Friday, July 02, 2010

Fourth of July, the Declaration, Rights, Responsibilities

Historian Garry Wills, in his wonderful book on Lincoln at Gettysburg, rightly points out that for the first eighty-nine years of their history, citizens of the United States saw the Constitution, that document which forged the disparate and unruly original states into a single nation, as their birth certificate. Washington and the other Framers saw the Constitution as the document that completed the American Revolution, because liberty without mutual accountability is tyranny and chaos. It was Lincoln at Gettysburg who gave the Declaration of Independence the significance it retains to this day.

Though the Declaration lacks the force of law, its significance for our country and for the history of freedom around the world cannot be underestimated.

As a Christian who strives to pay heed to the Bible, I question the entire concept of "unalienable rights" on which the Declaration is predicated. But I do acknowledge that in the civil realm in which theists and secularists live and govern themselves together, it is a useful fiction, the content of which we can collectively decide. (Certainly, our notion of what constitutes a right and who--which has come to include the unpropertied, blacks, women in the intervening centuries--might stake a claim a right, has expanded over the years.)

For me though, it's personally more useful to think in terms of Jesus' "golden rule": Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I think more of my "unalienable responsibilities" to love my neighbor as I love myself, the second part of Jesus' great commandment, than I do of my rights. (The first part of Jesus' great commandment is to love God with all one's heart.)

Of course, not all voluntarily live by this ethic--even we Christians who, on earth, remain saints as well as sinners. That's why government remains what Martin Luther calls "an emergency measure," necessary until the return of Jesus and the final establishment of His kingdom. Government exists to coerce us into consideration of our neighbor when we fail to offer it voluntarily.

Winston Churchill once observed that democracy is the worst form of government...except for every other form of government. He's right, I think, which is why I feel so blessed to live in the cradle of modern democracy, the United States.

Take some time to listen to the hosts, reporters, and contributors of National Public Radio read again this year, the entire text of the Declaration of Independence, here. May God bless the United States of America and may the United States of America always bless God!

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