Montezuma, GA, the little town where I once lived and worked, is only a few miles from Andersonville, site of the dreadful Confederate prison-camp where Union soldiers were kept in horrific conditions. The air is thick with the ghosts of suffering and hostility, but the once-scarred and wounded earth has recovered, and the land is beautiful once again. Andersonville is now the national Prisoner of War Memorial, and American veterans who were held captive may be buried there. I was honored, on several occasions, to commit their bodies to the ground and their spirits to the care of God. The local funeral director would call and ask me to meet him and a flag-draped casket and a family member or two in the cemetery and say whatever I could to help them. I often wondered about the soldiers I buried. What had it been like for them to be behind bars or barbed wire in a foreign land, cut-off from family and friends and unsure that they would ever set foot again on their native soil? How had they summoned the courage to endure and the strength to survive? I would also be struck by the paradox of their imprisonment in the name of freedom. They were locked up in pursuit of liberty.
Most of the time, we think freedom has to do with the ability to call our own shots: the right to say what we want to say and do what we want to do. Sooner or later, though, life takes us into experiences which strip from us our illusion of complete independence and unmask our charade of absolute autonomy. We lose control. The conditions of life prove stronger than our ability to resist them. Illness incarcerates us. Grief locks us up. Tragedy traps us. Crisis confines us. We feel chained and caged.
What does freedom mean then? Victor Frankl wrote, out of his experience in a Nazi prison camp,: “Everything can be taken from a [person] but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way” (Man’s Search for Meaning, p. 104). Freedom rests, finally, not on the conditions and circumstances of our lives, but on how we respond to those conditions and circumstances. And, our responses are shaped by the god we serve. If we serve the God who raised Jesus from the dead, then we will draw on hope that can be born in the most desperate circumstances, love than can rise from the ruins, and joy that can flourish amid the withering conditions of sadness.