The following meditation was given by Devon Miller for Florence Church of the Brethren Mennonite on July 5, 2020.
Over the last several weeks we have been reading from the book of Genesis, which tells of the origins of the Jewish nation as well as Christianity. Today’s story fits into that tradition: the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah. In the story, Isaac is given clear directions not to take a wife from among the Canaanites whom he lives among. He is to remain separate from them, in spite of their hospitality to him and his father Abraham. And so he sends for a wife from among his relatives.
This weekend we celebrate Independence Day, the day the thirteen original colonies declared their independence from the tyrannical rule of the the British King, George III. Two hundred and forty-four years ago in 1776, shy Thomas Jefferson who was only 33-years-old at the time, was given the task to pen The Declaration of Independence, in which are the words most all of us have stored in our memory: “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.” We also know the hollowness of these words, as Jefferson, a plantation owner in Virginia, held as many as one hundred and thirty enslaved people of color at any given time.
The engraving shows Blacks doing the work. Whether this is accurate on not does not make it any less interesting.
Eleven years later in 1877, James Madison drafted what would become known as The Constitution of the United States of America. Originally called A Form of Government, it was ratified in 1888 and enforced as the highest law of the newly formed nation of the United States of America in 1889. In the preamble to The Constitution, Madison wrote, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence (sic),promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” But he soon abandons the thought that justice should prevail by designating the enslaved as only counting as three-fifths of a person, and Indians not counted at all in the census count used to detemine representation in the House of Representatives.
In 1861, as the southern states moved to withdraw from the United States, a spokesman from Georgia by the name of Alexander Stephens, who would become the vice-president of the Confederacy, gave what is known as the “Cornerstone Speech,” laying out the grounds for withdrawal. In it Stephens states, “Many governments have been founded upon the principle of the subordination and serfdom of certain classes of the same race; such were and are in violation of the laws of nature. Our system commits no such violation of nature’s laws. With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system. The architect, in the construction of buildings, lays the foundation with the proper material-the granite; then comes the brick or the marble. The substratum of our society is made of the material fitted by nature for it, and by experience we know that it is best, not only for the superior, but for the inferior race, that it should be so. It is, indeed, in conformity with the ordinance of the Creator.”
Although Stephens by no means is considered a founding father, his words reflect the philosophy of the founding fathers, a philosophy that is rooted in the origins of Western political thought.
Though the connections may not be direct, the lineage of American politic thought can be traced back through the philosophy of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Machiavelli, and John Jacques Rousseau to the Greek philosopher Aristotle. In his book Politics: A Treatise on Government, Aristotle clearly differentiates between the free man and slaves. Aristotle writes: “[The need of instruments to subsist] fully explains what is the nature of a slave, and what are his capacities; for that being who by nature is nothing of himself, but totally another’s, and is a man, is a slave by nature; and that man who is the property of another, is his mere chattel, though he continues a man; but a chattel is an instrument for use, separate from the body . . . . Since then some men are slaves by nature, and others are freemen, it is clear that where slavery is advantageous to any one, then it is just to make him a slave.”
What fixes the Founding Fathers in history is their stories and their words. Not unlike the fathers of the Jewish nation, the founders of America are preserved in words considered sacred. It is interesting that those that wrote the words of the Hebrew Bible were most likely contemporaries of Aristotle and were influenced by Greek, or Hellenistic thought. The gaps between the ancient Jewish world, the Greek philosophers, and the modern nation of what has tried to be Christian America are not that great.
To understand the influence words had upon the formation of the United States of America, I recommend that you watch Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical Hamilton. By subscribing to the Disney + channel for the low price of $6.99 for one month you can watch the performance put on by the original cast. It is well worth it. It is a stark reminder of the arrogance that characterizes every generation. Today we call for change and revolution, but fifty years from now, one hundred years from now, five hundred years from now, how will the world look back on our generation and ask, “What were they thinking?”
God of those who have come before us,
their stories and their words are full of flaws,
as are ours.
We long for the light of truth
that Christ has brought into the world,
that we might offer peace, hope and love
to a world that is distraught, divisive, and downtrodden.