It seemed appropriate for my final post here for the calendar year 2017 to focus-on and reaffirm the ideals that I see as central to my walk as a Christian (and indeed, for all Christians). Then ask how those ideals should (or at least can) be applied within the context of the issues of the present time.
Let’s begin with some well known quotes…
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
– Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address (November 19, 1863)
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
– The Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1776)
The well known maxim “All men are created equal” is itself is a corollary of the First and Second Great Commandments as stated by Jesus…
[One asked] “Teacher, which command in God’s Law is the most important?” [To which Jesus replied] “‘Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them.”
– Matthew 22:36-40 [The Message]
“All men are created equal” is the foundational principle upon which this nation is built. Putting that principle into practice is at the heart of the entire purpose of the Constitution and Laws our forefathers crafted for themselves (and us). And, “All men are created equal” is the standard by which all of our laws, regulations, court decisions, ideologies and leaders must be judged. It is the standard that lights our way in times of confusion and discord.
Abraham Lincoln followed exactly this path as he developed his own political philosophy both before and after he became President. He constantly appealed to the Declaration of Independence and especially the phrase “all men are created equal” as the foundation of our country and of our government. He believed that it is when we set aside or violate this foundational principle that we lose our way both individually, and as a nation.
He’s right: while slavery did exist at the time this nation was created, it was clear to all of our founding fathers that the institution of slavery was in conflict with this ideal, and could not be allowed to persist if this nation was to survive. As Lincoln said (paraphrasing Mark 3:25 in his debate with Senator Stephen Douglas on June 16, 1858): “A house divided against itself [as we are now, and they were then] cannot stand.”
We’ve all witnessed the huge battles of the last couple of years over police brutality & racism. The gerrymandering of electoral districts. Battles over who gets to appoint candidates to fill long vacant Federal judge’s seats. The ongoing and increasing dysfunction in Congress and the White House. The increasing disparity between the “haves” and “have nots” in terms of wealth and political power, among other things. Divisive questions over who has (or deserves) access to adequate healthcare. There are fierce confrontations over how to treat people of religions, races and countries other than our own. Battles are being waged over women’s rights and the rights of the unborn. We are witnessing huge conflicts over the rights of those who identify as other than heterosexual males or females.
These fierce debates all boil down to the same question: What do we mean when we say “all men are created equal”?
In every case, we and our neighbors are ripping in to each other because we have convinced ourselves that their beliefs and sometimes even their very existence violates our own chance at being “equal,” as our Government promises we must be. Many of us believe that what “they” believe and fight-for violates our own right to a good life for ourselves and for those whom we love.
So, we are fighting over who gets to decide what “being equal” means.
Abraham Lincoln took that decision out of our hands. He said…
“…[this] is the same old serpent that says you work and I eat, you toil and I will enjoy the fruits of it. Turn in whatever way you will, whether it come from the mouth of a King, an excuse for enslaving the people of this country, or from the mouth of men of one race as a reason for enslaving the men of another race, it is all the same old serpent, and I hold if that course of argumentation that is made for the purpose of convincing the public mind that we should not care about this, should be granted, it does not stop with the negro. I should like to know if, taking this old Declaration of Independence, which declares that all men are equal upon principle, and making exceptions to it, where will it stop? If one man says it does not mean a negro, why not another say it does not mean some other man?”
– Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln-Douglas Debate in Chicago (July 10, 1858)
Lincoln is saying that we cannot deny our neighbors equal treatment before the law; equal opportunity at the polls; equal representation in Congress, Statehouses and town halls across this nation; or an equal opportunity to better themselves. In fact, he says, to deny this is to take the path towards destruction of this democracy in favor of a system where the powerful few control everything for their own ends, without reference to the needs or desires or rights of anyone else.
President Lincoln would agree with me when I say that it is not me, nor he, nor anyone else in this world who decides what “being equal” means. We are not tasked to judge when we achieve absolute equality, since we never will achieve it. Instead, and as Lincoln said many times, we are tasked to work diligently towards this standard which is already set for us. It is embodied in the phrase “all men are created equal” and in the Second Great Commandment I quoted above: we are called to “love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves.”
This is a standard which calls us to set aside what is in our own best interest in favor of the needs and interests of our neighbors. Success is not achieved by winning all the marbles, but by making sure we all have a few, that they cannot be taken away unjustly, and that no one person (or group) can have them all.
And so, in looking at the issues of the present day, in each case I ask myself what possible outcomes will promote greater equality of opportunity, a greater chance of equal treatment before the law, will provide space so that each voter does not encounter barriers to voting or participating in our political processes, will change things so that each person’s vote matters just as much as anyone else’s, or will ensure that we all have just as much of a chance at finding a good job as any of our neighbors have.
This is not some sort of “winner take all” or “us vs. them” struggle – as so many are portraying our current debates. Just as was true in Lincoln’s time, we are all in this together, and we must remember this, and act mindfully in light of this fact, if our nation is to survive.
The task before us is not to give people more than they deserve, but to give them equal opportunity to achieve on their own. They may succeed, or they may fail, but that is their responsibility – not ours. Our government, our society, our laws and our economy should not lock anyone into a situation that they cannot improve, or cannot escape; or lock others into a situation where they cannot lose (at the expense of others). That is what is meant by “all men are created equal.” – It is about equal opportunity, not equal power, nor wealth, nor status, nor any other measure of worldly success.
Ensuring that all people have equal opportunity and equal treatment before the law is what I am dedicated to achieving, and this is what I believe we as a nation must be dedicated to achieving as a whole.
If we do not, then (as Lincoln said) we are divided against ourselves. We will then ultimately fail as a nation. And as he foretold, our Constitution, our History, and our Declaration of Independence will be judged as a useless fraud by those who succeed us.
And so, when confronted with any question about laws or rights or access of any sort in this country, ask yourself how your own beliefs, and actions, are promoting equality of opportunity for all. …How do you embody within your own life the truth that all men are created equal?
– Pastor Allen
Copyright (c) 2017, Allen Vander Meulen III.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.