March 25, 2013 Length: 51:24
After a season of elections, an inauguration, the State of the Union address, as well as social and political unrest, Fr. Thomas Hopko explores an ancient Christian perspective on the rights identified in the Declaration of Independence.
These past weeks and months, days, we, who live in the United States, have followed an election of a new president in November and then we witnessed the inauguration of the president (not the new president, but the reelection of Barak Obama as the President of the United States) and we witnessed all the goings-on at the inauguration. And we also then heard President Obama’s State of the Union Address. And all of this was happening with the background of all the troubles in the United States Congress — the Senate, the House of Representatives — all the difficulties about the economy, about the debt, about cutting spending, hopefully, and the issue of taxation. Then there was also all the issues about foreign policy. In fact, all of the issues of the time were before us during these days. And then in the midst of it also there was this terrible business about the guns and the assault weapons and all the legislation that has to do with possessing guns in the United States, because of the Newtown tragedy and many other tragedies that also took place in these days.
When we hear the rhetoric and hear the politicians speak and follow all of this, we know how often the constitution of the country is referred to, and we know that this constitution is the highest law in the land and there are justices of the Supreme Court who decide how that law is to be interpreted, how it’s to be applied to what we actually do, and that’s a huge factor in American life also, because the justices of the Supreme Court are certainly not without their political positions and pre-determinations about how it should be, and that’s always a question about who’s going to be on that court, what they’re going to decide. And then in addition we have all the rhetoric about the greatness of America and how America is a free country and there has to be equality. All these things have been really before in the last few months and weeks, and days.
Today, I would like just to reflect on a part of the line in the Declaration of Independence, and just reflect on that document and this line, which was repeated a lot in these days, and which we do repeat a lot in our American way of life. The Declaration of Independence is traditionally dated on July Fourth. Of course, there’s a question about that. We know that it was written, drafted by Thomas Jefferson. We know that it was signed by, I believe, 13 members of the 13 states that agreed to this declaration and the declaration begins by a justification of the revolution, that when it happens in the course of human events that a people, a nation, has to dissolve the political bands which it has connected with another — in this instance, of course, it’s America, North America and Great Britain — and that this people, namely, in this case, the people of North America, they have to assume among the powers of the earth a right to separate and equal government. And then, the claim is made that this is according to the laws of nature and of nature’s god.
So, a separate and equal station — condition of life for a people — is somehow entitled (you have the word entitled there) are entitled to these freedoms and these powers by the laws of nature and nature’s god. But when they have to do that, they should say why they need to do that; they should declare the causes which impel them to this separation. So there’s a very short paragraph, (actually it’s one sentence long,) that begins the Declaration of the Thirteen States of America.
Then you have this famous, often repeated and often debated sentence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men” nowadays, of course, we would probably say all people, all human beings, all men and women. But then it says that “all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator,” and the creator is referred to in the first paragraph, and that creator is the god of nature — nature’s god — that’s the creator here, “that they are created with certain unalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And that to secure these rights,” (you see, we have rights given to us by nature’s god, of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,) “and to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just power from the consent of the governed.” And then it goes on to say that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, of these purposes, of these rights, “then it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it and to institute a 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 their happiness.” Safety and happiness. And then it goes on to speak about how this is done by the colonies in the United States.
So, this is how this Declaration of Independence, which, we might say, if we agree with the thesis, (which I do; I used to teach a course about it in the seminary years ago,) that American society functions like a civil religion; our national life is kind of a civil religion. Then the Declaration of Independence is high among the holy scriptures, the writings that are given to us, and the Constitution, of course, is a central part of those holy scriptures of the American way of life. And then we have not only our scriptures, we have our saints, like Jefferson and Washington and Adams and Abraham Lincoln and, you know, the holy fathers; they’ve been called the fathers of our country.
