Service: Self-Evident Truths

Sunday, June 25, 2017 10am
Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister

Readings:  US Declaration of Independence and “Let America Be America Again,” by Langston Hughes

For about a decade, Danielle Allen paid her dues as a young history scholar putting undergraduates through their paces at the University of Chicago. Many of them were among the nation’s most elite students – brilliant, high-achieving young people, as she puts it – “rolling in from their dorm room beds with tousled hair right into class.”

But she also served another, very different population – adult students, many of them, she said, “without jobs, or working two jobs or stuck in dead-end part-time jobs,” juggling children’s schedules, daycare and the city bus service. These folks should have arrived for classes bone-tired, but instead, she said, they “pulsed with energy.”

The two groups met in the same classroom – though at different times – and read the same books, ranging from the Greek Antigone to Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”. In each circle, she said, “we were making worlds: naming life’s constitutive events, clarifying our principles, and testing against one another’s wits our accounts of what was happening around us. But, for her, Allen said, the most transformative experience she had in that class was with what she called her “life-tested night students” studying not some classic work of history or literature, but the Declaration of Independence.

Not a one of them had ever read it or had any notion that it had anything to do with them. Instead, as she put it, “It represented institutions and power, everything that solidified a world that had, as life turned out, delivered them so much grief, so much to overcome.” The experience, she said, changed her own perspective on this celebrated document. Most people read the Declaration as a cry for freedom, for liberation – it is, after all, a call for independence. But Allen says that if you read it closely you discover something more. Underpinning that call is a new claim about the source of legitimate government centered in the notion of what Allen calls “political equality.” What makes the Declaration important, she concluded, is not simply its historic role in the birth of this country but its enduring and deeply relevant vision of how and why democracy works. And it’s a vision that she fears we are losing.

I wonder if she’s right. Cased in glass like an artifact of ancient times, quoted in sound bite snippets taken out of context, the Declaration is honored more than it is read. That was certainly true of me until I stumbled on Allen’s recent book, Our Declaration, which got me thinking about this.

Danielle Allen speaks from a unique perspective, an African-American scholar of mixed parentage: on one side, Midwestern, progressive whites, on the other Caribbean blacks who included in their number one-time slaves and Baptist preachers. As it happens, she says, the Declaration was something that figured strongly in her family, even as the subject of debates at the dinner table. It made no difference that it was drawn up by white men of property who never intended that it should extend to people like them, her family regarded the Declaration as part of their patrimony.

Allen’s night class renewed her interest in the Declaration less as a historical document than as a goad to people to engage in public life. “I wanted to bring it to life for them,” she said, “as citizens, as thinkers, as political deliberators and decision-makers. I wanted them to understand that democratic power belonged to them. I wanted them to own the Declaration of Independence.”

So, in this contentious time when so many of us feel that democracy is disappointing them, just ahead of our annual celebration of Independence Day, I thought it would be worth our accepting Allen’s invitation to reflect more deeply on this great argument for democratic power that is part of our patrimony, too.

Allen wants us to focus on the notion of equality that we find in the Declaration.  Asked where to locate equality in the Declaration of Independence, we’re inclined to go right to the start of the first sentence of the second paragraph: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” Boom! There you go.

Except, Allen points out, the sentence doesn’t end there, so the thought isn’t quite complete. It goes on: “that they are endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” So, the framers aren’t saying we’re all the same – clearly we’re not – but we are equal in being born with certain rights. Everybody gets them. It just comes with the package.

OK, I get it: we’re equal in all having certain rights and . . . Wait! The sentence isn’t finished yet. It goes on: “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 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.”

What? Are you kidding? No, really that’s it. That full passage from the Declaration that you heard Jennifer read earlier is actually one sentence. The Declaration is not exactly beach reading. That last phrase is important, though, because it addresses a lingering concern.

Yes, we are each born wanting, needing to live, to be free and to do that which fulfills us. But we are given no guarantee that we will get all or any of that. Lots of people don’t. So, how do we convert these wishes and needs into rights? The short answer is by something else that the framers argued is also part of the make-up of every person, as natural as breathing, something Allen sums up as “politics,” or, as the Declaration says, the institution of governments.

