Today, on the Fourth of July, we here in the US celebrate our Independence Day, when we declared a formal break from our parent country of England and set out to establish a grand new experiment. Of course, this set off a great war, a war that not everyone in the colonies were on board with. It was a difficult season for a fledgling country, a country that seems to be in a difficult season throughout our history.
All this is to say that when we talk about independence, we don’t always realize how dangerous it really is, and how apparently safe captivity is. We always wax poetically when it comes to the notion, but really, when we say we want independence, what are we saying? The Declaration of Independence itself defines it as a set of inalienable rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” (That itself is an altered form of John Locke’s list of rights, being life, liberty, and the pursuit of property.”)
My question, then, is what does that even mean? Is this a good definition? Politically, this is a good start, simply because it sounds like good things to have, but what about philosophically, or dare I say it, theologically?
What does it mean to say that we have the right to life?
As all abstract thinking goes, this is probably the biggest question, and one that does not have really any correct answer, in my opinion. Biologically, life is that state where an organism’s cells are active and interacting with the environment in a certain way. Beyond that, science is no great help. So when we state that we have a right to life, what are we saying? Really, it comes down to having the right to be alive, to exist, to simply be who we are–which in modern history, we see countless efforts by certain parties to eradicate this. It doesn’t take long to find examples of people fighting for their very right exist. Immediately what comes to mind are people who are victims of genocide, like the Jews in Russia and Germany, the Tutsis of Rwanda, and the Armenian genocide in Turkey. These people know what value it has to be given the right to life, because that right had been taken away from them in the most violent ways imaginable.
This is the most basic and fundamental part of freedom, the right to simply be. We take for granted how much this really matters, because in many ways, a great many people never have to worry about this. However, for many people on the margins, it’s a daily struggle–perhaps not by a totalitarian regime, but simply by cultural attitudes. In present day US, there are many people who experience violations of there right to simply be who they are, and many people don’t even realize it. African Americans, the LGBT community, Latinos/as, people of Middle Eastern descent, and people who live in poverty, among many others, experience it every day in certain ways, perhaps not outright in some ways, but it’s hard to deny the cultural attitudes prevalent in society that infringe on upon their rights to be who they are in peace.
As a Christian, I would say that I have been given the charge to seek out and do what I can to resist, reject, and renounce oppression and evil in all of its forms. Christ came for all people, and offered life to people all people, including those who were on the margins. When I see injustice, when I see a violation of someone’s right to be alive, to be who they are, I don’t think I can be silent, nor do I think any Christian can be. We say that we have the right to life, and as a Christian, I see it as my purpose and mission to protect and defend that right for all people.
What does it mean to have the right to liberty?
This second statement has a bit more theological weight to it, in a way, considering in the letter to the Romans, Paul deals with this extensively. Now, when the writers of the Declaration wrote it, they were talking about political freedom from a certain regime–a noble goal indeed. I would say that, if a nation feels that they need to be independent from another, they should be given that right. In the political sense, freedom means to be able to be governed in such a way as the governed chooses to be. In the US, that means a democratic republic–we vote on our representatives, who then govern us.
Paul however, took the notion of freedom to another level, that from sin:
15So what? Should we sin because we aren’t under Law but under grace? Absolutely not! 16Don’t you know that if you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, that you are slaves of the one whom you obey? That’s true whether you serve as slaves of sin, which leads to death, or as slaves of the kind of obedience that leads to righteousness. 17But thank God that although you used to be slaves of sin, you gave wholehearted obedience to the teaching that was handed down to you, which provides a pattern. 18Now that you have been set free from sin, you have become slaves of righteousness. 19(I’m speaking with ordinary metaphors because of your limitations.) Once, you offered the parts of your body to be used as slaves to impurity and to lawless behavior that leads to still more lawless behavior. Now, you should present the parts of your body as slaves to righteousness, which makes your lives holy. 20When you were slaves of sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. 21What consequences did you get from doing things that you are now ashamed of? The outcome of those things is death. 22But now that you have been set free from sin and become slaves to God, you have the consequence of a holy life, and the outcome is eternal life. 23The wages that sin pays are death, but God’s gift is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:15-23, CEB)
Really, Paul makes a fairly radical claim–there’s no such thing as complete and total freedom, in a way. We all hold allegiance to something, and Paul puts it in a fairly binary way: either you are bound to Christ, or you are bound to Sin. (Note: this is Paul’s thinking, and so I will be dealing with it in the kind of binary that he sets up; one can argue that this is reductionistic, but so is almost any legal discussion or case, and this is the way in which Paul went about making his case.)
In a way, this kind of makes sense, and really what it comes down to is the freedom to choose who we want to be ruled by, and that is the heart of freedom. We can choose to be ruled by our passions and desires. We can choose to be ruled by our possessions. We can choose to be ruled by prejudice and hatred. Or, we can choose to be ruled by truth, and justice, and life. That is what I think it means to have the right to liberty–we have the right to choose.
What does it mean to have the right to the pursuit of happiness?
Note that there is a qualifier in the definition. It does not say that we have the right to happiness, but the right to the pursuit of it. We are given the right to pursue what makes us happy. That leaves a lot to personal definition, though. We are free to pursue what makes us happy–but what if what makes us happy infringes upon the rights of another person? If pursuing money makes us happy, and that involves making it so that someone else doesn’t have enough to live on, is that a right? Is that fair? Questions to ponder.
Happiness is subjective, and the definition of it has changed throughout history. There is one idea of what happiness is, though, that has confounded Christians for generations, and that is Jesus’s outlining of happiness in the Sermon on the Mount–the beatitudes. One way of translating the word he says is blessed, but another way is translating it as “happy.”
3″Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs. 4″Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad. 5″Happy are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earth. 6″Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they will be fed until they are full. 7″Happy are people who show mercy, because they will receive mercy. 8″Happy are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God. 9″Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children. 10″Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs. 11″Happy are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of me. 12Be full of joy and be glad, because you have a great reward in heaven. In the same way, people harassed the prophets who came before you. (Matthew 5:3-12, CEB)
Jesus claims that all of these people, who would appear to be in the worst of situations, are blessed, or happy, but he means it in a way that is far from our usual understanding. He is speaking of what it will be like in the Kingdom of Heaven, the one that is both already here, and not yet. Life in the reign of God is radically different than the one we have now, and so we look forward to the time when all of this is true and real for us.
This Independence Day, remember that independence is a fragile, complex thing, and though we celebrate a certain kind of independence, reflect on the nature of that independence for you as a person, not just as an American. You are independent. You have a right to life, to liberty, and to the pursuit of happiness. Celebrate these rights. Cherish them. Live in such a way as to recognize these rights in others. Happy Independence Day, everyone.