And then we have our holidays. We have these great celebration days like Thanksgiving and Memorial Day and, of course, that very Day of Independence also, the Fourth of July. And then in election years we have the great celebrations of the inauguration of the President. We have that gathering, that assembly, you might say even, — you know how it says in the New Testament, “when you gather together as Church,” well, we just saw the gathering together as nation at the delivering of the State of the Union Address, and we have that every year in January, where our leaders gather together in an assembly to no longer be separate individuals, but to constitute the leaders of our union, our country, our communion. And then they hear the great high priest, the great prophet of American life, the king (we don’t have kings any more, we’ll see that,) but our leader kind of put forth his policy and that’s a celebration also.
So we have celebrations, you might even call them liturgical celebrations as a nation — liturgy mean a common act, so we have a liturgy of the Church, but we have a liturgy of the nation, too. And then we have saints and we scriptures. And we even have shrines, holy places, like the Jefferson Memorial, the Washington Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial. We have holy land, we can take a pilgrimage to Washington DC and visit the shrines and read the scriptures, and remember the fathers; that’s how our country operates.
There’s a wonderful book I read once, I think it was written by a man named David Noble [Sidney E. Mead], which was called America: The Nation with the Soul of a Church. In fact, there used to be a sentence in the old days, that in the United States of America all the preachers sound like politicians and all the politicians sound like preachers, and there’s a certain truth to that.
Now, what we have to know, though, and what we want to just think about (it’s very, very important that we would think about these things) that the authors of the Constitution and the Declaration, some of them were Christians, for sure. I think John Adams was always pretty much of a Christian, but many of them were not. And among the founding fathers and even the hagiographers — the writers of the scriptures — you have among them, leading among them, (certainly in what we’re thinking about right now, the Declaration of Independence and how it’s written,) it was written by Thomas Jefferson, who was certainly not a Christian; he was definitely not a Christian, and he was definitely, definitely not a Christian according to what we would call on Ancient Faith Radio the ancient Christian faith. He certainly was very far from Christian orthodoxy, if Christian orthodoxy means that the one, true, and living God over all creation — the creator of heaven and earth — is not nature’s god, but is the God of nature and the laws are not nature’s laws, they’re God’s laws and that one, true God would be the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, the Hebrew prophets, and, foremost for us Christians, of Jesus Christ himself, who claims to be and whom we believe is the very Son of this real, one, true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the Yahweh of Israel, the Lord God Almighty, who chose Israel in order to produce the Messiah Christ, in order to save the world, and who pours his own Holy Spirit upon his believers, and has established a Church — an assembly of people — on this earth, which will endure forever, and the gates of death shall never even prevail against this assembly that God forms, called the kahal Israel, the assembly of Israel, or the ekklesia tou theou, the Church of God.
So, Thomas Jefferson was certainly not in that line, definitely not. Neither was Washington. Neither was Benjamin Franklin. Neither was Thomas Payne. And even later on, the great messiah figure who saves the union and who proves that government by the people, for the people, from the people shall never perish from this earth, Abraham Lincoln — Father Abraham, who is kind of the savior figure — we could actually say that if Jefferson and Washington and those original thirteen men who signed the Declaration of Independence were kind of like the twelve tribes of Israel, kind of the creator of the nation Israel, then we could actually — and people have done this, George Bancroft wrote a biography of Abraham Lincoln comparing him to Jesus, and saying that, “since the Carpenter of Nazareth, there never was a greater man than Abraham Lincoln,” and that he had to die and give his blood, and blood had to be shed — the bloodiest war in history; the Civil War — and the Civil War had to be fought because the founding fathers could not solve the problem of slavery, and that was the elephant in the room when they were writing the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, because it wasn’t just the rhetoric of the time or manner of speech that this declaration says men, because indeed, it did not include women, and it did not include slaves; it did not include African-Americans who were not even Americans at the time, they were not citizens at all and could never be: they were slaves and were not even considered to be human.
