There have been several responses to the DC40 Prayer Initiative,(1) a spiritual assault intended to assert their "authority to take dominion [and] speak His will on Earth" in accordance with "the Biblical mandate to dominate the culture and transform all aspects of society."(2) One of the more popular has been rituals to Columbia (3) in Her role as protector of liberty and religious freedom.(4) As is not uncommon in the Pagan community, this has resulted in some controversy. Many have noted that Columbia's namesake didn't exactly bring liberty and religious freedom to the natives of the "New World." As one Wild Hunt commenter put it:
I am bothered by the invocation of America as being "founded" on freedom, without acknowledgment that America was also founded on genocide of indigenous peoples and the enslavement of Africans (to say nothing of ongoing exploitation and atrocities against these groups and the earth herself). Now, I am quite sure that no one in the Columbia project supports genocide or oppression! But it's hard for me to get on board with views of the US or the Founding Fathers, or pieces like the songs to Columbia, as simply being these shining beacons of freedom, without acknowledgement of the complicated history and present of the US. How does the Columbia movement acknowledge and incorporate the realities of colonialism into its views of the US? How can the symbol of a country that has meant oppression for many (as well as freedom to many, and often both at once) be reclaimed in a way that respects all these experiences?(5)
Even the most popular image of Columbia, the statue which stands atop the Capitol Dome, embodies many American contradictions.(6) The original design for "Lady Freedom" wore a Phrygian cap, otherwise known as a "liberty cap." By orders of then Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, this was changed to a helmet to symbolize "victory over tyranny." Davis, a Mississippi plantation owner (and future president of the Confederacy) objected to the use of what was at the time a popular symbol within the Abolitionist movement.
Later Lincoln would point to Lady Freedom as a symbol of the reunification of the United States. We should not gloss over the various sins of the Confederacy, or of the various historical and contemporary dictators overthrown through overt or covert American intervention. But the inconvenient fact remains that the majority of Confederate citizens favored secession and were brought back into the American fold only after a brutal war. Whatever Lincoln's intentions, he started a trend which continues to this day. The violent and bloody suppression of a popular movement against the wishes of the people was presented as a victory for "Freedom."
Acknowledging these problems, Literata Hurley writes on the "Hail Columbia" site:
This project invites Pagans to participate as citizens in helping the country progress towards greater freedom for all people, and especially the religious liberty that Pagans are working so hard to gain and defend. We go forward with our eyes open to the problems of our past, including those embodied in Columbia, and we take her as a symbol of how we are unwilling to return to that past; we work instead to create a better future for our country and ourselves.
Columbia represents the goal to which we are dedicated; she encourages us to protect what has been won and beckons us onward to expand freedoms, including religious liberty in a peaceful and pluralistic society. As we take steps in that journey, let us demonstrate that all acts of truth and justice are her rituals.(7)
I recognize Literata's goals and honor her good intentions. But I wonder if we might not be well-served to honor Lady Freedom by taking a closer look at the meaning(s) of "Freedom." Martin Heidegger has spoken of the ways in which words can "conceal being," how they can become empty symbols which lead us away from the truth rather than towards it. "Freedom" has certainly suffered this fate: politicians and pundits recite it like a Sacred Name and present it as a justification for everything from waterboarding to depriving health insurance to the poor. But what is "Freedom?"(8)
For much of American history "Freedom" has been defined as the right to possessions. Freedom meant the right to till the verdant, unspoiled plains and claim them as farmland. Freedom meant the right to grow wealthy through hard work and inventive thinking. Freedom meant the right to have one's material needs met, to be as prosperous as your neighbors and more prosperous than those people living on the other side of the tracks. And since we identified freedom with things, it only stood to reason that sooner or later we'd identify it with stock markets and corporations.
French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre wrote "L'homme est condamné à être libre." (Man is condemned to be free). (9) For Sartre freedom is not something which can be given or taken by governments: it is the human condition. We are forced to choose, to decide, to create ourselves by our actions and our inactions. The only meaning to be found in this vale of suffering and joy is that which we create: as Batman says in Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, "The world only makes sense when you force it to." But yet Sartre also realizes that the very thing which most limits us - our fellow human beings and the society in which we live - also serves to define us. It may be true that "L'enfer, c'est les autres" (Hell is other people). But "Pour se connaître soi-même, on a besoin des autres" (to know oneself, one needs other people).
We are a work in progress, constantly involved in the act of creation and self-creation. Inevitably we will make mistakes. Sartre fought passionately for the liberation of the disempowered, yet in his efforts to overthrow their oppressors he became an apologist for Stalinism. (10) We will argue, we will disagree, we will seek easy answers and find only difficult questions. And in the end we will leave a new generation to build on our triumphs and rectify our errors.
If we are going to honor Columbia as the protector of Freedom, let us honor Her à la mode du Sartre rather than à la mode du Milton Friedman. Let us recognize that she means something more than a chicken in every pot and a flat screen TV in every heavily mortgaged home. Let us understand that She, like all Gods, is an inescapable part of our being. We cannot trade Her away for safety or comfort, nor can we escape the terrible responsibility which She lays on us. We use our freedom when we stand up against oppression, and we use our freedom when we acquiesce to it.
kenazfilan @ gmail.com | 917 267 7469
kenazfilan.blogspot.com | www.kenazfilan.com
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