Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Among the books I've read this summer is Walter Isaacson's Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. Isaacson, one-time editor at both Time magazine and CNN, has written an easily-read, yet scholarly account of Franklin's life.

Franklin, like so many prominent people from the past--and this seems especially true of our country's Founders--has become a cartoon caricature. Franklin is often portrayed as a breezy cad who dabbled in science and threw off one-liners.

But, as Isaacson's excellent book shows, Franklin was a complex man of considerable achievement in a variety of fields. I came away from Isaacson's book finding him, other than Thomas Jefferson, to be the least likable of the American founders. Yet, he was a remarkable person, a full-blown Enlightenment man who, having decided at age 42 that he had enough money, retired from his printing business and lived on modest means as a public servant--one who often gave away his public salary--for the next forty years.

In the coming days, I intend to write some thoughts that have crossed my mind as I've read Isaacson's wonderful book.

Franklin was by far the oldest delegate to the Constitutional Convention and a revered figure. If Franklin, from his lofty eminence, had one great contribution he made to the US Constitution, an incredible document, it was his constant call to his fellow delegates to compromise, to bend a little, to yield.

As Isaacson points out, democracy can sometimes appear less-than-heroic. Over the long haul, democracy neither respects or rewards the flame-throwing ideologue; democracy is nurtured by those of strong opinions being willing to meet the opposition halfway. Democracy doesn't require people of squishy principles, but it does require ones who are able to say, "I could be wrong and you could be right."

The US Constitution came about because able--and often principled--people compromised. Without that compromise, the United States of America, under the ineffectual Articles of Confederation, would have ceased to exist, each state becoming the likely target of conquest by European powers.

One-time presidential candidate Jack Kemp was fond of saying that the Constitution is a divinely-inspired document, on a par with the Bible. Such talk is a little silly, I think. As a Christian, I believe that the Bible is the unique and authoritative source and norm for life, faith, and practice and that God inspired every word. The Bible, unlike the Constitution, is not amendable. But I do think that God answered a lot of prayers when the delegates to the convention which produced it wrote our Constitution. If that's so, then God seems to have endorsed the notion that human beings should learn to compromise.

Near the end of Isaacson's account of Franklin's role in the writing of the Constitution, he writes:

"With the wisdom of a patient chess player and the practicality of a scientist, Franklin realized that they [the delegates to the convention] had succeeded not because they were self-assured, but because they were willing to concede that they might be fallible." (p.457)

How refreshing it would be if we could all concede that today!

I'm told that several years ago, historian Daniel Boorstin was asked what the biggest problem confronting America was. It was, he said, the "hyphenation" of America: the penchant for seeing ourselves as Something-Americans: Caucasian-Americans, African-Americans, and so on.

In a world that is getting smaller all the time, we need to lose the hyphens. Failing to remember the lessons of history, people hyphenate themselves and declare their superiority or implacable commitment to principles, tribes, races, nations, or isms. Partisan hyphenation often prevents governments from actually dealing with issues and problems. Racial and religious hyphenation cause people to kill each other.

We need to learn that it's possible to adhere to our beliefs and still acknowledge that we are capable of being wrong. No group is always right. No person is always right. Two foundational principles for me are these: God is perfect and I'm not God. (A corollary of that is: Thank God I'm not God!)

Isaacson points out that of the list of virtues the young Benjamin Franklin famously set out to pursue, he failed most spectacularly at mastering humility. Of course, none of us masters any virtue. According to the Bible, the most any of us can hope to become are recovering sinners; saints are nothing other than sinners who have been forgiven by a gracious God. When I was a boy, my grandmother saw my galloping ego and couldn't resist buying a sweatshirt that showed a little cartoon megalomaniac declaring, "I'm so nearly perfect, I can hardly stand it." Humility doesn't come to us naturally.

If though, we could ask God to help us act humble even when we don't feel humble, we might find ourselves saying--and really meaning--words that lubricate the machinery of friendships, marriages, governments, and nations. Words like...

"I might be wrong."

"Let's try it your way."

"Explain that to me again."

"I'm sorry."

Proverbs 13:10, in the Old Testament, says, "By insolence the heedless make strife, but wisdom is with those who take advice."

Humility is the engine by which relationships--between people, within societies, among nations--progress. I know of only one sure source for humility: the Savior Who humbly laid aside the advantages of Deity in order to become one of us, to die for us, and to rise to give all with faith in Him new life, Jesus the Christ (Philippians 2:5-11; John 3:16).

John Adams, who Franklin disdained and who, unlike Franklin, was a committed follower of Christ, said that the American experiment with constitutional government could only work if the nation were composed largely of people made virtuous by humbly following God. I believe that's still true. Democracies can only survive among people of goodwill, people who have flushed the hyphens, and who have come to depend on God, not themselves.

That doesn't mean the imposition of some Christian political program on unbelieving neighbors! Christian belief cannot be imposed and the imposition of Christian faith on others is antithetical to the teachings of the Bible. Besides, no political program could ever claim to be perfectly Christian: God is neither liberal or conservative, monarchist or democrat.

But it does mean that both the mission of those who follow Christ and the positive role we can play in our country are clear. We are called, in the words of my friend Steve Sjogren, to "love the world into relationship with Jesus Christ."

When people have a direct, intimate, personal relationship with the Savior of the world, they'll still make mistakes and hurt themselves and others, but they'll know where to go to make things right. When you follow the God Who loves you always, overlooks your flaws, forgives your sin, and commits Himself to be with you forever (Matthew 28:20), you have the ability to do what your pride or inferiority feelings might otherwise prevent you from doing: to compromise, to give in, to yield, to admit that you might be wrong.

Mr. Franklin, I think, was right up to a point. Humility and its concomitant, compromise, are essential ingredients for making our relationships work. But just as Franklin failed in conquering any of the virtues on his own, we will fail if we strive to live humbly based only on our resolves to be humble. We need God's help. Through Jesus Christ, that help is always available!

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