The picture is a section of Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths…” Our nation has been working on what this soaring rhetoric means. Initially, “all men” meant, literally, men – and specifically white, male, protestant, land-owing men. “No Irish need apply…” Our nation struggled with the reality of chattel slavery from it’s founding. A section decrying slavery was edited out of the Declaration itself, over Jefferson’s objections… and yet Jefferson himself owned slaves. It’s complicated. It is, in the words of Rev. Jim Wallis, “our nation’s original sin.” Progress has been slow and difficult.
In 1986, Jeff Sessions was nominated for a judgeship. During his confirmation hearings, a significant and concerning body of evidence showed he was overtly racist. His comments and actions were so concerning that the *Republican* majority committee voted against his nomination because they saw he could not be an impartial judge. Some years later, Sessions won election as a US Senator from Alabama. He serves on the Judiciary Committee. His public rhetoric is tamer than it was, but I am unaware of, and have not been able to find anywhere, that he recanted his prior statements – things like calling a white lawyer who represented a black client a “race traitor.”
It is VERY possible that Sen. Sessions has changed. I am certainly a very different person than I was in 1986. I have learned, been challenged, experienced more, and changed on a variety of topics. I believe people can change – Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, a former KKK member, recanted and served in a way that won support from a wide spectrum of people, including the NAACP. Sen. Sessions, however, called the NAACP an “anti-American organization.” Does he still feel that way? It matters because he is reportedly being nominated to serve our nation as Attorney General.
This role has a lot of power in determining how laws are enforced. If “all lives matter” then jurisprudence that denotes enemies by the color of their skin, rather than the content of their character and specifically their actions, is a problem. Personally, I don’t think that Sen. Sessions has changed – what HAS changed is that his views that were disqualifying for a judgeship in 1986 are now seen as relatively moderate within the Republican party being recast in President-Elect Trump and his chief advisor Steve Bannon’s “alt-right” image. Sen. Sessions is seen as a step back from the calls (from KS Sec of State Kris Kobach and others) for a registry of Muslims and citation of Japanese Internment camps as a positive model… I suppose I should be relieved that we are stepping back from such calls to a mere advocacy of “Jim Crow” policies of division and unequal rights. I am not relieved.
I have recently come under considerable pressure about how I comment on politics. I have some things to learn. I recognize that every time I take a stand, I risk offending, confusing or alienating someone who disagrees. That is troubling. What I am also aware of and committed to is that every time I do NOT take a stand on something that matters, my silence likewise speaks volumes. I agree with those like Elie Weisel and Desmond Tutu that neutrality always helps the oppressor. I also believe that when, in an effort to fight injustice, we start using the same tactics of division, demeaning, and distortion, we fail. When we become that which we set out to fight, then that which we oppose has won. I have occasionally, particularly on twitter during this election season, crossed that line. I believe that I could stand by the bulk of my posts across social media, but I am also seeking ways to back away from pot shots and engage in conversation. This post is one such attempt.
I am deeply committed to finding ways that our nation, and all it’s citizens and all those who find its ideals and history of progress inspiring, can come together. There will be differences in approach, in policy, in vision. I do not believe people who deny other’s basic humanity should have the power of our government. While the Trump administration is being stocked with white nationalist, I’m told to wait and see.
I don’t think my neighbors have that luxury. I must speak. I must risk my own security, and comfort to seek to ensure theirs. I believe I must do this both because I believe in the soaring words of the Declaration and my responsibility as a citizen of the nation it helped create and because I believe that Christ is King.
Let me unpack that last statement a bit.
First, I do not think my faith – or any specific faith – should control our collective politics. But that’s where I center myself and my faith demands I see all people as bearing the Imagio Dei – the image of God. God in whom we all – even the folks I dislike and disagree with – “live and move and have our being.” I’ll come back to this in a moment.
One of the reasons we have historically been a “great nation;” that we have been seen as a shining light of freedom the world over, is we have taken seriously the words our founders struggled to convey seriously and as a challenge to ourselves. We have constantly sought to better understand what it means that all persons have basic, unalienable rights – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Living like that is true means asking difficult questions of ourselves. It means asking what “all men” means and realizing that it includes women, and different skin tones. It means understanding religious freedom means my neighbor is free to worship, or not, differently than I do. It’s messy and its complicated. Our history is checkered – but for the most part, even in our disagreements over tax policy and how we organize communities and businesses, the shared commitment has been to the good of all. I see that changing. I increasingly see disagreement being division and a disregard of the rights and welfare of others. I see fear being used as a weapon of control. I must speak.
I refuse to let fear govern me. I refuse to look away while other’s rights are trampled. I cannot do everything. I cannot understand every complex issue, but I can speak when what I see happening “cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love.” I can speak when “all” doesn’t seem to mean all. I can use my voice to amplify the voices of those not heard, those falsely accused, those weighted down with heavy burdens.
And to return to the last part… I must speak because as a Christian my ultimate loyalty is not to the state, not to a party, not to a philosophy – my loyalty is to God, who became flesh. My loyalty is to Christ and him crucified and risen.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to God. May my neighbor see in my life a love that follows Christ. Not just one that gives lip service to a statement of belief, but one that follows Jesus – even into Samaria and Jerusalem; one that follows Jesus to healing Sabbath and healing ON the Sabbath, and one that follows Jesus to the table to feast, laugh, and discuss with a wide variety of sinners, Pharisees and tax collectors alike. Come what may – because, for me, anything less is just chasing after the wind.
Blessings on your journey.
Christopher Eshelman, Nov 18th, 2016