Friday, July 02, 2010

Jefferson, Luther and Liberty (Sunday Reflections for July 4, 2010)

This July 4th we celebrate the 234th anniversary of the adoption by the Continental Congress of the Declaration of Independence. The document was largely written by Virginia plantation owner Thomas Jefferson, with some revision by a congressional editing committee. It begins by giving the philosophical and political principles supporting this action and then recites a long list of specific instances of oppression and injustice by Great Britain which make the break necessary.

At the time, American colonists were much more interested in the Declaration’s lengthy list of grievances. Historically, however, it has been the relatively short preamble which people remember and has been repeated in various forms in comparable documents of countries around the world. The Declaration’s heart is in its second paragraph and its words can still send a chill through citizens and despots alike.

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, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

These ideas had been developing for a century in the intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment, but it was Jefferson and his fellow Congressional revolutionaries who for the first time applied them so directly to society and politics. In doing so, they overturned millennia of beliefs and assumptions about the nature of government and its power. “Governments . . . derive[e] their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Thus, the central principle of modern democracy was stated in black-and-white: government is not imposed upon people but rather comes from them and its legitimacy is dependent on their consent. And when a government acts contrary to the people’s wishes, “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.” No crown would ever feel secure on a sovereign’s head again.

The origin of these democratic ideals can be traced back to the Renaissance and Protestant Reformation two centuries prior. Both movements championed the ability and the right of individuals to make their own judgments about truth and value. Renaissance artists and scientists learned to trust and value their own unique observations of the world, rather than defer to the beliefs and traditions of the past. Luther and the reformers championed the authority of the individual conscience to decide what was right in matters of theology and personal piety.

Whether apocryphal or not, the statement attributed to Luther at his confrontation with church and imperial authorities at Worms captures this new sentiment, championing the individual against established power and tradition: “Here I stand; I can do no other.” A different account of Luther’s speech also draws attention to this new force in the world, the individual human conscience: "Unless I am convinced by the testimonies of the Holy Scriptures or evident reason . . . I am bound by the Scriptures adduced by me, and my conscience has been taken captive by the Word of God, and I am neither able nor willing to recant, since it is neither safe nor right to act against conscience.”

What’s more, Luther got away with it, with the aid of German nobility. The era of domineering and unchallengeable authority was coming to an end. The rights and power of individuals were suddenly on the rise. Luther translated the Bible into German (beginning a new church promotion of literacy) so that persons could judge for themselves what the truth was.

In both religion and politics, the centuries since these dramatic events have shown that putting democratic principles into practice is a difficult and often messy affair. Luther was confused and depressed when other Protestants used their individual reasoning to come to significantly different theological conclusions than his, causing the Reformation to split into multiple factions (a trait of Protestantism to this day). And he angrily recoiled at the German peasant rebellion his ideas inspired, refusing to recognize the obvious political implications of his own thinking and behavior.

After declaring the country's independence, Congress quickly discovered the challenge of fighting a war as a democracy. Was there any place for authority within democracy? Or, as Gen. Washington was experiencing, was democratic government always to be a “herding cats” exercise in frustration? After the disappointing experiment with the Articles of Confederation, the United States ultimately settled on the difficult political balance of federalism. As created by the Constitution of 1787, the governing process would occur in an ever changing dynamic of the rights and powers of individuals and of state and federal governments.

In the two centuries since, this political dynamic has been constantly stressed and strained, sometimes nearly to the breaking point. In addition to exorcising the evil of slavery, the horrendous Civil War showed the country how high a price it would pay to save itself and paradoxically gave it a new self-confidence. It has had to draw on that awareness many times since. Far too often, it would seem, we have relearned the truth of Winston Churchill’s famous judgment that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

Ultimately, democracy’s strength is the truth expounded by Luther and which he found in the ancient writings of Paul. In his letter to the Galatians (in a text just recently in the lectionary) Paul declares, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Every person is created free but we are tempted again and again to give up that freedom: for an apple, for thirty pieces of silver, for success, security, material pleasures, or happiness. But ultimately none of these are worth the price of our freedom, our birth-right and our dignity as human beings and as children God.

Confronting the trials and anxieties of our own time, the history of freedom reminds us both of its benefits and of its necessary cost: our willingness to exercise that freedom for our own benefit as well as to secure it for society. Like a human organ, it only remains healthy through vigorous use. Liberty isn’t simply a ticket to be punched but a way of life requiring commitment and a willingness to preserve it, whatever the cost. We enjoy our freedom today because people before us, like Luther and the members of the Continental Congress, were willing to pay that cost, whatever it might be.

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

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