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Reflection- Until we are all free, we are none of us free

Until we are all free, we are none of us free.’- Emma Lazarus

The poetry of Emma Lazarus was immortalised on a bronze plaque on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in 1903. In her sonnet, The New Colossus, Lazarus inspired a generation with her well-known call:

Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free‘. 

 For Lazarus, the invitation for those others seeking freedom was not simply a romance of patriotism but rather the heart of freedom for all. Or, as she famously phrased it, ‘Until we are all free, we are none of us free’. Drawing from the Hebrew bible and her Jewish ancestry, Lazarus would express this sentiment again and again throughout her literary works and through her activism, reflecting the story of God’s liberation for the Jewish people as profoundly and always communal.  Decades later, the Christian Minister and theologian, Martin Luther King, would echo the words of Lazarus, declaring ‘no one is free until we are all free’. Like Lazarus, King expressed this through the stories of liberation found in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament’s teaching. We are called to be free. A global village. God’s created order. We are called as one into the new creation.

An almost insatiable demand for individual freedoms has entered Australian discourse in recent years. It’s a kind of populism that many of us would have denoted as American – not the kind of thing Australians become obsessed with! And yet public rhetoric has shown us otherwise. Strong libertarian notions of freedom have surfaced, with much of the speech showing little or no concern for one’s neighbor.

One on hand, Christianity, especially in recent centuries, offers an emphatic call for an individual’s freedom. Few would deny the personal nature of the relationship with God nor the call to discipleship. However, discipleship, worship, and relationship with God have always been understood within the community context. Faithfulness to God means faithfulness to one’s neighbor. These are the greatest commandments. As Paul expresses it (Galatians 5:13-14), the call to freedom is clear. To live in freedom, to live in the Spirit, is to be guided by an insatiable demand for neighborly care. This freedom requires negotiating our world and oppressions with far greater creativity, persistence, and faith than your average self-centered demand for freedom. This freedom pretends we owe each other nothing. Freedom in the Spirit steps out in hope, knowing that whatever we do for our neighbor’s liberation will be met by God and that these works will be seeds sewn for a future, not our own.

Or, as Emma Lazarus suggests, ‘The little and the great are joined in one By God’s great force’.


Janice Mcrandal is Director – The Cooperative, Wesley House. 

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