And what is liberty? Can it be limited, or is true liberty only unlimited liberty?
—Rousas J. Rushdoony, Law and Liberty (1977)
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord/But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.
—Bob Dylan, Gotta Serve Somebody (1979)
Liberty Is . . .
The word liberty carries powerful connotations, but in common usage it often lacks definition. It can be tied to personal initiative and responsibility or, just as easily, to licentiousness and perversion.
One dictionary defines liberty as “the power to do as one pleases.” The Oxford Dictionary speaks of freedom from “oppressive restrictions imposed by authority.” Another dictionary provides a longer list of possibilities: freedom from “control, interference, obligation, restriction, hampering conditions, etc.”
The unreality here should be apparent. No one has the power to do all that he pleases. No one, by an act of his own will, can ascend into the heavens, turn stones into bread, or live forever. No one but God.
No one is free from control or interference at all time or on all levels. Rush hour traffic testifies to this. So does cancer. Traffic and disease don’t ask our permission before they interfere with our intentions or our manner of life. And no one is free from all obligation. Those who talk this way are normally denounced as criminals or psychopaths. Their freedom of movement and action often becomes severely curtailed. They end up in prison or in a psycho-ward.
What about freedom from “oppressive restrictions”? The problem with this phrase is that it begs the question—what exactly is oppressive? The pornographer finds censorship laws oppressive. Swingers find laws protecting marriage oppressive. The Marxist finds any laws oppressive that defend private property rights.
Oppression, like liberty, is a moral concept and can only be defined in terms of religious presuppositions. If there is no absolute by which we may define oppression, then there is no such thing as oppression. If there is no absolute law to define liberty, then liberty is an illusion.
The Foundations of Liberty
The history of western philosophy shows us that defending the idea of liberty is as difficult as defining it, and for the same reason. Why should we value liberty, either our own or that of others? Why should society permit it? I may insist on my own liberty for purely selfish and hedonistic reasons, but that insistence strikes no universal chord, establishes no cosmic value or law. If we are going to be serious, the discussion of liberty must at some point turn into a discussion of metaphysics, of what is real and the nature of that reality.
Materialism and pantheism are both monistic in that they posit only one sort of reality. Whether reality is physical or spiritual, it is metaphysically limited. Logically, there can be no question of right or wrong, good or bad. There is nothing outside of or beyond the universe which can serve as a moral standard. We may recognize personal preference within the fleeting moment or pragmatic decisions based on private or social considerations, but we can find no absolutes anywhere. What is, is. And what is, is “right.”
Christianity, however, recognizes two sorts of reality—the transcendent and uncreated Being of God and the finite created being that is the universe. Scripture tells us that, “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). That is, there was the Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and this God, without any sort of help or interference, spoke the universe into being. God then created, and now upholds and owns the universe. His ethical nature is creation’s final and absolute ethical standard. God has put this standard into words, propositions, and commands which clearly communicate His law to us and the proper nature of our liberty within that law.
Law and Liberty
God’s law is rooted in God’s triune nature. The Father reveals Himself perfectly, honestly, and exhaustively in His Son. The Son perfectly images and honors His Father, bearing a true and faithful witness to Him. They “breathe forth” the Holy Spirit to one another, so that the Spirit is the personal, divine bond of love and life between the two. There is, then, perfect openness, faithfulness, and communion among the Persons of the Trinity. Their relationship provides our basis for life, love, and fellowship.
Because man is wholly God’s creature and image, his peace, well-being, and liberty lie in imitating his Creator, that is, in obeying His Creator’s laws. God’s law describes the nature of man and the ethical standards that allow for his greatest fulfillment, contentment, and happiness. In other words…it’s really best for humanity, both for time and eternity, that we love and serve God; that we respect our neighbor’s life, marriage, property, and reputation; and that we be humble, faithful, honest, gracious, loving, and kind.
You Gotta Serve Somebody
The “natural man,” the man outside of Christ, can’t see or accept this. Honesty is costly, marriage is confining, property distribution is unfair, and humility is for suckers. The natural man may speak a great deal about love and liberty and justice, but the words, rich in connotation because of their biblical roots, remain empty claims or vaguely defined goals. The Marxist aims at social justice through universal theft. The pornographer “talks” of liberty while corrupting everyone his words or images touch. The pedophile speaks of love, but he wreaks havoc and destruction in innocent lives. The drug dealer promises happiness, but his customers live lives of addiction, dissipation, and mental and moral deterioration.
Every rebel against God’s law relishes his freedom from God and God’s supposedly harsh standards, but every such rebel is, in fact, in bondage to his own corruption. Jesus said, “Whoever commits sin is the slave of sin” (John 8:34). And Paul writes, “Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey”? (Rom. 6:16). The natural man would like to pretend that his choice lies between personal autonomy and happiness, or slavish subjugation to the oppressive demands of a mythical God. Scripture says that service to God is freedom and joy; rebellion against God is slavery to corruption, madness, and death. And we really do have to serve somebody.
At this season of the year in these United States, we hear a great deal about liberty. In our shallowness and delusion we too easily believe that all liberty is good and worthy of our commendation. And in our culture, we take it for granted that anybody who speaks out against personal liberty is necessarily a bigot and a hatemonger, one who is without sympathy or compassion, one who revels in tyranny and abuse.
But what if God is real? What if personal property and hard work really are kinder and more just than socialism? What if biblical marriage is a more loving arrangement than modern alternatives? What if moral responsibility is actually liberty and sin a very terrible slavery? What if contempt of God is really as destructive as recent history has shown it to be?
Jesus said, “If the Son therefore shall make you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:36). The way back to moral responsibility, to true liberty under the right sort of law, lies through the cross. Jesus saves sinners from the bondage of sin; He frees those who trust in Him from addiction, fear, and corruption. He turns rebels into friends. He gives those friends the freedom to love and obey Him. This was the colonial vision of true liberty and it built an amazing nation. It should be ours.