Monday, June 2, 2008

Some Thoughts on Unalienable Rights I

Recently I was packing some books to take from my home to my office at the church and I came across a small volume that could easily fit in a shirt pocket. It was paper bound and had images of the American flag on the front. This small volume contained the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. I sat down in a corner of my basement and proceeded to read, "IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776. The Unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America."

I've always been very proud to be born a citizen of this great nation. When I think of all the people throughout the world who have made tremendous sacrifices to come here, I'm filled with awe at their courage, dedication, and belief that the United States of America held opportunities for them that far exceeded their own country of origin. These are people who would take their life savings to cross the Atlantic Ocean in the bowels of a steamship. Ellis Island will forever stand as a monument to the stubborn determination of several generations of new Americans. Other Americans came differently, fleeing communism or other despotic regimes, even floating across the Straits of Florida through shark-infested water on nothing more than boards and only the glimmer of hope that they would reach the United States where they could enjoy the freedom about which they could only dream in their native lands. When I think of these brave people, I can only cry out my thanks to God that I could be born into such a great nation, that I was spared the grueling and dangerous journey to this great land.

I sat reading the Declaration, the Constitution, and Bill of Rights, and I thought of all the people who made such sacrifices so that I could enjoy the freedom and opportunity that is the birthright of all Americans. I thought of my maternal great-grandfather who fought for the Union in the Civil War and later became a physician in his native east Tennessee. I thought of those on my father's side of the family whose blood fertilized the ground and stained the Confederate gray of their uniforms in battles far, far from home. I thought of my grandfather who landed on Normandy on D-Day plus two and my father who served in the Italian Occupation Forces. I remember with great thanks the service of my uncle, my mother's brother, Uncle Roy, whose plane was shot down somewhere in Europe and who was, as the War Department put it in a telegram to my grandparents, "missing and presumed dead." But he wasn't dead. He was in a German POW camp, one that was - fortunately for him and us - liberated by the Americans as they swept through Europe in 1944. These people and countless others who are nameless and faceless sacrificed their time, their safety, their occupations, and - in too many cases - their lives, so that I could enjoy the freedom that is found in the United States. As I read through this little book, I couldn't help but be humbled by the men and women who are, even as I write this, sacrificing their lives in strange and terrible lands named Iraq and Afghanistan for the principles in the little book that I held in my hands.

As I read my little book, I was struck by a passage in the Declaration of Independence, a passage that I, and I suppose all of us, have heard so many times before:

"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."

On the surface it seems pretty simple now, we have rights that come from God, rights that are ours by the mere fact of our birth, rights that can never under any circumstances be taken away from us, and that among them are the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

What seems simple now, however, was wildly radical in its day. The world of the 18th Century was a world that saw "rights" as something that proceeded from the authority of the state. In Europe, this frequently meant rights that were granted to the people by a monarch who ruled by God's will and with God's authority. However, those whose thoughts would frame the Declaration would have none of this. For them, the rights that were ascribed to man were a part of the very fabric of his nature and could no more be given to him by someone else than Joe could give Jim property that belonged to Steve. The Revolution that would be fought up and down the Atlantic seaboard actually had its first shot fired, not at Concord, but in these powerful words: "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."

As I was meditating on these words, I suddenly realized that I wanted to take some time over the coming months and share some thoughts with you about these rights: The rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I don't wish to present myself as an expert on this period, because I am neither a political scientist, nor am I a historian. What I am, however, is an Anglican Catholic Priest by vocation and a clinical psychologist by profession who approaches his task with a basic presupposition: I believe that a fundamentally sound understanding of these rights can only be achieved if one understands the Christian principles that are, I believe, implicit in them. Over the coming months, I plan to write a few occasional pieces on the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." These will not be scholarly. They will, however, be the thoughts and meditations of a man who has been called by God to serve at His Altar in the one nation on earth that protects his freedom to do so. While I hope that you will find some enjoyment in what I write, I pen these words primarily to offer my thanks to God who has placed me in this wonderful country for His service.

More to come...

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