WE HOLD THESE TRUTHS…
A Reflection on Biblical Spirituality and the Declaration of Independence
We hold these truths… The “Founding Fathers” [and Mothers, too] inherited a long held belief in freedom and independence. It certainly did not begin with the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It certainly wasn’t just a reaction to King George III’s tyrannical behavior. Freedom and independence are beliefs that came with the first men and women who landed on the American continent. They brought with them their political and religious beliefs that were rooted in scripture, and their desire to see that freedom take root in this new land.
The most prominent source of this spirituality of freedom came from the Exodus experience of the Israelites. Held in bondage by the Egyptian Pharaoh their lives were made miserable with hard labor [Exodus 1:14] and genocide [Exodus 1:16, 22]. However, “God heard their groaning and called to mind his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked down upon the children of Israel and knew…” [Exodus 2:24-25]. God was mindful of the Israelites and revealed himself to Moses as a God who wished for the liberation of his people. Through the leadership of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam God led the chosen people through the waters of the Red Sea, accompanied them through forty years wandering in the wilderness, and eventually brought them into the Promised Land. Hardship and challenge did not disappear once they crossed the Red Sea. In fact, they merely changed form as the Israelites made their way through the desert. Though guided by God’s cloud by day and fire by night, the wanderers still questioned his goodness and providence. They felt oppressed by the journey, by the lack of food and water, even by the lengthy time that Moses spent on Mount Sinai talking with God and receiving the Ten Commandments. There were many moments of grumbling, looking back, longing for better conditions, and worshipping golden calves. However, eventually there was the entry into the land God had promised, a settling and recommitment to their status as God’s people. Still, as we read the prophets we realize that the Israelites needed constant reminders of the covenant, constant calls to conversion and to faithfulness to the God who is Faithfulness itself. Their call to freedom was self-evident, but they continually needed reminders of their responsibility to be partners in achieving that liberation.
The early American colonists reflected on this story of the Israelites’ journey to freedom. They, like the Israelites with whom they identified, came from places where they could not worship as they felt called by God. These colonists prayed to the God who desired that his people [both Israelites and colonists] be able to worship freely. They, like the Israelites, had left lands of oppression, often without government consent, often with fear and danger. They, too, escaped through water [the Red Sea or the Atlantic Ocean], and came to a land of wilderness where it was a struggle to find food and water, where it took great courage to carve out a new home, though it seemed to them like the Promised Land. They, too, took time to settle in the new land, often forgot the God who brought them there, and sometimes repented and started anew. In spite of the hardships and struggles, these colonists saw the American experience as a holy enterprise. They endeavored to create a “New World” that they perceived to be a new way of life and governance, not just a new geographic territory. As time went on, these colonists, like the Israelites, again knew the need to defy the sovereigns who treated them unjustly. They, too, felt oppressed by governments that taxed them unreasonably and made their lives miserable. They, too, felt that they could not determine their own fates because the Crown made decisions without their input or consent. So they rebelled, they sought justice, and they declared themselves independent from the power that did not recognize their rights.
We hold these truths to be self-evident… John Winthrop, Lord Baltimore, Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, William Penn, and other early colonial leaders may not have the long-term religious status that Moses does, but they certainly led Americans to the self-evident truth that religious freedom is essential to our way of life. Along with the scriptural values of freedom, these leaders and their actions were part of the intellectual background for those at the Second Continental Congress who issued the Declaration of Independence.
That value of freedom before God led Thomas Jefferson, the writer of the Declaration, to state that certain truths were self-evident, obvious in and of themselves: “all men [sic] 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.” Jefferson went on to state that governments are formed by the people in order to secure these rights and that when governments do not so act, they need to be abolished.
However lofty these ideas are, and no doubt many have given their lives to insure they remain possible, they are still in the process of being realized. We may agree that all are created equal, but in practice, we lag behind when bigotry, ageism, racism, sexism, religious intolerance, etc. are still every day experiences in this country. The reign of God is both present and yet-to-come, and we are called to make that reign more real, visible, and evident. Part of that reign of God comes with the on-going struggle to provide for ourselves and others that equality and those unalienable rights that are at the core of our national identity.
The Declaration of Independence is not just an historical document to be remembered each July 4th. It should remind us much more frequently than that of the ideals upon which our country was founded and the truths that we should, with God’s help, strive to embody. Those truths need to be part of each of our daily lives, as well as the environment in which the government and government officials serve the citizens. This isn’t just because it is part of the ideals upon which our national culture is based, but because it a part of our God given call to be his people, to act as the inspirited Word of God directs us.
We hold these truths to be self-evident… As Christians, as believers, we also hold other related truths to be self-evident. The prophets called to mind the rights of the poor, the widow, and the orphans, those who are in need of the community’s support. Additionally, the prophetic writings remind us of justice, faithfulness, and commitment to a covenantal relationship with God. Christ spoke often of the need for love, both of neighbor and God.
The Declaration of Independence was written in the context of violated rights that of necessity needed to be reclaimed. It speaks of what needs to be restored to those who have been denied. But it only has one perspective: what is owed to us. The scriptures offer us a fuller picture. The Word of God calls us to be mindful not only of what rights we have, but also to be aware of what obligations we have to help enable others to claim those same rights. We cannot be so strong is our claim for our own rights that we trample on others’ rights in the process.
The scriptures also show us a broader and deeper understanding of freedom and equality, which come from a relationship with God. Jesus told his disciples that sin makes us slaves, but the truth and faith will free us [John 8:32, 34]. Paul in his letter to the Galatians continues that theme of the slavery of sin and the freedom of the children of God. In Galatians 4:5-7 Paul reminds us that God sent his Son to enable us to become his adopted children, children who are close enough to God to call him “Abba.” Paul strongly points out that when Christ freed us by his death and resurrection, he meant for us to stay free and therefore we must “stand firm, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery…what matters is faith that makes its power felt through love” [Galatians 5:1, 6]. Christ calls us to a freedom that is for others, to a freedom that is compelled by love, and becomes a concrete expression of love for God through love of those around us. We are called to more than political freedom. We are indeed called to accept that freedom from God that allows us to assist others to achieve their freedom because we act as God’s messengers, Christ’s ambassadors, and the Spirit’s embodied love.
We hold these truths… As we celebrate the 4th of July, what does freedom and equality mean to each of us reading this reflection? What other truths do you hold to be self-evident? What other truths, relationships, values do you strive to make real and visible in your own life? What do you do when your values and your truth seem to be in conflict with those of others around you? What happens when your pursuit of happiness clashes with other’s right to justice? How is Christ’s love compelling you to be an agent of freedom and love?
A suggestion: Read over the Declaration of Independence if you haven’t done so lately. It really is very impressive. Consider that the signers ended with the statement: “We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.” In light of their public stand against the British Crown, this is not an insignificant statement. What have you pledged to secure the voice of the Gospel in this world? For what persons or values would you pledge your life, possessions and/or honor?
May our God given freedom continue to be a blessing for each of us, our country, and the world around us. May our liberty be matched with charity, our freedom be joined to justice, and our happiness combined with compassion.
Reprinted with permission of Spirit & Life, published July 2010 by the Benedictine sisters of Perpetual Adoration, Tucson AZ, www.benedictinesisters.org
 Special thanks for the inspiration for this article to Professor Emeritus Roderick Frazier Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind, 4th ed. Yale University Press, 2001. I first read this classic when taking a class in American Intellectual History from Dr. Nash. It is an excellent study of the American concept of wilderness. The first chapter is helpful in understanding the Judeo-Christian biblical understanding of wilderness in light of the American experience.