we hold these truths

Calligraphy by Lindsay Letters.

When I was a kid, not only did I learn most of the Scripture I know from listening to music; it seems as if I learned almost everything from listening to music.

We all had to memorize the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence in school:

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

And so, to “declare the causes which impelled them to the separation,” they wrote this amazing document. What’s already interesting to me is the mention of God and natural law: “the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them…” But it’s the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence that I really loved.

My Mom had an album by a group called The 5th Dimension, and there was a song on that album that was basically the second paragraph of the Declaration set to music (called “Declaration,” oddly enough), and I memorized it. Now, 50 years later, I don’t remember the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, but I still remember the second one well enough to sing it: “We hold these truths to be self-evident––that all people are created equal …” (I know: I am changing that for inclusive language. It actually says “all men.” But that’s part of my point…) It is self-evident––obvious, not open to debate––that all people are created equal and “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” That’s the foundation of our country, the principle that all people are equal.

The Laws of Nature and Nature’s God––the Creator––have endowed all human beings with rights that shall not be taken away, unalienable rights: the right to life, the right to liberty, and even the right to pursue happiness. And this is the whole reason governments are instituted, to ensure these rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness: “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted . . . deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

And “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.” That of course is why these early colonialists were dissolving their political bands with England, declaring their independence and establishing a new government, because they thought that the British had become destructive of their God-given rights. They were also hoping that the new government that they were dreaming of would lay “its foundation on such principles and organize it powers in such form,” as to them seemed “most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

Well, I loved this song and, as I say, I memorized it. It struck me not unlike later songs that I learned which were settings of sacred texts. And indeed, looking at it again, it really is a kind of sacred text.

On the record, that song was followed by a song written by the great Sam Cooke called “A Change is Gonna Come,” almost in a medley, flowing one song right to the other. But it never sounded right to me because those two songs didn’t go very well together stylistically. I must have only been 9 or 10 years old, and what I wasn’t able to comprehend at that age was the irony of putting those two songs together on that record. “A Change is Gonna Come” became a civil rights anthem. The third verse and the bridge, for example, go like this:

I go to the movie and I go downtown.
Somebody keeps tellin’ me don’t hang around.
It’s been a long, a long time coming,
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

Then I go to my brother,
And I say, “Brother, help me please!”
But he winds up knockin’ me
Back down on my knees…

It was ironic to put those two texts together because in the days when that second song was written, the early 1960s, there was still a lot of struggle going on for “equal station” for some folks who were not able to enjoy their unalienable rights of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” That’s what the civil rights struggle was all about. Are all people equal or not?

But what was even more ironic was that the Founding Fathers in 1776 saw no irony in the fact that even as they were writing the words “equal station” and “unalienable rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” many among them were slaveholders, women were not allowed a voice or vote, and the only way that the first settlers could justify taking the land of the native, first nation peoples of America was to convince themselves that the native peoples were not really human beings anyway, and so they could be treated like animals. Not even with the adoption of the 14th Amendment after the Civil War, which guaranteed equal protection under the law even to non-citizens of the country, not even then did it really sink in, and another battle had to be fought in the mid-20th century. In some way is still being fought today, calling us to our highest self as a nation.

I won’t say that Catholics have been perfect in all this (and we have not done so well with women ourselves), but one of things I am so consoled by in our tradition is that all of this comes quite natural to us and flows right out of Catholic social teaching based as it is on natural law and the imago Dei, that all people are created in the image of God. It was our own Camaldolese Pope Gregory XVI who first condemned the slave trade in his Apostolic Letter In Supremo Apostolatus in 1839, which was first read right here in America during the Provincial Council of Baltimore, calling America to its highest self, challenging the United States to live up to its own values. And for all the grief that Saint Junipero Serra gets at times for his dealings with the native peoples in the missions of California, our friend Little Bear, leader of the Esselen Tribe, told us one time, “Yes, but at least Padre Serra thought that the native peoples were human beings with souls.”

During this day and age in America, which is so deeply polarized, even among followers of Jesus, we have an important, prophetic role to play. And I am counting on the leadership in our Church, and of our churches in general, to call us to the highest common denominator. I am especially hoping that our Bishops Conference will proclaim Catholic social teaching and gospel values fearlessly from the rooftops. The Church in America has been an untiring voice for the seamless garment of life issues from the womb to the grave, including being staunchly in favor of protecting immigrants’ rights in these days, at odds with the current administration. (See for example the recent statements of Cardinal Di Nardo and Cardinal Cupich.) None of this is going against our government or our country; it is merely being yeast in the dough, and doing what prophets are meant to do, call us to our higher selves and remind us of the covenant we have entered with our Creator, nature’s God, who has endowed us and all people with these unalienable rights. As God says through the prophet Amos in the reading we heard today: If you would offer me burnt offerings, then let justice surge like water, and goodness like an unfailing stream.

Let’s pray that our great nation would always live up to its amazing ideals and its sacred trust, and that Catholics and all Christians within the nation would always be the voice of the conscience of America, calling us even higher still, to embody the teaching of the prophets of the Old Testament and the New. Pray that America and our communities, will always and be a place of welcome for all people, especially––from that other song I memorized––for the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the homeless tempest tossed. And let’s pray too that all people would enjoy the divinely endowed right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

“We Hold these truths” by Emmet Williams, 1969.

cyprian, 4 july 18


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1 Comment

  1. Excellent synthesis of the eternal truths as set forth in the Declaratiion of Independance, and our unfolding consciousness as to what this entails. Excellent as well the exhortation to keep alive the consciousness of the gospel teaching and to focus upon it.

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