It was the last word of William Wallace, at least in the Hollywood history that I know. Now, be honest. When you heard Mel Gibson’s voice ring out that word in Brave Heart, did you not feel the thrill of victory even in the sadness of temporal defeat? Did you not recognize that something much bigger than our petty interests was being captured and demonstrated there, before our eyes and ears? Despite all appearances, Wallace died a free man.
This is not freedom for a class or group of people, as so many today measure freedom. It’s the freedom of an individual soul. That’s the basis of the United States of America, making the United States still the last, best hope — as far as nations go, anyway — for Freedom in the world. Again, not freedom for classes or groups of people, which exist only in the theories and calculations of those who do the grouping. This is freedom for real people, as they exist in real life; freedom for individuals.
What the founding fathers of the United States understood from their own upbringing and experience was that freedom is a gift from God. The opposite, bondage, is the work of Satan. Confessional Lutherans are in a particularly good position to understand this, because we still acknowledge the biblical doctrine of Original Sin. Without that, our understanding of freedom would be inaccurate.
The Fall of man brought the utter loss of freedom. Through the Fall, Satan was placing humanity into bondage to sin and to death. Where before the Fall, people could freely live in perfect harmony with one another, gladly assuming their proper place in the order of Creation, these things were lost when our first parents succumbed to the temptation of Satan. The spiritual effect of this upon us all is described in the Augsburg Confession, article II, as both an inherited sinful condition and concupiscence, with a somewhat archaic meaning of desire or lust for sin:
Also they teach that since the fall of Adam all men begotten in the natural way are born with sin, that is, without the fear of God, without trust in God, and with concupiscence; and that this disease, or vice of origin, is truly sin, even now condemning and bringing eternal death upon those not born again through Baptism and the Holy Ghost.
Spiritually speaking, this loss of freedom means that mankind requires a savior, if freedom will be restored, and this savior must be greater than a mere child of Adam and Eve. Without that savior, the new human condition of sin and death would bind humanity under the yoke of Satan forever. The point of the Bible is that God did provide such a Savior. When Adam and Eve, and any of their children, believed the promise first mentioned in Genesis 3:15, God counted them as righteous (Romans 3:22-26), and deserving of eternal life.
There is also a temporal side to our loss of freedom, illustrated graphically in Genesis chapter 4. When humanity became sinful, it forfeited the right to live before God. But implicit in the promise of a savior, God effectively stayed the execution of sinners for a time, so that they would have opportunity to learn and believe the promise, and thus be saved through faith. (This became explicit in Genesis 6:3.) Yet sin still encroaches upon our God-given freedom, including the freedom to live. That’s what happened when Cain killed his brother.
Other freedoms that God has granted us despite the Fall include the freedom to work and enjoy the results of our work, and the freedom to marry and raise children. Genesis chapters 4–6 show examples of this freedom put to both good and evil uses, which God tolerated for a time.
Fast forward to Mount Sinai. In the intervening years, many people believed God’s promise, and were counted as righteous in His sight. They received this faith through the teaching of their fathers, and some through direct communication with God. But on Mt. Sinai, we see something new. There God was forging a special relationship with one nation, one very large family of people — descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. That relationship was based upon a written word, the Torah or “Law” that Moses wrote down in obedience to God. On Mt. Sinai, we learn that God gave ten special words, or commandments, recording them on tablets of stone. These words summarized morality in God’s sight.
The Ten Commandments accomplish many things, and one of them is the preservation of freedom. Though they are counted in a variety of ways, they are not hard to understand. They constitute the first chief part of Luther’s Small Catechism.
The first three commandments, as ordered there, are called the first table of the Law, summarized by Jesus in Matthew 22:37-38, quoting Deuteronomy 6:5. Those commandments demand what humanity lacks by nature since the Fall: a right relationship with God. In terms of freedom, they also describe what God has provided as a gift through faith in the promised savior, i.e., believers are free to love God above all things, though our concupiscence remains as a constant temptation.
The remaining commandments are called the second table of the Law, summarized by Jesus in Matthew 22:39 (a summary also found in Leviticus 19:18). These commandments demand the earthly result of a right relationship with God: perfect love for our fellow human beings. In terms of freedom, they describe how God protects for us the basic freedoms He has extended to every descendant of Adam and Eve, i.e., the freedom to live, the freedom to marry and raise children, the freedom to work with one’s resources and enjoy the benefit of that work, the freedom from false accusations, and the freedom to keep a household together in peace. These freedoms are protected through curbs set upon human behavior, in the form of the commandments.
What the founding fathers of the United States understood was that these freedoms are granted by God directly to every individual. God does not guarantee that someone else will not transgress them, as Cain did, and as the murderers of William Wallace did, and as every tyrant or tyrannical government does. Yet despite those transgressions, the founding fathers recognized that God’s gift of freedom remains. You can’t take away what the Lord has given. That’s the point in the Declaration of Independence. It’s also the basic assumption of the Constitution later encoded in the Bill of Rights.
There have always been some who wish to take away the individual freedom granted by God. The previously-mentioned tyrants are some of them. They do this through legal means, though even legal tyranny is still an injustice. In the United States, where the government answers to the people, it is possible for the people to become tyrants by taking away the God-given freedom of their own neighbors. Of course, tyrants wouldn’t call themselves tyrants, which was Orwell’s point in using names like “The Ministry of Love.” In real life, they would use more positive-sounding labels for themselves, like “Progressives.” Or “Compassionate Conservatives.” But forcibly taking one man’s income or property (“taxation” if you must), even to help someone else, is still contrary to God’s gift of individual freedom. By contrast, using one’s own property to help one’s neighbors is pleasing in God’s sight, and a blessing to all.
William Wallace and Rob Roy were big-screen defenders of freedom. So was General Maximus Decimus Meridius. So was Robin of Loxley. It seems that a lot of people find satisfaction and enjoyment in the successful defense of freedom. It’s big money for Hollywood. Now, if only more people would realize how important that defense of freedom is in real life.
The Bible has a lot more to say about freedom and liberty, beginning with spiritual freedom from sin and death through Christ. That is the sense in which Paul wrote Galatians 5:1, yet Paul’s words there are archetypal for temporal freedoms too. Citizens of the United States and heirs of Washington, Hamilton, Madison, Lincoln, and the rest can well apply them in both ways.
Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.
Cling to Christ alone for eternal life.
Defend temporal freedom for the good of your neighbor. See, there’s a lot more to it than “clinging to guns or religion.” It’s a matter of God-given freedom.