Once a year, we get to celebrate the birth of America and the freedom that makes our country a beacon for other people and whole countries. The power of the human spirit in its desire for freedom results in many inspiring stories of how freedom is gained. We have our own in the U.S. But in this blog, I’d like to share briefly the stories of two other countries, for these stories exhibit the depth of that desire and the power of its expression.
I am continually awed by the power of freedom, both as a reality and aspiration of peoples and as a force for personal and economic development. Though we tend to think of freedom as a political and societal issue, it is also a business issue. At a macro level, without free markets, we have governments or monopolies dictating economic life. With individual firms and people making market decisions, we have vibrant economies that grow and that fuel higher standards of living. But freedom within companies is equally important – to both the individuals involved and the company itself. I address this at length in my recent book Noble Enterprise – Freedom within Structure is one of the five pillars of a Noble Enterprise.
We often think freedom is won through war, but whether or not war is the vehicle, it starts with a burning desire for freedom, shared with others and expressed. I’d like to share two personal experiences with how freedom has been cherished in two countries that lived under Soviet domination, and how the expression of that love helped bring about freedom. It is these personal experiences and the stories of people’s quest for freedom that remind us how precious and powerful it is. When we live in a country that has long enjoyed freedom, it’s too easy to take it for granted.
“Singing our Way to Freedom”
This spring I had the pleasure of singing with a new choral group in Maine – Vox Nova , a group of 28 singers who perform modern, mostly American music – without accompaniment. Our recent concert also included Mongolian and Estonian songs. With Kate, a member of our chorus, being from Estonia, we took special interest in the music of her country. We opened the concert with Laula Algus (“The Beginning of Song”). The story behind this song is so moving and such an important part of the story of Estonia’s freedom that I’d like to share what Kate’s husband Matthew (also a member of the chorus) wrote for the program notes:
“Veljo Tormis wrote Laula Algus for the centennial anniversary of Estonia’s national song festival in 1969… integrating a melody from a song performed at the first national song festival in 1869. The seemingly innocent nostalgia on display here masks a potent and powerful message: to the government sensors of Soviet-occupied Estonia, lines about freedom and singing “my own song” conformed with the proletarian work ethic reflected in the Russian-language songs about Stalin and Lenin that made up the bulk of the centennial festival. To Estonians, the ability to sing their own songs “in the tongue of this land” represented a different aspiration and a different freedom altogether.
Two decades later, spontaneous “night song festivals” played such a significant part in the movement for political independence that at the most recent song festival in the summer of 2009, the country’s president remarked that the nation had “sung itself free.” A choir of approximately 25,000 singers proceeded to sing this very song.”
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The Power of Candles and Prayers over Totalitarianism
Nine years ago, my wife and I visited our son and daughter-in-law in the former East Germany, where she was teaching for the year. Only a little over ten years before that, the Berlin Wall had fallen and East Germans gained their freedom. Leading up to that moment, a growing number of East Germans bore witness to their desire for freedom. We visited one of the birthplaces of East German freedom – the St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig.
Christian Führer and Christoph Wonneberger—two young pastors in Leipzig, East Germany’s second-largest city—began holding regular Monday evening prayers for peace at the St. Nicholas Church. In the mid- 1980’s, the numbers were small – only about ten people. But they kept coming each Monday night until there was a groundswell – hundreds of people, then thousands of people.
The Stasi, the secret police, had grown wary of these gatherings. After each service, people left the church and gathered outside. They were carrying lit candles, hardly threatening to a totalitarian regime. It took two hands, one to carry the candle and the other to shield it to keep it lit. So nobody could pick up and throw a stone. Yet, the numbers grew to the tens of thousands, witnessing the power of numbers and unity – and a single-mindness of purpose. This movement was credited in part with the fall of the Berlin Wall. In fact, the feared Stasi secret police didn’t know what to do. They “were ready for anything – but candles and prayers!”
In their description of this remarkable story, the Wilson Quarterly concludes with:
“…opposition movements that don’t succeed immediately tend not to garner much lasting interest. But talk to the people who risked everything to show up at St. Nicholas Monday after Monday, never dreaming of a night when there would be no need, and one thing becomes clear: In the places where it mattered—in Warsaw, in Budapest, in East Berlin—change took time. After the wall came down, Rainer Eppelmann (a pastor at an East Berlin church, who also helped the movement to free East Germany) spent 15 years as a member of parliament and now runs the government-funded Foundation for the Study of the SED Dictatorship. Looking back, he says revolutions can’t—and shouldn’t—be rushed. “No chancellor, no U.S. president, no British prime minister, could send in troops to Central Europe and liberate the people. It would have meant war,” he says.
“What happened was a self-liberation. Soft water breaks the hardest stone.”
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As we celebrate and give thanks for our own freedom, let’s take the time to send prayers and affirmations to those who seek freedom in the darkness of totalitarian regimes like Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, and on and on. Let’s also consider that this freedom starts in the soul, then connects with others, and takes many forms of expression – such as the songs of Estonia, and the candles and prayers of East Germany. And that it is patient and persistent.
Let Freedom Ring!