Today being Independence Day in the United States caused me to regard something I came across online in a very melancholy and sympathetic way. In America, we occasionally have to deal with folks who are hostile or downright pathological in their hatred and mistrust of Freemasonry. But it's rarely more than an odd rant or insult online here and there. Oh sure, there are the Jack Chicks out there, and we may even have a relative or two who tries to talk us out of our membership for the "sake of our soul." And there are certainly endless cranks who claim to know the "real secrets" of Masonry that real-life, actual Masons have never heard of despite our own decades of membership and vast piles of amassed degrees. But for the most part, such anti-Masonic swipes are pretty benign in this country.
Would that were so elsewhere.
Which brings me to the photo I saw online today. It showed several lodge officers in a country outside of the U.S. lined up posing for the camera after being installed in their lodge offices, and they are in the company of a grand lodge officer. Here in America, we have all seen dozens, if not hundreds, of such photos on websites and Facebook.
But several Masons in the back row of their lineup held their white-gloved hands up in front of their faces. They blocked their identities from the camera because they would undoubtedly face problems if their co-workers, neighbors, or just the general public in their communities or country discovered their Masonic membership. While most of the men in the picture didn't cover their's, I'm not posting the whole photo here because it might still cause them problems if it became more widely circulated.
Very early in my Masonic life, I visited brethren in another country, and eagerly posted their names and faces after a dinner out with them socially, innocently identifying them as members on my little-seen personal web page, and thanking them for the wonderful dinner. The next day, they contacted me and asked me to quickly remove their names and images, because they knew they might be spotted by non-members who would damage their careers or otherwise make a spectacle of exposing them. One brother in particular wrote to me several years later and told me he had been passed over for a major promotion because a co-worker had seen that photo I had removed almost immediately years before. The damage had been done by my stupid and excited blunder just from that short-lived reference to him. I learned a very humiliating lesson, and since that time, I have been told far worse stories than just the loss of a promotion.
We point proudly and openly to our Masonic membership here, but elsewhere, Masonic activity can often make headlines or the front covers of national magazines - and not in a good way. Conspiracy theories are mainstream ideas in some places, and Masonic secrecy is often a trait practiced out of self-preservation.
Many years ago, I was attending a
gathering of a club for young men who were members of the fraternity. Almost
everyone in the room was under thirty-five, with the exception of myself and
the father of one of the others. The older man came over to me and we began
to chat. He was in his late sixties or early seventies, and spoke with a very
thick accent. The gentleman had been an émigré from Transylvania in Romania,
and he had come to America in 1965.
Romania in those
days was a puppet state of the Soviet Union. Their king had been forced to abdicate
by the Soviets in 1948, and the country had been bled dry economically to pay
for Stalin’s post-war debts. Worse, between 1948 and the mid-1960s, almost two
million Romanians had been arbitrarily thrown into prison for political,
economic or other “unspecified” reasons. The Communists had the blood of at
least 200,000 Romanian corpses on their hands, along with hundreds of thousands
of incidents of torture and abuse of Romanian citizens. It was against this
backdrop that this gentleman had secretly fled from his homeland as a young
man, and come to the United States.
Then he told me a
curious thing. He had first read about Freemasons in Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and like Tolstoy’s
Pierre, he wanted very much to become a Mason himself. But Freemasonry was outlawed at
that time in Romania, just as it had been outlawed all across the Soviet bloc.
Just as it had been outlawed in Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Franco's Spain, Khomeini’s
Iran, Hussein’s Iraq, and Russia under the last of the Czars and the Soviets alike. The list could go on.
When he came to America, he said, the first thing he
did was to petition a Masonic lodge. Because it was a symbol of freedom to him.
Because Freemasonry can only flourish in a free country.
The issues of liberty and equality are intertwined
with the fraternity of Freemasonry as much today as they were in 1776. Men
living under brutal regimes have been persecuted, imprisoned and even executed for the
“crime” of their Masonic membership. Yet, Freemasonry survives and grows wherever men
are free. One need only look as far as the former Soviet republics where
Communism died to see the steady rebirth of their Masonic lodges. Even in Romania.
And yet. In many countries around the globe that we regard as free and open societies today, anti-Masonic conspiracies can often lurk within national psyches. Centuries-old libels and suspicions against Masons are often repeated by the press, politicians, and just rank and file pub crawlers - many times commonly paired with anti-Jewish conspiracy theories. Masons all over the world fight every day just for the simple privilege and ability to tie on a Masonic apron and attend a Masonic meeting - a privilege that so many of the rest of us just take for granted. I think we sometimes forget that here in America.
So, enjoy your 4th of July picnics and fireworks today. But if you have a quiet moment of reflection before you turn in for the night, give a thought and send up a prayer for those anonymous Masons I saw today covering their faces, and for a time when they will finally be able to declare their membership openly by wearing a ring, or posing for a Facebook photo.
"To all poor and distressed Masons, wherever dispersed over the face of Earth and Water, wishing them a speedy relief from all their sufferings, and a safe return to their native country, should they so desire it."