The question I hear our nation asking in between the texts and soundbites and tweets is, “What are our defining values as a people and as a nation?”
Do we stay home to prevent the spread of a disease with grave consequence to both micro and macro economics? If we choose to not stay home, do we follow basic guidelines that are presumed to also minimize the spread of the disease and possibly allow for the slow reversal of those grave economic consequences? Why do either if both infringe on personal freedoms?
A similar series of questions can be asked in our other, more existential, national crisis over systemic racism. What do we do? Do we take some action through whatever means works best for us: active protesting on the streets, donations of money, letters to political leaders, writing, etc.? Do we take this moment for both personal and societal introspection to understand the reasons for the anger and fear of the African-American population but also to understand and accept responsibility for the part we played in creating, continuing, or contributing to these emotions either implicitly, explicitly, or both? Or do we do neither because these actions infringe on personal freedoms or because these actions might create an end-state that will?
In the answer to each of these series of questions resides a fundamental value. For my own fundamental value, I turn to King’s words again: “I still believe that standing up for the truth of God is the greatest thing in the world. This is the end of life. The end of life is not to be happy. The end of life is not to achieve pleasure and avoid pain. The end of life is to do the will of God, come what may.” and “As John says, ‘God is love.’ He who loves is a participant in the being of God. He who hates does not know God.” *
If our lives are to be defined by this value of love as prescribed to us by God, than we are compelled to take actions, if at the cost, and a temporary cost at that, of personal freedom, that prevent the spread of a disease that overwhelms the medical system and puts people with weakened immune systems at risk; we are also compelled to do something to address the anger and fear of African-Americans and to change the narrative of systemic racism that haunts our nation. In the latter case, we risk the failure of the great American experiment as defined by the words of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.
The Declaration of Independence states, “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.” I want to draw attention to two words: Creator and among. If we are to turn to the Creator as the source of our Rights and by accepting that God is love, the very source and strength of our rights is derived from love itself. The use of the word ‘among’ when listing the unalienable Rights presumes that these are not the ONLY three unalienable Rights; the remaining spelled out in the Bill of Rights as they amend our Constitution.
But the first right is Life, before the pursuit of happiness, and therefore closer in import to the love of God. Our fundamental value that defines the actions we are compelled to take as we answer the two sets of questions listed above, therefore, must be one that preserves and promotes Life. The answers, to me, become as self-evident as our unalienable Rights. Doing nothing is the opposite of doing the will of God.
*Reference: Washington, James Melvin (ed). A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. Harper and Row, Publishers, San Francisco, 1986; pp 10-11.