February 24, 2003
“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.”
With these words our founding fathers launched into what has been called the great experiment. The sad facts of history remind us that it was a beginning and not realized dream. It would be bad enough if the past revealed those who oppressed men in slavery. The sad reality shows that some refused to even recognize certain inhabitants of this land as men.
The dream did not die. Within one hundred years of the penning of this historic acclamation blood was shed to bring our nation closer to its realization. Yet, the battle was not sudden. Even before the Declaration of Independence voices were raised to call for liberty to all men. The following words were crafted by the black preacher Lemuel Haynes as an admonition to those fighting for liberty during the War for Independence.
“Liberty is equally as precious to a black man, as it is to a white one, and bondage equally intolerable to the one as it is to the other. God has been pleas’d to distinguish some men from others, as to natural abilities, but not as to natural right, as they came out of his hands.”
That voice and thousands of voices like it rang across the north of our country and, yes, even in the region of the oppressed. The people began to see the truth of the declaration and the inconsistency of our actions – even if grudgingly. Finally, the scales were tipped and the result was war.
During that time of upheaval the conscience of a nation grew keen and its character strengthened to bring an end to the bondage of those who had watered the land with their sweat and tears. The dream was not dead, but it still was not realized. Like a teenager beginning to move to adulthood, the nation showed a flash of maturity but it was not grown.
These were the days of segregation. At least, officially, all inhabitants were declared human. (How far we have come is evident in the shudder that runs through us as we read the preceding sentence.) Growth can often be painful. The transition brought about by war was no less so for all involved.
Finally through the efforts of many -- some names recognized and even more forgotten to history – free access was declared to all. Finally, our laws reflected the ideal of that Declaration. Nowhere can laws be found contradicting the intent of that historical statement. So, why are we not yet grown?
Liberty. It is a wonderful word, but it also allows some not so wonderful traits. We have liberty to speak. We have equality in our freedom to express our thoughts and ideas. We have liberty to – yes, hate. We have liberty to assemble and liberty to associate with those we wish to associate. Sometimes, unfortunately, it leads us to assemble and associate exclusively.
Equality. Rev. Haynes recognized that God distinguished men to be different according to their abilities. Indeed none of us are equal in that way. God has gifted us each with a diversity of gifts. Unfortunately, due to Adam, we also all have a diversity of failings. Yet, we are equal in those rights to be free, to live and to pursue our personal dreams.
Ah, America is now a child in an adult body. All the pieces are there, but our emotions have not matured. You see, with liberty there comes responsibility. If we all seek our personal happiness at the expense of others, we will not ultimately know happiness. Laws seeking to bring about harmony will fail because they will destroy our liberty. At the same time, we will not find harmony unless we restrain our liberty.
How then can it happen? We must change our hearts. All of us need to set aside our desire to “win.” We need to be willing to lose and when one gives the other should never take advantage of the gesture. Can it happen? Frankly, I do not know. I do know this, the same Creator who gave us these rights and this equality can teach us to love. The answer may be in a place where most fear to tread, in the place of prayer. No, not the church, but each individual falling on his knees before God and seeing those around us and ourselves as He sees us.