For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
Matthew 16:26 NRSV
I have always had mixed emotions regarding the nation’s founding document, The Declaration of Independence. What lofty ideals spread before us! 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. Among the noblest of thoughts in Western nationhood, they are!
This declaration is a formal announcement, belief, creed, a self-evident truth that was revealed. The truth was that “all men” were created equal was not based on their experiences in Europe populated by hierarchies and social stratification. Nor was it based on their experience in what would become the United States of America. Ask the native peoples of this land if they felt included in this “all men.” Query the enslaved and free Black people, the women and white men without property. Was it revealed by Enlightenment philosophy and social theories that landed intellectually while not being embodied?
Despite contradictions in the application of the ideals, it is indeed true that all are created equal and endowed with certain inherent rights that cannot be taken away regardless of what a person has or does not have, regardless of what a person does or does not do, regardless of the needs/desires of the social order. Each person has the right to life. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. effectively indicted the real with the ideal authorizing the necessity of non-violent protest in the march toward freedom land.
Dr. Thurman explores the concept of life in a sermon delivered at Fellowship Church on August 12, 1951. Titled The Declaration of Independence II: Life – An Inalienable Right, it is included in Peter Eisenstadt and Walter Fluker’s: Howard Thurman: Democracy And the Soul of America.
Thurman states that “life appears in the Declaration of Independence as one of the rights: the right to life." Thurman questions the idea of individual life as private property, that those not actually included in “all men" were property.
Property cannot demand rights or engage the soul. It has neither the energy nor legal standing to assert rights. Life has the right to do more than argue for life. It is itself alive and the ground of aliveness for all living creatures. There is within it potential for kinetic energy. Thurman defines potential as that which has not yet come to pass but which is always coming to pass. It is only the potential, the undisclosed, the unfinished that has a future. It is life’s nature to move, not stagnate. adrienne maree brown clearly states that life is not stationary. Life moves toward life. Longing moves toward longing. Similarly, for Thurman, Life is alive and seeks to be fulfilled.
The movement of life is the breaking through the eggshell beckoning the chick to the life external to the shell, the life destined for it that cannot be achieved while sheltered in the shell, the environment that has nursed it yet must be abandoned or the chick will die.
The movement of life is that determination that impels people to walk, march, organize, pray, and follow a dream for 381 days in Montgomery, Alabama. It is that quality that called trans individuals to fight against abuse at Stonewall. It is the inspiration that called forth the first women’s march on Washington, beautifully captured in Frances Reid’s documentary: Greetings From Washington DC. It is that which says you are more than what others have labeled you and circumscribed your life and freedom.
It is the reality that you are not property to be used and discarded. No! A spirit within seeks to soar as one with eagle wings. This urge toward the unattained, unfulfilled, the Great Mystery lives in each human soul. We may ignore it, but it is still there. And one day, hopefully, we will let it loose.
The title “Stop the World. I want to get off” speaks to the exasperation I sometimes feel. Events of our world disrupt community and creativity, decency and democracy, faith, and fortitude. Even within such lethargic and brief visits, there is the remembrance that at least once in a lifetime we come to “know” a moment, a special moment, which reminds us of the potential to soar and accomplish great things.
And if we seize that moment, the moment carries eternal glimpses of life beyond our socialization, beyond our imagination.
Many have had such moments: Ella Baker, Dorothy Cotton, adrienne maree brown, and each of us. Jesus told his disciples who were no more special than we that they would have moments in which they would do even greater things than he. What assurance, confidence, and affirmation that was.
A favorite film, Dead Poets Society, pleads with us to seize the day, to make our lives extraordinary.
Still dealing with the idea of life in the Declaration of Independence, Thurman provokes a response to an essential question of life. Different from flights of and in life, it interrogates the deepest protest of our life, the giving up of life. He asks: “Under what circumstances would you gladly give up your life?
We live in every moment and we die in every moment according to Kazantzakis.
Are there things, ideas, circumstances more important than our physical existence? What might some of the things, ideas, and circumstances be? Are there matters that summon our high resolve to which we would consciously yield our lives? Throughout history, there have been those who answered the summons. Queen Ester violated the protocol of not having an audience with the king unless summoned to halt the destruction of her people, Jewish people, having denied her own Jewish identity. Responding to the possibility of her own death, she nevertheless approached the king with the conviction: If I perish, I perish. Dietrich Bonhoeffer would later say: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
Parents often sacrifice material gains and luxuries, even life itself to provide for, protect, and promote the aspiration and illumination of their children.
Participants in movements marches focused on the transformed society that was their goal. However, death was often at their doors. Yet, they continued doing what needed to be done.
The question is how we make ourselves available to life, the call of life, even beyond that enunciated in The Declaration of Independence. How do we live beyond the narrow spectrum of life that normally satisfies when there is so much that needs to be silenced, so much that needs to be heard, so much that needs to be done. How do we put ourselves at the disposal of life’s longing for Beloved Community, for the Kin-dom? And how will our lives touch this generation and generations to come?
Therefore, when I say life is a right, I mean more than the continuation of my physical existence. It may not be important whether I live or die. It is important that the dreams that disturbed my mind and quicken my spirit do not perish; that the dreams to which, when I [am] most myself, I have yielded with enthusiasm and conviction be passed on through me with ever-increasing fulfillment. It is better that I shall live thus than I shall continue living, eating, sleeping and breeding. Until I am ready to make that kind of choice, until I am willing to live my life at that dimension, then if you can jeopardize the security that guarantees the continuation of my body, I will sell anything –honor, integrity, character—anything. What would I give in exchange for my life? Which is the more real to me: my physical life or the loss of my soul?
Then he puts the question to each of us.
What about you?
Life is the greatest gift of all the riches on this earth; life and its creatures, great and small, of high and lowly birth: so treasure it and measure it with deeds of shining worth.
We are of life, its shining gift, the measure of all things; up from the dust our temples lift, our vision soars on wings; for seed and root, for flower and fruit, our grateful spirit sings.
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P.S. A few days ago, a mother and three children stood before the counter to select a birthday cake. The birthday boy was turning nine. I informed them that I was having a birthday soon also. But I was “wayyyy” past nine. We all smiled. I think I could give up my life of 77 years for them. So, bright and beautiful they were.