The Abyss of Liberty

We see people and things not as they are, but as we are.

Anthony de Mello

A whisper of fear told me I could not post this picture. Seeing the Statue of Liberty upside down, in a Canadian museum, a creation by an artist born in Montreal, it seemed to be too critical. Unpatriotic even.

The Abyss of Liberty by Michel de Broin

I took a picture anyway and made sure to also document the description.

It read:

The Abyss of Liberty

2013

Bronze, 2/3

Anonymous gift, inv. 2017.403

Drawing on the famous Auguste Bartholdi statue unveiled in New York in the nineteenth century, Michel de Broin questions the notion of liberty by placing the iconic figure in a precarious position. He shows it upside down, balancing on its flame. By reducing the figure to a human scale, the artist strips it of its awe-inspiring nature, creating a closeness between the viewer and the object. With its hollow interior made visible, this bronze cast conjures up a kind of abyss in which the idealization of liberty falters.

The power of the image lies in its evocative simplicity – a metaphor for the political climate in the United States following the events of September 11th, 2001. In the wake of a feeling of insecurity and collective panic, The Abyss of Liberty alludes to attacks on freedom and democracy.

After reading this, I took a few moments to take a step back and pay attention to my feelings. I remember going back to this picture trying to understand why it moved me.

Why was I so defensive?

What was it about this criticism that made me feel like I needed to justify myself as an American?

Many of my initial feelings reflected an immature, idealistic, and incomplete view of what it means to be a citizen – something I learned a lot more about last year when I began attending events sponsored by the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project. Their motto:

Truth first.

Following this, on their website, is a quote from Bryan Stevenson, Founder and Executive Director, Equal Justice Initiative:

“We cannot heal the deep wounds inflicted during the era of racial terrorism until we tell the truth about it.”

Addressing injustices with this way of proceeding is a succinct and transformational prescription shared by many historians and activists – tell the truth first.

My faith reminds me of this, as stated in Matthew 7:1-5

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.

If I cannot learn and tell myself the truth, pain and destruction will spread because of hypocrisy. The truth calls me to to let go of the false narratives, embrace love, and strive for justice.

The 1903 bronze plaque located in the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.  An exact replica of this plaque is now located in the Statue of Liberty Museum. NPS

The words above are what the Statue of Liberty is supposed to symbolize. So the truth is, turning it upside down is appropriate when we are being hypocritical and embracing nationalism, racism, and white supremacy.

This is both a personal challenge and a collective invitation to a vision unlocked by the truth. Let us steel ourselves and look into the abyss of liberty with clear and critical eyes – we might only see the shadow of what we could have been, but let us see the suffering, cherish the love, and learn from both.

One thought on “The Abyss of Liberty

  1. Great post, “tell the truth first”. Loved the picture too, I read the post and then scrolled back up and saw the upright Liberty in the shadow that I missed the first time, Liberty is still there! I didn’t know you were writing this, lots of reading for me to catch up on! Take care…

    Liked by 1 person

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