“We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal.” ~The Declaration of Independence, 1776
On the Sunday proceeding July 4 each year, the Rector of my church reads the Declaration of Independence. In truth, usually I find it boring, laborious, and sometimes a conflicting hybrid of church and state. This year I felt something unfamiliar–sadness.
As the priest read the words that founded this strange thing called democracy, which has been our American experiment these last 236 years, I began to see how far off the course we have come. All nations comes to that point–where the mechanisms that made them great in terms of equality, strength, intellect, ingenuity, bravery, and righteousness begin to falter under the weight of their human bearers.
This is just the first year I felt distinctly part of a period in history which represents a painful faltering.
There is no perfect system–religious, political, sociological–because they are all made of people. People who, even when we have aspirations to be better, more Godly, and decent human beings wespend our existence fighting an element of our human nature which calls us to something far more momentary and survivalist.
Recently I was watching a movie titled “I Am?” which is a documentary discussing the nature of humanity–in its goodness and in its peril. It is based on the statement of G.K. Chesterton when asked by a local newspaper to provide commentary on what was wrong with the world (the question which needs to be asked on some level of everygeneration of humanity).
To which his reply was, “I am.”
The movie, besides grappling with this basic human question also discusses the work of (among others) Charles Darwin, stating that his great opus On The Origin of the Species which is quoted most for his discussion of “survival of the fittest” is also a work in which he uses the word “love” over 100 times. Additionally, he uses the phrase “survival of the fittest” less than 10 times.
What was extracted from Darwin’s work was that which qualified a survivalist human experience, but the legacy he seemed to intendwas much more ofcomplex, hopeful,and inclusive, particularly later in life. It is written in this article in The American Thinker that in the 6th and final edition of Darwin’s opus he referenced the “Creator” nine times and “God” twice. Written 13 years after his original work, it seems that Darwin found it difficult to embrace the nature of existence without some understanding of something greater than himself.
It is anature of us as humanstoevolve andwith the wisdom of age Charles Darwin was able to see an experience of life that included both evolution and creation–and it is no small thing that his philosophical evolution left room for both. It is also an irony of sorts that as fallable historical creatures andas seekers of marketing tools for the injustices of history we, collectively, look to the shelves for the most base and immature version of our humannity to justify our actions.
From the meat of all that Darwin left in terms of both biology andphilosophy, what we extracted and carried throuogh time was the idea of “survival of the fittest”. Let the most powerful person/country/team/culture win. It is practically the motto of Western civilization.
Who Are We?
I was reading another article recently by Pam Hogeweide, a great female commentary voice in the Christian community. In her article Pamdiscussed an interview she had with Shane Claiborne, another voice of the young Christian generation. Shane’s voice is, as Pamreports in the first half of her article, a voice of the not-so-marginalized bringing to light marginalized causes in what his contingent of contemporary Christianity has called “a new monasticism.”
Pam noted her initial impression of him, before meeting, was that he was an over-privileged person who was unaware of the great distance between his place of privilege and the underprivileged lives of those he chose to live amongst and spoke on the behalf of, often.
Pam stated that her impression of him changed in his response to her on this singular question, “Who do you think are the Pharisees of this age?”
To which he replied, “I am.”
It seemed that in fighting for the marginalized Shane had not lost sight of his privileges and the place of privilege from which he spoke. This capacity for personal transparency is not an easy one to garner; even harder, usually, for someone in the 30-something and under cohort. Not by fault, just by the busyness of this first third of life, spent establishing identity and accumulating ”stuff”.
In truth, however, to be personally transparent at any age is a difficult quality to come by. It is hard for us (self included) to disengage with the things we use to identify “us”–status, titles, money, professions, objects–long enough to see from a distance the truth of who we are and what our part is in the lives we lead and in the course of this historical experience of humanity.
Self-Conscious or Self-Conscience?
I think my greatest sadness this year, in hearing the declaration of independence this past Sunday, and in watching the acclaimed HBO special “John Adams” this 4th of July, and in reviewing our place in history in the 234th year of this democratic experiment is our collective and national lack of awareness of our complicity in the state of our being, both as individuals and as a national community.
We are not standing in this place in history, collectively, and answering the question to what is wrong with this country, this globe, this human experience in the year 2012, with the statement that is truer than true, “I am.”
At the end of the film “I am?” a second part to this question was asked. Not one asked to G.K. Chesterton, but one that is a natural follow-up to the first. What is good about this world? In response to this question the film maker Tom Shaydac (also director of such morality tales as “Liar, Liar”, “Bruce Almighty” and “Evan Almighty) replies, without the appearance of ego, “I am.”
So the answer to these great questions of this great “I Am” is the following…
Q: What is wrong with this world?
A: I am.
Q: What is right with this world?
A: I am.
The ultimate representation of the human experience is not only that we are the former, but just as truly we are the latter. We must own both and be accountable and responsible for both.
Is the world a horrible, painful, and devastating place?
Is the world a beautiful, hopeful, and graceful place?
We must live in the contradiction, embody the contradiction self-consciously, find the “self-conscience” to live between these two poles, and try to make a difference in the process.
The original beginning of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, speaks to a faithful and graceful truth for all people in all times:
We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable that all men are created equal and independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
All people ARE created equal and this IS a sacred and undeniable truth. But we deny it every day.
We act from our version of a Darwinian ideal to survive.
We act from greed to gain more.
We act from “I want” rather than “I am”.
Our Human Accountability + Our Part In History
The responsibility of this human “I am” is our accountability not just to the immediate issues of our life, but all people, and actively living from the understanding the sacredness in this fact: all people are created equal.
The “Great I Am” is God. Our great call to listen to the small piece of the God-in-us and stand up. We are called to own and be accountable to the “I am” which is both “me as what is wrong with this world” AND that which is the “me as the hope-bearer, the grace-enabler, and the world made beautiful”.
In the same breath we are all three version of the “I am”–a triad of divinity and the two parts of the human dichotomy, all found in one body, and in one soul.
Can we be accountable to all three parts of ourselves (Godliness, human decency, and human degradation)?
Can we, too, be accountable to the intention found in the draft document of a birthing nation which exclaimed in it’s first paragraph the inherent human requirement that, as a society, we must treat “all people” as if they are “created equal” and identified this as “a sacred and undeniable truth”?
The answer to these questions, I believe, is the answer to the capacity for sacredness, quality and decency in our future.
John Adams, Founding Father, brilliant jurist, and a man aged to the point of wisdom, wrote the following less than a month before he died:
My best wishes, in the joys, and festivities, and the solemn services of that day on which will be completed the fiftieth year from its birth, of the independence of the United States: a memorable epoch in the annals of the human race, destined in future history to form the brightest or the blackest page, according to the use or the abuse of those political institutions by which they shall, in time to come, be shaped by the human mind. (Hakim, Joy. The New Nation. Oxford University Press, 2003).
Approximately a month after writing this prophetic reminder to all of how human nature shapes human history, John Adams died on the same day as his co-founding Father, Thomas Jefferson. They passed away within hours of each other on the 50th anniversary of the independence they bore 50 years earlier, on July 4th, 1826.
John Adams saw in the very last moments of his life, that we as people and as a nation would promote good or evil based on not necessarily the brilliance of a series of documents or policies on which this American idea was created but, rather, by the inherent nature of humans and how that would play out in history.
This is a truth that is both sacred (as the draft document of The Declaration of Independence states) and self-evident (as the amended final version said, in its place) and eternally human.