In Awe of America's Redeemers
From its inception, America's history has often been the product of the changing balance between compelling but conflicting national ideals. The federal versus the state, "rugged individualism" versus collective action for the public good, the separation of church and state, and isolationism versus crusading globalism are just some of the pendulum swings that have defined--and redefined--the United States.
But the last several days have witnessed an epoch-making advance in perhaps the greatest unresolved tension of them all. Just who is "an American?" Will the circle of liberty that contains, protects and unifies the American community be expanded or contracted? Is the American notion of freedom just a narrow conception of a "right to be left alone" or a national commitment to ever-expanding access to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?" As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. put it on August 28, 1963:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."
In Washington and in Charleston, South Carolina, this week, King's dream seemed a little closer to fruition. While not welcomed by all, the American people nevertheless experienced what Lincoln at Gettysburg proclaimed "a new birth of freedom." And it was purchased only with the pain, sacrifice and blood of African-Americans and LGBT Americans whose dignity, humanity and grace would simply not be denied.
At the Supreme Court and at Emanuel AME Church, Americans were confronted with a moral challenge which, as JFK described it, "is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution." Do we mean what we say in the 14th Amendment?
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
In Obergefell v. Hodges, Justice Kennedy writing for the Supreme answered in the affirmative. Gay and lesbian Americans, Kennedy argued, merely "ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right." On Friday, President Obama called Jim Obergefell not just to congratulate him on his victory, but to thank him:
"Not only have you been a great example for people, but you're also going to bring about a lasting change in this country. And it's pretty rare where that happens. So I couldn't be prouder of you and your husband. God bless you."
Tens of thousands of Americans, encouraged and supported by millions more, sacrificed and suffered so that the United States could "live out the true meaning of its creed."
But they weren't America's only redeemers on Friday. At the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, another group of Americans challenged us to mean what we say in our Declaration of Independence and in our Constitution. President Obama was speaking for--and to--all Americans when he described the redemptive role of the black church:
A sacred place, this church, not just for blacks, not just for Christians but for every American who cares about the steady expansion of human rights and human dignity in this country, a foundation stone for liberty and justice for all.
And if we truly believe what we say in our foundational documents, Obama preached in his eulogy, we surely must embrace the Reverend Clementa Pinckney's vision as our own:
What is true in the south is true for America. Clem understood that justice grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other; that my liberty depends on you being free, too.
In his Second Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln cautioned his countrymen North and South that neither they nor their nation would be redeemed until the promise of liberty for all was made real.
Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
One hundred fifty years after the end of the Civil War and 147 years after the passage of the 14th Amendment, America is still paying for the blood drawn by the lash. But if the liberal project is to narrow, as Bruce Springsteen helpfully put it, "the distance between American ideals and American reality," this was a momentous week. Those who made marriage equality a reality and those whose grace and courage in the face of racist terror challenged us to follow "the better angels of our nature" advanced the cause of liberty for all Americans for all time. Our national redemption is still possible as long we follow them in becoming redeemers ourselves.
"For too long, we were blind," President Obama explained. "But we see that now."