America, God, and True Freedom

4th of july independence day reflection

Freedom is not free.

I saw these words on a wall at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. this past fall. I was there on a trip with 15 of my high school students while we attended the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice. I watched my students take in the larger-than-life statues of real veterans who lost their lives in the Korean War. I watched them wander the memorial and take in the scene, nodding solemnly at the words: Freedom is not free.

Celebrating Freedom

Today, in the United States of America, we celebrate Independence Day (more commonly known as the Fourth of July). On this day in 1776, our nation’s founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence, marking the U.S.A. as a country founded on freedom. Particularly, it is founded on the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

So often I take for granted many of the freedoms I have. As a woman in this country, my right to vote was earned for me. As a daughter, my parents worked to provide my sisters and me with a good childhood and an education at schools we chose freely. As a citizen, I am grateful for those members of society (including both my grandfathers and brother-in-law) who have fought in wars to defend our country. Especially today, as freedom of religion and so many others are dissected and diagnosed by politicians, it’s important to remember the human, dignified lives who are behind these freedoms. These freedoms weren’t always there.

Sacrifice and Freedom

As Catholics, we know about freedom. We also know about sacrifice. I don’t think we can consider either one without the other.

Our God sent His only Son, Jesus, to sacrifice Himself for our lives. Though it might not seem like it from the outside, that’s true freedom. God sent Jesus to do His will, but Jesus always had the freedom to refuse. In His last hours, He asked God the Father to take the cup from Him. He did not want to die on the Cross, but knew it was His Father’s will. So He chose to accept it freely, even though it meant the greatest sacrifice from Him.

What Free Will Really Means

Our God also gave each of us a free will. This means we can make our own choices. With well-formed consciences and the guidance of the Spirit and Magisterium, we can choose to do what is right. Our secular world frequently misunderstands freedom and thinks that it means doing whatever you want, when you want, and how you want.

Explaining free will to my students, I gave them an analogy. Imagine you have a crush on someone, I said (something that’s not hard for a teenager to imagine). Imagine that you also have powers to force this person to like you back. In this way, you get what you want. But is that love? Are you happy? Has this person chosen you freely? So, too, God does not force us to love Him and choose Him. We are free to either accept or reject His invitation to love Him. Some days, or even hours, we accept and others we reject. But God always gives His children the freedom to choose.

Examples of True Freedom

We have the perfect examples of this kind of rightly-ordered freedom in Jesus and Mary. We also have the examples of the holy men and women who have been recognized by the Church as Saints to show us how to choose to love God even (and especially when) it requires great love and sacrifice.

During his visit to the United States in October 1995, St. John Paul II (then Pope) said Mass in Baltimore, which is the birthplace of Catholicism in America. In his Homily to those gathered at Oriole Park, the Pope said:

America has always wanted to be a land of the free. Today, the challenge facing America is to find freedom’s fulfillment in the truth: the truth that is intrinsic to human life created in God’s image and likeness, the truth that is written on the human heart, the truth that can be known by reason and can therefore form the basis of a profound and universal dialogue among people about the direction they must give to their lives and their activities. […] Every generation of Americans needs to know that freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought. […] We must guard the truth that is the condition of authentic freedom, the truth that allows freedom to be fulfilled in goodness.

Praying for True Freedom in the Hearts of All

Regardless of who governs our country, or which political party is in power at the time, we remember that Jesus is King of Heaven and Earth. And we can choose to let Him be King of our hearts by loving Him and serving Him in our lives each day.

May God bless the United States and everyone in it—men, women, old, young, migrant, refugee, disabled, sick, rich, poor—and all those who have fought for freedoms here. If you’re celebrating today, thank God for the many gifts He has given to you and prayerfully reflect on the ways you can defend freedom of all kinds in this country.

Happy and blessed Independence Day to our sisters in the U.S.!

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Mary Grace Mangano is a high school English teacher in Harlem, New York, having also taught middle school Language Arts and Religion in Chicago. She has written for Verily, Darling magazine, The Catholic Woman, and other publications. She is passionate about education and social justice, loves writing poetry, running, reading, hiking, and learning new things. You can find out more about her here.

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