It may be the world’s largest call and response. I was standing in the Oaxaca Zocalo, the public square of the capital city of the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, just yards away from the ornate entrance to the Governor’s palace, pressed cheek to jowl with perhaps 10,000 festive Mexicans. “Guadalajara” was threatening to set the loudspeakers ablaze as the crowd sang along. Streams of aerosol foam were being shot through the air, covering us like a summer snowfall, and I had already been decorated in red, white and green when a reveler broke a confetti-filled egg on my head.
The palace was bathed in spotlights and draped with patriotic bunting. Mexican flags flew everywhere, and dignitaries clutching champagne glasses gathered on the upper-floor balconies to watch the festivities. A light rain began falling as the clock approached the appointed hour: 11:00 pm.
The governor strode into the lights on a high balcony, stepped to a microphone, and the mob fell silent.
Viva la revolución! he bellowed, and the crowd yelled back Viva la revolución! Viva Hidalgo! he cried, and we roared back with Viva Hidalgo! He continued down a list, cheering the heroes of Mexico’s bloody struggle to build a self-governing republic. And then came the final phrases, the ones the crowd had been waiting for: Viva la libertad! Viva Mxico!. We roared our response more loudly than ever as the governor began ringing the large bronze bell high atop the palace.
Fireworks filled the sky, a waterfall of white sparklers raced across the palace and the air was thick with confetti. Colored lights spelled out “Viva la Independencia: 1810-2003”. If it’s like this now, I thought, what will it be like in 2010?
In every hamlet and city in Mexico, this scene gets repeated each September 15th. In Mexico City, the President himself leads the crowd in the “grito”, or shout, and the huge Zocalo is more crowded than Times Square on New Year’s Eve.
The tradition of the grito goes back to the night of September 15th, 1810, when Father Miguel Hidalgo, in a famous mixing of religion and politics, gathered the people of his parish into church and roused them with a call-to-arms against the oppressive Spanish rulers of Mexico. Father Hidalgo’s famous “Grito de Dolores” marked the beginning of a long struggle for freedom. The modern September 15th celebrations remind Mexicans of that night and all they have gained through liberty.
Liberty: It’s a big idea. It was the engine of the American and French revolutions. It’s driven despots from power. It’s beckoned oppressed people to leave their homes for a far off land where they could “breathe free”.
Liberty is a God-thing. You’ll find it right in the very beginning, when the Lord God gave Adam and Eve the freedom to work and rest and love and live and delight in each other and the Garden of Eden. They were free to enjoy everything—except for the fruit of a single tree. Call it qualified liberty. Call it liberty with boundaries.
It matters not whether you think Genesis is fact or allegory: What the poignant story of beginnings tells us is that men and women will not stand for boundaries. Fences are for tearing down. Rules are for breaking. No matter what we have, we always crave more. With remarkable hubris, we demand the freedom to enjoy God’s creation without God—a right some American post-moderns call “freedom from religion”.
We love liberty like an alcoholic loves booze, and once we start guzzling it, we won’t stop until we’re falling-down drunk.
There’s a paradox here: When we declare our independence from God, we don’t discover perfect freedom; instead, we become slaves to the dark side of our own hearts. When we make ourselves servants—even slaves—of the Creator of heaven and earth and our very beings, we become liberated from all that shackles us.
Then Jesus turned to the Jews who had claimed to believe in him. “If you stick with this, living out what I tell you, you are my disciples for sure. Then you will experience for yourselves the truth, and the truth will free you.” Surprised, they said, “But we’re descendants of Abraham. We’ve never been slaves to anyone. How can you say, ‘The truth will free you’?” Jesus said, “I tell you most solemnly that anyone who chooses a life of sin is trapped in a dead-end life and is, in fact, a slave. A slave is a transient, who can’t come and go at will. The Son, though, has an established position, the run of the house. So if the Son sets you free, you are free through and through. — John 8:31-36, The Message
Here’s how the Apostle Paul explains the liberty paradox:
You know well enough from your own experience that there are some acts of so-called freedom that destroy freedom. Offer yourselves to sin, for instance, and it’s your last free act. But offer yourselves to the ways of God and the freedom never quits… I’m using this freedom language because it’s easy to picture. You can readily recall, can’t you, how at one time the more you did just what you felt like doing—not caring about others, not caring about God—the worse your life became and the less freedom you had? And how much different is it now as you live in God’s freedom… As long as you did what you felt like doing, ignoring God, you didn’t have to bother with right thinking or right living, or right anything for that matter. But do you call that a free life? What did you get out of it? Nothing you’re proud of now. Where did it get you? A dead end. —Romans 6:16-21, The Message
Liberty comes at a price. Jesus Christ bought our freedom by allowing himself to be nailed to a cross. He laid down his life so that we might breathe free—free from sin, free from slavish obedience to our darkest instincts. He led a revolt against the powers of darkness, and defeated those powers by rising from the dead. Now, that’s something worth shouting about.
Viva la libertad! Viva la revolución!