From the Rector: Celebrating Freedom

“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.” —The Declaration of Independence
 
A good way to celebrate the 4th of July is by reading the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson and edited by Benjamin Franklin 246 years ago. It is an amazing document. It announces to the world that the thirteen British colonies in the New World are now independent, and it eloquently expresses the reasons why.
 
It is signed by the delegates elected by the thirteen colonial assemblies and sent to Philadelphia to meet as a Continental Congress. John Adams signed there in his neat, legible hand. John Hancock signed with a flourish easy to spot. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Benjamin Rush signed too. Not surprisingly, 32 out of the 56 signers were Anglican.
 
If you look carefully in the next-to-last column, about two-thirds of the way down, you will see the signature of John Witherspoon. I respect the wisdom and intellect of Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams, but Witherspoon is a particular favorite character of mine. He was a Presbyterian minister, the president of the College of New Jersey, which became Princeton University, originally a thoroughly Presbyterian institution. He was the only clergy to sign the Declaration, and when he did, he said something about it being better to sign that document and be hanged as a traitor than to die of old age.
 
When the 56 signers declared that all men are created equal and that governments derive their power from the consent of the governed, they were contradicting at least 5,000 years of human experience and history. Equality and consent of the governed were radical new ideas. The new republic and its founders were not perfect, but think of how that new, fragile concept of liberty has evolved and grown over the years. It was launched in 1776 by a group of white men, most of whom owned slaves. The Constitution was ratified in 1789, the Bill of Rights was added in 1791, and the project didn’t get around to abolishing slavery until 1865. In 1870, nearly a century after the founding, the Fifteenth Amendment declared that no person could be denied the right to vote on the basis of color or race. Women were not added to that list until 1920, when the Nineteenth Amendment was passed. Add to the list the Voting Rights Act and the Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage, two acts still in recent memory for many. We are a work in progress.
 
Perhaps the best part of the whole experiment, along with religious freedom, is the idea of the dignity, autonomy, and worth of the individual. Of course, looking at it from the Christian perspective, this idea of the dignity of every human being is rooted in the biblical revelation of God. God creates humankind, gives them autonomy, dignity, and purpose, and even when they abuse these divinely given gifts, the Creator does not abandon them or withdraw his blessing, but through the redemptive work of Christ and the Church reveals and restores the imprint of the very image of God on every human being. For Christians who are a part of the great American experiment, living in a country where there is freedom to explore what it means to respect the dignity of every human being is a great gift, as well as a great responsibility.
 
So, we give thanks for this freedom and for those who gave fortune, reputation, and life to secure it, but as the Scriptures tell us, we have not arrived in the Promised Land. One of the great errors the American Christian can make is to believe that America is our Promised Land and, in these troubled days, to go to any extreme to make it so, even at the risk of blatant disobedience to the way of life Jesus called us to. For the Christian, the Kingdom of God is the ultimate allegiance. Our faith calls us to a greater freedom—freedom not enshrined in the Constitution or the laws of the land, but in what we Christians call, interestingly, the law of Christ: loving God with all that we are and have, loving our neighbors as ourselves, turning the other cheek, going the second mile, loving our enemies, protecting and speaking up for the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalized. For Christians, freedom is not license to do whatever we want when we want, but rather the freedom to live in such an authentic way that the Kingdom of God actually becomes a present reality in our own lives, and in the lives of the people we touch in some way every day.
 
So, on the 4th of July we celebrate two birthrights: the birthright of freedom we have because we are fortunate enough to live here in this country, and the birthright of the freedom we are given in baptism, the freedom to become who God has created us to be, the freedom to work and pray that God’s Kingdom may come and his will may be done on earth as it is in heaven, and the freedom and the call to respect the dignity of every human being.