People secure what they consider their rights, making it possible for them to live as they want to live, by means of organizing themselves. As fed up as we get sometimes at how government performs, it is essential to securing our rights. And not just any form of government will do. To be legitimate, it must be, the founders declared, “derived from the consent of the governed.”

This is all wrapped up with the earlier part, another “self-evident truth.” So, you see that great long sentence is not just laying out a few observations before it gets to the important stuff, i.e. “Listen, king. We’re done with you.” It is summarizing a philosophy of government, one that they claim is grounded in nature, in the world as it is.

This is what gives them the confidence to say that if people are being ruled in a way that fails to respect those rights – as they claimed King George had – then they have the natural right to alter or overthrow that government and set up another that provides for their safety and happiness. It’s worth noting that the Declaration celebrates independence not as an end in itself but as a means to creating another form of governance that better serves the people.

Danielle Allen points out that for all the struggles the founders were enduring at the time, the argument at the center of the Declaration is a remarkably sunny one: that every one of us is a competent judge of our needs and what brings us happiness, and that through conversation and negotiation that respects our mutual needs and wants we are capable of building a government that serves us all.

Pie in the sky? Maybe: 241 years later the goal is still far off, and, some would say, moving further. And certainly, not all agree with this perspective. Monarchists, despots, racists, misogynists – anyone who holds themselves as better than others, who claims the right to decide others’ destiny. Sadly, the world and our own politics is populated with a distressing number of such folks, who even while demeaning government seek to secure its power and blessings for themselves.

There are many like the adults who showed up for Allen’s night classes who see little in the Declaration that has anything to say to them, people for whom flowery talk of “equality” is just so much palaver. For these people, Langston Hughes’ poem, “Let American be America Again,” written in 1936, is as relevant now as it was then.

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breath.

And then in parentheses:
(There’s never been equality for me.
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Who is speaking here? Hughes offers us litany:

The poor white, fooled and pushed apart
The Negros bearing slavery’s scars,
The red man driven from the land,
The immigrant clutching hope.

And many more as well.

I am the people, he says, humble, hungry, mean.

 But a Declaration of Independence? Really?

The free? Who said the free?
Not me, Surely not me. . . .
O, let America be America again
The land that never has been yet
And yet must be – the land where every man is free.

This brings us to a key point for Danielle Allen, probably the most controversial argument in her book. We read the Declaration as making a case for freedom, and there’s no question that it does. But Allen argues that when you look closely, you find that, in her words, “equality has precedence over freedom; only on the basis of equality can freedom be securely achieved.”

So, let’s stop a moment and reflect on that. We’ve already acknowledged that freedom to live as we want is important, one of the founders’ “inalienable rights.” Yet, the Declaration also suggests that in order to be converted from a want into a right it needs to be secured by a government in which all have equal ownership. As Danielle Allen puts it, “Equality is the foundation of freedom because from a commitment to equality emerges the people itself – we, the people – with the power both to create a shared world in which all can flourish and to defend it from encroachers.”

And so from this we learn, or have to be reminded, that democratic power does not live in institutions; it belongs to the people. Always does, always has. But oddly we are so often ready to cede that power to others, people stronger, richer, craftier, more bellicose. And suddenly “democratic” power simply becomes another form of oppression. The question before us, then, is how we reclaim that power for ourselves and each other.

I’m persuaded by Danielle Allen that we would serve ourselves better if we would deemphasize freedom for a bit and look for ways to raise up equality, a principal at the heart of our faith, one that affirms the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Commitment to equality, seeing each person as of equal value, equal worth, is a fundamental building stone to creating the Beloved Community. It is the beating heart that welcomes all, that comforts all, that holds us in mutual embrace. It is the fragile hope that called to our forebears, that calls to us now, the means by which we diverse and sometimes disputatious people might some day be one.

May we be agents to help make it so.