Sunday, July 03, 2011

On what basis can one say "all men are created equal"?

If Aristotle wrote (in Politics I:V) that "from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule," how did we come to the text of our Declaration of Independence, which says "all men are created equal"? (I'll leave to others the question of whether that applied to women or slaves.)

The idea of equality, the notion that every person on earth has dignity, was not always popular, and isn't popular everywhere today. What's the basis for this idea? Why do you believe it?

I'll tell you why I believe it. I believe it because the Scriptures tell us, "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them" (Genesis 1:27 NIV). And as Martin Luther King Jr. said, "there are no gradations in the image of God."

By the way, if you don't believe that God created humanity with a sort of divine dignity, on what basis do you say that we are all created equal? If you say it's because we have the ability to appreciate beauty, do you say that a blind person is less than equal? If it's because we have the ability to appreciate beautiful music, is a deaf person less human? If it's because we can think deep thoughts, then is everybody with an IQ less than, say, 95, entitled to less consideration under the law?

I mean seriously. I won't go into the abortion issue here, but there are some real questions about how we decide who to respect, who to protect and defend, what our society really should be about.

And to bring this to personal experience (this is a blog, right?), I have a confession. The other day I was at J&J, picking up something for dinner. As I tried to make a beeline for my car, I was accosted by a stranger in a poncho, who wanted something to eat. I said OK, do you prefer noodles or fried rice, and we went through that whole thing. I was eager to get home and did not have much patience. I did not want to hear his story or pray for him; I just wanted to be done.

So no, I did not treat him as an equal. Did I treat him with the dignity I should have—the dignity he deserves as someone created in God's image? Not so much. I could have spent a minute or two more with him; I could have heard a minute or two's worth of his story, I could have encouraged him, I could have prayed for him, I could have invited him to my home to have a shower and get his clothes washed.

Because that's what it really means, isn't it, to treat every person out there as an equal—to treat each person as I'd want to be treated? And if I"m not willing to do that, then do I actually believe that stuff about all men being created equal? And so maybe that self-evident truth isn't really as self-evident as the founding fathers said it was—even to them (and some of whom owned slaves).

May the Lord help me to be better prepared, more aware, and more willing to do his will the next time I run into someone. Not that I'll necessarily invite them to my house, but at least I could take a minute to hear their story, to encourage them, to pray for them, and at least to think about them as a real human being, a brother or sister, rather than an obstacle to my getting home to resume my middle-class life.

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