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By W. TERENCE ERBELE
The smallest state in the Union (not much bigger than Revillagigedo Island) has always loomed large in the cause of freedom. Roger Williams was forced to flee from persecution in Massachusetts, so he purchased land from the Narraganset Indians and established a settlement named Providence with a policy of religious and political freedom. Rhode Island was the first colony to declare independence from England (May 4, 1776) and was quick to endorse the Declaration of Independence and Articles of Confederation. They were the last to ratify the constitution doing so only after the inclusion of the Bill of Rights guaranteeing individual liberties. Rhode Island was the first state to outlaw the importation of slaves.
In 1768, nearly six years before the Boston Tea party, the British confiscated a sloop from John Hancock and ironically renamed it the HMS Liberty. It patrolled the waters of Rhode Island to prohibit customs violations. In July 1769, a group of angry citizens torched it. On June 9, 1772, the revenue ship HMS Gaspee was giving chase when it ran aground at what is now Gaspee Point in Warwick, RI. A group rowed out to the ship and, after a brief skirmish, burned it to the water line. The British Government ascertained it was now time to punish these acts of treason.
The Gaspee Affair was celebrated throughout the American colonies. Two years later George Washington recorded in his diary that he attended the fireworks display commemorating the burning of the Gaspee. The city of Warwick still celebrates with a Gaspee Day parade and fireworks every June 9. The trademarked motto is “First Blow for Freedom”
While we may argue when the first blow for freedom occurred, one of the most dramatic series of events in history happened thousands of years ago when God liberated the people of Israel from Egypt. Throughout Biblical history, God gave many blows for freedom using Deborah, Gideon, Sampson, Esther and others. How often do we identify ourselves with David’s blow for freedom against Goliath-type giant oppressors?
We rightly love to sing about being the land of the free and the home of the brave, about heroes proved in liberating strife and about bright freedom’s holy light. We understand Patrick Henry’s declaration: “Give me liberty or give me death.” We heartily endorse life, liberty and pursuit of happiness as unalienable rights and pledge allegiance to a republic with liberty and justice for all.
Freedom has always been the language of the church One day Jesus started a debate by stating, “If you abide in my word, you are my disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” The response was, “We are already free.” Jesus went on to explain that whoever commits sin is a slave to sin. Therefore, if the Son makes you free then you are free indeed.
We incarcerate ourselves by our prejudices, feelings, desires, thoughts, whims and habits. As Romans 6 and Galatian 5 explain, you are a slave of whatever or whomever you obey. While we are only free when the Son sets us free, we are free to choose whether or not we will be made free.
Christ Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension have broken the shackles of sin and death. Why remain in bondage when liberty is being offered?
That ancient Easter hymn got it right: “The Strife is O’er, The Battle Done.” Christ has struck the final blow for freedom.
The Rev. W Terence Erbele is pastor of United Methodist Church.