Yesterday, during the Children’s sermon, it came to my attention that we all could spend some more time examining the text of the Declaration of Independence. To this end, allow me to write some notes about the document whose signing we celebrate today:
When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
This is an 18th century way of saying that you don’t just start a revolution without explaining why.
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.
The Founding Fathers are setting forth their presuppositions — those things that they all see as true and fundamental. If one is honest, these truths are only self-evident from a Christian world view. God is the source of life. God is ultimately free, therefore, being made in His image and likeness we are free and have free will. True equality can only be accomplished in Christ, who shares our humanity and loves us all — despite all the obvious inequality that exists between us. The Pursuit of Happiness is probably the most misunderstood. It does not equal hedonism, rather the ability to use one’s time, resources and skills to pursue a vocation that one wants. Wrapped up into this is the idea that this vocation will not only benefit the individual, but the family, the community and humanity as a whole. This has a striking resemblance to St. Paul’s image of the Church as the Body of Christ.
That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
We get the government we deserve.
That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.
Note again that sticky word happiness — here it means to ability to affect the overall well-being of society and humanity.
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.
This is a passage I really find quite interesting. The Founding Fathers only did this reluctantly. They were willing to suffer evil as British citizens and would have rather remained within the confines of the British Empire — those forms which they were accustomed. It is also an admonishment to all those who would start a revolution — don’t do it unless you can demonstrably prove that the evil suffered under the current government is truly insufferable.
But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.
The word I find interesting here is duty. If government is evil — if it actively and consistently denies the image and likeness of God in its citizens — we have an obligation to make sure that the government changes.
Such has been the patient sufferance of these colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former systems of government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.
This begins the longest section of the Declaration of Independence where the Founding Fathers set out to prove that the British Crown has indeed committed insufferable evil. They list over 25 abuses of King George III. We always remember unfair taxation, but there are worse. For example:
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
For brevity, I won’t quote them here but I encourage all to read them through.
We, therefore, the representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the name, and by the authority of the good people of these colonies, solemnly publish and declare, that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states;that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved;
This is the declarative statement. Having set out their argument that given self-evident truths and that the government of Britain has abused its citizens in the colonies, it is right and just that the U.S. declare its independence and set up its own form of government. Note the phrase “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world.” This is a title given to Christ. This again demonstrates the assumed Christian world-view that is the foundation of this document.
and that as free and independent states, they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do.
This is an interesting historical reality that we don’t appreciate in the post-Civil War era. Note that the Founding Fathers understood at this time that the Thirteen Colonies were thirteen separate states all with the independent power to declare war, etc. Prior to the Civil War we referred to ourselves as These United States, not The United States.
And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.
Note how this statement paints a relational image of the Cross. They rely upon God through the protection of Divine Providence, indicating a vertical relationship with God. They pledge to each other — indicating a horizontal relationship with their fellow human beings. The result of this pledge was sacrifice. Many of the men who signed the Declaration did indeed give to their new country their lives, their fortunes and the sacred honor. They picked up their cross so that those who followed might know freedom and liberty. In other words, they lived out the words of Christ — He who willingly went to the Cross for our salvation:
If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
May we all follow. Amen.