the Union Army. Juneteenth is basically Black 4th of July and it should be a time of remembrance of how far we’ve come, of celebration. I want it to be that time.
     But this past week a few other things of note happened. Charleena Lyles was shot to death in her home by police. Nabra Hassanen was beaten to death in front of a mosque. The killer of Philando Castile was found not guilty (like most police officers who shoot unarmed Black people). Trans women, particularly trans women of color remain vulnerable and few seem to care. While I want to celebrate a moment of freedom, it feels crass to do so right now without taking time to acknowledge that the remembrance is bittersweet.
     In this moment, I am reminded of the first time I heard “Can Freedom Last Forever?” a lecture by Dr. Os Guiness, a Christian sociologist,  given in 2012. It was 2013. My dad and I were riding home from work together and listening to Let My People Think, a radio broadcast from Ravi Zacharias Ministries, as we often did. I was interested in the topic of this particular program, in light of the then recent events (the death of Trayvon Martin and the upcoming trial of George Zimmerman) and had hoped to hear an address to the recent and yet always recurring injustices and the idea of freedom from a Christian perspective that would bring some light into the divisiveness that had showed its head between Believers. From an accomplished thinker, writer, and speaker and one who I thought should have no personal stake in the traditional American narrative because he is British, I expected a rigorous examination of freedom in America’s history and what that means for today.
     I won’t give an entire summary of the lecture, as you can listen to it here, but… to say that I was severely disappointed would be an understatement. If I am to be honest, I was intellectually infuriated and my heart was deeply grieved.
     The lecture is based on the premise that the Framers both won and ordered freedom, and now the question is how to maintain that freedom, if it is maintainable. According to Guinness, the supposition of many of the Framers was that freedom requires virtue which requires faith of some sort, which itself requires a kind of spiritual freedom. Though there is a single very brief mention of colonization and slavery at the end, these realities are totally excluded from the process of his conclusion. There never seems to be the question of whether or not freedom was ever truly had in the first place. And the following hypothesis is never presented; that perhaps it wasn’t had because for all the colonist’s “faith,” there was little virtue?
     And how can there have been virtue? When one could without compunction and for one’s own profit rape, kill, enslave, destroy families, and twist Christianity to keep those who are being oppressed under one’s own thumb? When one could literally invade others’ homes, kill them, and kidnap them to clear them out and sell their land for a deal? When one forces children to forget their home, their culture, their language at the end of a whip or a ruler? When one purposefully under- and miseducates certain people so that they cannot free themselves to do as well for themselves, their families, and their people? When one can forcibly sterilize and experiment on certain women with no regard for their humanity or their pain for decades and with no restitution thereafter? When one can perpetuate lies for centuries about others, though one’s own faith says to not falsely witness against thy neighbor? When one may not be doing all these things themselves but are standing by silently, both ignoring and profiting from the injustice, trying to erase it and shut up those who protest against it? Is this really the description of a virtuous and self-restrained people?
    These are the things that were done in America and by Americans to maintain success and “freedom” for those deemed to be worthy of being a part of America often with the support of the American government on federal, state, local, and personal levels. And yet, these facts of American history never make it into Guinness’s lecture. My question for Os Guinness is this: If there was no justice and no equality how could anyone truly have become free? If freedom isn’t for everyone, is it really freedom?
     His blatant and I can only assume purposeful choice to ignore the all of the realities of American history in favor of a cherry-picked narrative that supports the rhetoric of American Exceptionalism was frustrating to hear. I could only assume that the choice was purposeful because information on the history of the U.S. that was excluded from his lecture is so freely available and so relevant to the topic that he spoke on, I was mind-boggled that it was not included. Throughout this lecture, it was made clear that even an non-American scholar such as Os Guinness can buy into the white supremacist narrative of freedom in the United States, and I know now that this is often because it supports their own personal and national narrative.
     The actuality is that American colonists traded one system of power and oppression for another with themselves (white male slave-holding landowners) at the top with white women, other European colonists/immigrants, and enslaved Africans and Native Americans under them. That freedom was never really won in the United States and having never been won, is yet to have been ordered is a hard pill to swallow for some, but a familiar tonic for others. A familiar tonic because it leaves space for the possibility of actual freedom in the future. Because of the way this distortion of history grieved my heart, I don’t feel as bad for posting about the latest injustices that continue to rend our hearts with their atrocity. If we forget to remember the whole story, our joyful remembrance loses relevance and more than that, the value of freedom that we are celebrating loses meaning and weight in the world. It’s only when joy is tempered by remembrance and triumph by the reality of a yet-unrealized victory can a true solution to the problem of freedom even come close to being revealed.


Let America Be America Again
Langston Hughes
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where
Liberty Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak…

Published by:

Johana-Marie Williams

Johana-Marie Williams is a writer, artist, and historian focusing on Black women and femme's health and religio-spiritual experiences. Her current projects include the ongoing zine caro and papers on the history of Black midwives in Leon County, Florida and Black women's thought on transhumanism, as expressed in science-fiction and fantasy media. Johana's work also appears under the name Marie Annetoinette, in homage to her mother's influence on her creative and spiritual life.

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