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.
Two hundred thirty years ago, a group of men far apart from the grip of the Old World wrote a declaration that has been the seminal vein of hope in the hearts of people.
It was a declaration based on this simple principle, "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."
Here in one sentence is a summation that God would desire each of us to have the same start in life.
Yet declarations and deeds do not always go hand in hand. The framers of this document wrote as men of their time. They wrote as Englishmen about to embark on a profound social experiment in the New World.
But who would be invited to fully participate in their world? At that time, slavery was extant throughout the colonies; to "push the envelope" meant to lose the southern colonies if not more. The immediate need to forge a union trumped the need to explore the fullness of what equality meant.
Their answer of momentary convenience would soon be framed in the Constitution that granted slaves a "three-fifths status" in calculating electoral balance in the emerging states. Simply put, that means not fully human and thus not equal. The answer was pushed off onto future generations. A war between the states would have to be waged to expand the concept of equality.
Defaulting on a promissory note
Over 40 years ago, one social commentator observed about America's progress toward equality:
"It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check; a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.' But we refuse to believe the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check..."
Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out that America, in spite of its other notable qualities, had come up short. But America was by no means alone. The concept that all men are created equal has never come easy.
Much of history offers even less than a bad check. The Egyptians contemptuously looked down upon the shepherds known as Hebrews and enslaved them. The Mesopotamian empires decimated whole peoples and ethnically cleansed the realms of their opponents.
The Greeks looked upon all who were not Hellenic as "barbarians," and the Romans often did not give their slaves any formal names lest they grow attached to a sub-form of humanity.
The Jewish world viewed "the nations" (non-Jews) as "unclean" rather than the next objects of God's love and embrace. These same "good religious folk" looked contemptuously upon their neighbors the Samaritans, who shared a common God, but not the same mountain worship place.
Since the time Christ walked upon this earth, religious folk have squabbled and even come to blows over who is right, who is in charge and who is closest to the original intent of Christ's message.
Yes, some of the greatest battles in Western civilization over the last 500 years have been between those who equally profess following the "Prince of Peace" and, yet, unequally treat one another without respect or dignity. Some have played out on the battlefields of Europe; some in the halls of churches around the United States.
That same kind of battle is occurring in Islam over the matter of rightful earthly succession of "The Prophet." Just look at a virtual classroom in real time. It's called Iraq, in which Shiite and Sunni battle each other between both bowing toward Mecca in prayer.
"The cold within"
After 6,000 years it's apparent we still haven't gotten the big picture of God's love. Long ago I heard a poem that gripped me as I heard it read. I copied it down and often give it a look to measure the equality meter of my heart. Here is the poem:
"Six humans trapped by happenstance, in dark and bitter cold. Each one possessed a stick of wood, or so the story's told.
"Their dying fire in need of logs, the first woman held hers back, for on the faces around the fire, she noticed one was black.
"The next man looking 'cross the way, saw one not of his church, and couldn't bring himself to give the fire his stick of birch.
"The third one sat in tattered clothes, he gave his coat a hitch. Why should his log be put to use, to warm the idle rich?
"The rich man just sat back and thought of the wealth he had in store, and how he could keep what he had earned, from the lazy, shiftless poor.
"The black man's face bespoke revenge, as the fire passed from sight. For all he saw in his stick of wood, was a chance to spite the white.
"The last man of this forlorn group, did naught except for gain. Giving only to those who gave, was how he played the game.
"The logs held tight in death's still hands, were proof of human sin. They didn't die from the cold without, they died from the cold within" (author unknown).
The principles and prophecies of Scripture reject the world of "them and us" and speak of a new kind of society. The inclusive embrace of God's Word began preparing a people to understand equality before God as far back as the days of Isaiah. He spoke of a time when "the L ord has made bare His holy arm in the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God" (Isaiah:52:10).
It was hard for the recipients of Isaiah's message to comprehend the magnitude of what "all the nations" truly meant. Luke, the Greek doctor, would record John the Baptist citing this scripture (Luke:3:6) to an audience accustomed to their philosophy of one-upmanship: "We have Abraham as our father."
Why are people so concerned about who we are and where we come from, rather than what God is doing with all humanity and our common destination?
Jesus would lay down the gauntlet again and again in His ministry. The God of the universe was different from the petty gods of washed-up empires covered by the sands of time. He spoke of a Being who "so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life" (John:3:16). Jesus was prying open "the vaults of opportunity."
God shows no partiality
The men who heard those marvelous words from the Savior's mouth did not immediately understand. It would be years before Peter could utter, "I perceive that God shows no partiality," as he sat down with the Roman Cornelius and his household (Acts:10:34). "Three-fifths thinking" was thrown out of the Church. Every human being would be considered a candidate to receive God's affection and to experience the joy of His love.
Paul, who had been a "Hebrew of the Hebrews," would scripturally cement God's revelation with these words: "For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians:3:26-28).
But such words are not simply philosophical platitudes to give us a feel-good approach about ourselves and others. They help us understand prophecies regarding the coming Kingdom of God on earth. Isaiah:2:2 speaks of a world in which "all nations shall flow" to Zion, the city we now know as Jerusalem.
It will certainly be a welcoming environment, because it is clearly stated from the mouth of these future pilgrims, "Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the L ord , to the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us His ways, and we shall walk in His paths" (verse 3).
It sounds as if everyone will be willing to throw a stick in to keep the glow of God's ways alive, not only for themselves, but also for others.
Until that time we have some serious homework to prepare for such a world. It's time to stoke the fire through our relationships with others. It is time to treat people with respect.
It's time to fulfill the prophecy of Ezekiel:36:26, which speaks of those to whom God will give "a new heart" and "a new spirit." He says, "I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you." It is a Spirit that motivates us to understand the simple math of God's way of thinking—that every person is equal to every other, not "three fifths" or "subhuman."
Possessing a big vision in a lonely walk
But at times it can be a lonely walk. In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a letter to fellow clergymen who desired him to stop his campaign against institutionalized and legalized discrimination. They wanted him to stop, not because they didn't think their cause was just, but because they had lost hope.
Now King was in jail and the cause seemed stalled. His response to them is known today as "The Letter From the Birmingham Jail." It is in his response to hopelessness that we can see our way forward and take the steps of "this is the way, walk in it" (Isaiah:30:21), as we exemplify in thought, word and deed that all men are created equal.
King wrote, "Let us hope the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not-too-distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty." Signed: "Yours for the cause of peace and brotherhood, Martin Luther King." WNP