O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real and life is free,
Equality is the air we breathe.
– Langston Hughes
On April 13, America will pause to remember a great American, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was born in 1743. Although it is 272 years since his birth and 189 years since his death, no one can argue about the lasting imprint that he left.
Jefferson was a brilliant man, a statesman, an architect, a scholar, a musician and a skilled politician. He served as the third president of this fledgling nation, yet he is chiefly remembered for the document that set the framework for American democracy – The Declaration of Independence. I want to recite the words of that document that are most often quoted:
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.
These words have been referenced by a host of people who have been in a place where their liberty and their freedom have been denied them – from Frederick Douglas to Martin Luther King Jr. Those lines have been recited by school children, politicians, women and men who hear in those words that they are included in this American story that is still being written.
Great men and great women, however, are never one-dimensional. They are complex and flawed. That is certainly true of Jefferson. While he held throughout his life that slavery was wrong, he owned a couple hundred slaves. And while he introduced legislation to abolish slavery, slavery actually grew under his presidency.
One historian has written that Jefferson’s belief “in the necessity of abolition was intertwined with his racial beliefs. He thought that White Americans and enslaved Blacks constituted two separate nations who could not live together peacefully in the same country.”
Having said that, we are still left with Jefferson’s vision. His words have been indelibly etched in our brains as well as on our hearts – words for every age to wrestle and struggle with and to work to make this an America that those words point us toward.
In a very real sense every protest movement has been inspired by the words of Jefferson’s document, including the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Our greatness as a nation has been in this guiding principle of democracy and the values of freedom, justice and the rights of all people to participate fully in a nation that affirms that all lives matter and that justice and liberty are indivisible.
America has not been perfect, and we have not always fully lived out or practiced well the words that are at the heart of the Declaration of Independence, but we have not yet come to the end of the journey.
The gospel message fundamentally affirms that all lives matter, that there are no dividing walls and that justice is God’s intention for all humanity. Yes, we are sinful people and that sin is not merely individual. It is reflected in our institutions.
Yet we do not despair nor give up nor become cynical because we and our nation are not perfect. We stand in the light of an Easter dawn. And Easter declares that our future is open and not closed. It declares there is forgiveness for the sins that are ever before us and that we struggle with every day. It is because of the gift and the promise of Easter that we have hope, and that hope is deep, as deep as the wounds suffered by Jesus on the cross and as radical and powerful as the love that unsealed the stone that was at the entrance of Jesus’ tomb. This is the hope that never gives up. It requires that we keep praying and working to reflect the newness that we have in the resurrected Christ.
No, we have not yet come to the end of the journey. The promise is still before us and, by the grace of God, we will continue to live into that promise. Thomas Jefferson might find a lot to celebrate in this America and so do we.