With the July 4 holiday upon us and Google at my fingertips, I decided to take a break from the news headlines and actually read the text that launched this nation: the Declaration of Independence.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that, despite years of binge-watching “Law and Order,” I was still able to recall many of the document’s sounding phrases (for which I credit the diligent Sisters of St. Joseph, my grade school teachers, rather than my television-blunted brain).
Scrolling down in my browser, I was equally delighted to find that the Declaration is a short read. As one scholar observed, the document’s preamble alone (the part most referenced) is “a model of clear, concise, simple statement.” As another analyst pointed out, the section “capsulizes in five sentences — 202 words — what it took (philosopher) John Locke thousands of words to explain in his Second Treatise of Government.”
It’s ironic that a group of lawyers — well, mostly one lawyer, Thomas Jefferson — came up with such a succinct document.
And it’s even more ironic that the Declaration of Independence ultimately affirms not a rugged, self-serving individualism, but interdependence.
You could even argue that the very structure of the document reveals the need for community and collaboration. Lead author Jefferson drew on the 18th century’s literary “Style Periodique” to compose sentences that are, as Scottish minister and scholar Hugh Blair noted, “linked together, and hanging upon one another, so that the sense of the whole is not brought out till the close.”
When reading the Declaration, especially some two and a half centuries after its ink dried, we would do well to admit our desperate need to cooperate in striving for the future our nation’s founders glimpsed.
And it was only glimpsed, since these men had some serious blind spots in their vision.
The “unalienable rights” asserted by the Declaration did not, in the minds of its signers, extend to indigenous Americans, whom the document denounced as “merciless Indian Savages.”
Women, blacks and persons with disabilities weren’t considered to be entitled to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Our nation’s founders strained their eyes to discern a reality that can only be pursued, but never completely realized in any lifetime, or in human history. As St. Paul reminds us, “we know partially and we prophesy partially, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away” (1 Cor 13:9-10). That perfection will only be manifested when Christ returns in glory to claim in full his rightful kingdom.
Until then, we live in that often heartbreaking space between the cherished ideal and the all-too-imperfect earthly reality. The contrast between the lofty language of the Declaration of Independence and our intervening history — as well as our fractious present — can be a wrenching one indeed.
Yet as members of the body of Christ, we are called to inspire our nation to, as Martin Luther King Jr. exhorted, “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.”
That task is not an exercise in self-fulfillment, but a daily, dogged commitment to the “common good of the society,” which government is established to ensure (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1898).
We effectively deprive ourselves of our unalienable rights when we seek them in isolation from our fellow creatures. That’s because “the good of each individual is necessarily related to the common good, which in turn can be defined only in reference to the human person” (CCC, 1905).
And because “human interdependence is increasing … throughout the world,” we can’t build our nation in a vacuum: “The unity of the human family, embracing people who enjoy equal natural dignity, implies a universal common good” (CCC, 1911).
Fireworks on the Fourth flash for a moment, but authentic liberty shines steadily, and ever more brightly, when we recall the real source of our freedom, and labor to ensure that all human beings may too come to know it.
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