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Old Frisian Freedom

It's not what you might think.

I own a copy of the two-volume edition of the 24 volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary (O.E.D.) in a slipcase with a magnifying glass in a little drawer on top, needed since the print is exceedingly small. In looking up the word freedom, the dictionary refers me back to the word free since freedom is the “state of being free.” The word free has 15 definitions, including this one: “The state of being able to act without hindrance or restraint; liberty of action.” It’s the definition that the convoy truckers in Ottawa and elsewhere probably had in mind.

However, what interested me most is the etymology, or origin, of the word free. It comes from an Old English word primarily meaning “exemption or release from slavery.” Closely following on this is a note that free is also related to Old Welsh and Old Frisian words that mean, “to love, to delight, to endear as a friend.” So freedom is a complicated word with a fascinating history.

True freedom

I wish I could read New Testament Greek because St. Paul also has much to say about freedom, slavery and love, and it would be interesting to know how many nuances of the word free or freedom exist in Greek. In Romans 6, Paul contrasts being a slave to sin with the freedom of being a slave to Jesus. It’s not a question of being a “slave” or not a “slave”; it’s a question of to whom or to what one is enslaved. As Bob Dylan once sang, “You gotta serve somebody; it may be the Devil or it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody.”

The Bible gives very little credence to a definition of freedom as “the state of being able to act without hindrance or restraint.” In fact, I think that the Bible favours the old Welsh/Frisian association of the word free with the words love and friend. Both Jesus and Paul remind us that the greatest virtue of all is love. And love always implies commitment. And commitment always implies a willingness to give up one’s freedom for the sake of others. Loving someone always involves the abandonment of “me first” selfishness and the embrace of “you first” selflessness (which doesn’t feel like sacrifice at all but, rather, as a gift freely given).

Finally, the love of others can lead to the freedom of true friendship. In John 15:12-15, Jesus tell his disciples that he is their friend, and they are his friends. “I do not call you servants (slaves) any longer, because the slave does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father” (vs. 15).

I hear that there were regular prayer meetings by the so-called freedom-loving convoy occupiers of Ottawa. A careful reading of Scripture, or the O.E.D., might have changed what they were praying for.

Author

  • Bob is a retired Professor of Education (The King’s University) living in Edmonton.

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