Land of the free, home of the brave. The star-spangled banner is supposed to be a symbol of that. But, it’s not really a symbol of freedom for many. It was our flag when our founding fathers created this country and allowed slavery to continue legally. It was our flag when the indigenous people who lived on this land were persecuted, pushed off their land, and murdered. And, it was our flag when women didn’t have the right to vote.
The flag perhaps seems a bit more of a symbol of freedom if you’re white/of European descent, if you’re heterosexual, if you’re cisgender, and if you’re male. And, if you’re Christian. And, certainly if you’re wealthy.
It’s not to say that America’s tagline for freedom is completely false; there’s certainly a reason that people try to immigrate here. While there is certainly no shortage of racism and other forms of bigotry here, the US is still a refuge for many who are persecuted in their country of origin.
But, just like a company that paid a lot of money on a branding campaign but didn’t align their services and products with it, the United States of America falls short when it comes to our own brand attributes. The words became lip service–they’re hollow and they lose their weight. Liberty, justice, freedom…sometimes we get it right. Often we don’t.
A few years ago I was a guest presenter at Pagan Pride Day in Syracuse, New York. I tried to make a pilgrimage to see the Statue of Liberty, but it didn’t quite go as planned. I wrote a longer essay on that particular pilgrimage, but (as often happens) that anthology project seems to have fallen apart. Since today’s the Fourth of July and these thoughts are very much on my mind, I thought I’d share an excerpt from the essay.
What is Liberty?
As an activist for social justice, I am often disheartened, depressed, and heartbroken to numbness by the horrific atrocities that I see around me. I once heard someone say that pessimists are optimists with broken hearts, and that describes me pretty well.
I think about my vision of what America is, or what it was, or what it could be…and then I think about how people treat one another. I suppose it’s just people being people, but that makes it worse in a way. Pagans like to say, “Pagans are tolerant,” or, “Pagans wouldn’t ever hurt someone else,” but that’s not true. Americans like to say “truth and justice for all,” but that’s not true either.
Some nights I read the news about horrible things that have happened and I go down the rabbit hole of my own mind thinking about what America means and trying to connect to that deeper spirit of justice and freedom that underlies the tarnish, the hypocrisy, and the hate.
Music is often how I reach catharsis. When I heard “The Star Spangled Banner” sung in a minor key by Chase Holfelder (embedded below), I felt an electric ripple. The song has a completely different tone when sung in a minor key; it brought tears to my eyes. The music collected the essence of my sorrow, the disparity between what America is said to be, and how it actually is.
That song hit my heart like a knife. I imagined Lady Liberty singing it as a dirge, a lament, for all the injustices done in her name.
Being an optimist with a broken heart is the essence of how I feel about activism and magic and personal work. I believe that all of us can be better people…but if we’re going to be better people, it’s going to take work. Our constitution begins:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Liberty, Justice, and that spirit of America…she is a dream that is not yet manifest. She emerged from a call for justice, a call for liberty…and yet, to create this country, our forefathers committed mass genocide of the indigenous people.
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
–Emma Lazarus “The New Colossus”
These are words that form some of the foundations and ideals of our nation…and yet the poor and the tired still suffer. Women fought for the vote and won, and yet still struggle for equality. Black people fought for the vote and won, and yet still struggle for equality. Across the country hate crimes are committed against LGBTQ people. Pagans are discriminated against, as are other practitioners of minority religions.
America is not a land of freedom and justice. Not if you’re any kind of minority or poor.
As I write this, the #BlackLivesMatter protests continue and an atrocious amount of racism even within the Pagan community has been revealed. The other day I saw a political cartoon by Bill Bramhall that was the image of blinded Justice laying prone on the ground with her scales and her sword fallen beside her, uttering, “I…can’t…breathe.”
Like hearing the Star Spangled Banner in a minor key, this felt like a punch to the gut. I could almost feel Justice, Liberty…that spirit of America…weeping, breathless.Begging. Begging us to be better, begging us to not do this to one another.
Begging us to make the dream real.
America is just a dream. Liberty and Justice are a dream. She’s a symbol of hope of a country that doesn’t exist. At least, not yet. I’m an optimist. I believe–most days–that people can be better. That we can outgrow this someday and learn to be kind to one another. Gene Roddenberry offered a vision of what humanity could become in the Star Trek series. Often the characters–particularly captain Kirk or Picard–will speak about the essence of humanity. They speak to an ideal, to that vision, that hope.
We aren’t there yet, not as Americans, and not as people. But we could be.
“O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!”
–Katharine Lee Bates, America. A Poem for July 4/America the Beautiful
For me, the spirit of America, the spirit of Liberty, the spirit of Justice, is the dream. It’s not a dream I’ll see realized in my lifetime, but I will do my best–with every breath–to sing her song. To bring her that much closer to the threshold. To bring us a few inches closer to justice, to compassion, to liberty.
“A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome.
–Emma Lazarus “The New Colossus”
For me, the spirit of Liberty and Justice is that imprisoned lightning. It is the lightning captive within the silence of our own hearts. Each one of us has the power to change the world for the better, to take up the sword of justice through our words, through our actions. We can draw down that spirit of Liberty, that spirit of Justice, and make her manifest in this world. It will take work, but no matter how jaded I get, I can’t let the hope die that we can live in a just world. That one day this can be the land of the free and the home of the brave. And it will take the brave action and the unleashed lightning of each of us to create a world of Liberty and Justice.
Can you hear her calling?
I see the spirit of America, the spirit of Liberty, the spirit of Justice, of Freedom…I see her as a dream. She’s a hope, a wish, a prayer. She’s a moment in time, she’s that flicker you can glimpse out of the corner of your eye but she disappears when you try to look right at her. You can read about her, read the echoes of her wisdom in constitution, and in the writings of so many other committed patriots over the years.
She’s an ideal that many Americans speak to, but “liberty and justice for all” is not how America operates. Not truly. Not yet.
For me, there is no separation between my vision of the spirit of America and what I see as the core of my spiritual work. For me, spirituality is the Grail Quest. It is the quest of the knight to go out into the world and seek that magical cup, and in so seeking, facing challenges to become something more than they were. To transform into the person that is worthy of drinking from that cup.
And in drinking the sacred waters of the grail the seeker connects to the deeper mysteries—their hearts crack open—so that they become better people who serve their friends, their community and the world around them. There is no point in seeking the Grail just to fill our own cup; the point of the Grail Quest is to bring the cup back out to heal the wasteland and the wounded king. To serve the people. To make the world a better place.
I look into that blue patch on the flag, the star spangled part. And I see the essence of the mystery of the stars reflected in the cup, the sacred well. That little patch of stars gives me hope just as the Star Card in the tarot gives hope after the Tower card.
I will sing to those stars with my last breath to help bring that dream into being.