And Jefferson and Washington, they owned slaves; they were slave owners. The author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, had slaves on his plantation, one of whom, named Sally Hemmings, was his mistress; produced many children from her after his wife died. He never remarried again, he went to Europe a lot, was in Paris, loved fine wine, had a huge plantation, and, basically, slept with Sally Hemmings. That’s Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence. They were mostly Freemasons. Certainly, I believe Franklin was, I know that Washington was. Washington would go to the Episcopal church, (even Barack Obama went to the same Church that Washington went to on Inauguration Day,) but we should know that when George Washington, (and of course Barack Obama as well,) when they went to the church to pray for the nation, they were not members of that church, and Washington would never receive Holy Communion. Washington would go for the Liturgy of the Word, so to speak. He’d hear the sermon, read the Gospel, then he would leave the church if it was a communion Sunday. And, of course, in those days, the Episcopal church to which he was technically a member, (as Jefferson was, but they were not communicants,) Washington would actually leave the church during communion time. And, if we go to Abraham Lincoln, a hundred years later or so, a little less, we have to remember that the great savior of the American Union, Honest Abe Lincoln, who quoted the Bible a lot, because it was part of American culture at the time, he himself was never baptized. And he was never a member of a church; he was not a member of a Christian church, Abraham Lincoln.
So, to say that America is a Christian nation and it was from the beginning, and the founding fathers were Christians, is absolutely not true. They were formally Christians, Franklin was a Quaker, for example, a member of the Society of Friends, but Franklin himself said, “Any religion is good enough,” that’s even his expression: good enough, “as long as it keeps the people in line.” And these type of elites, high-ranking guys, land-owners, very rich, possessing slaves and so on, which they could not mention at the time, because that would have destroyed the union right from the beginning, if the debate about slaves came in.
And, by the way, I can’t resist going off the subject here for a second. In political life, there’s always some kind of elephant in the room that you cannot mention; everybody knows that it is there, but you cannot mention it, because, if you mention it, it will tear you apart and you will not be able to succeed in what you are trying to do.
Well, the elephant in the room at the time of the founding of the United States was certainly slavery: it just could not be mentioned, it could not be treated, it could not be addressed, because there was no agreement on it whatsoever, and it ultimately did tear the nation apart, and it required the bloody death of thousands of Americans on their own soil, and even the killing of Abraham Lincoln, (which his biographer, Bancroft, compares to the crucifixion of Christ,) in order to succeed.
And I sometimes think that, today, (off-the-record opinion here,) is that the elephant in the room today is definitely money and greed and especially entertainment, especially the television. Did you notice that, in all the discussions about possessing guns, in all of the discussions about taking care of our children and protecting them, in all of our discussions about mental health, and education, and screening for guns, and making sure that there is psychiatry and counseling available, never is it mentioned that the cause, probably the main cause of all this killing, and rioting, and shooting, and young people going crazy, is television; it’s television, and it’s computer games. There’s just no doubt about it. That Adam Lanza, all he did was watch TV and play computer games, and on TV you see nothing but sex, you see nothing but violence, blowing things up, every movie, all the sitcoms are about sick sex activities.
I don’t know, if you don’t watch TV, (I don’t recommend that you do,) but I would recommend that you just sit down one evening and watch TV for three or four hours straight. Flip around the channels and see what’s on there. See how people are dressed, see even how the newscaster ladies are dressed. See how they say, see how they sit, see what they say, see what they laugh at, see how they dance, see how they move, see how they talk, see the language that they use, and then you wonder why some sick little kid, who’s in a divorced family, whose mother sits at a bar and who — you know, they put a plaque on the chair at the bar where she sat before she was killed by her own son. You think that that comes only because we don’t have psychological counseling, and equality of money, and educational opportunities, and that our gun laws are not very strict or not strict enough? That’s just total nonsense. It’s there because of the very tenor and content of society, which is sex-driven, which is crude, and rude, and vile, in just so many ways, it’s just a complete lack of decency, but nobody can mention that. You can’t mention that, because there’s too much money involved in it. Do you think we could ever come to a time — then you’ll have all kinds of Civil Liberties Union and everything saying that you could say all kind of blasphemies you want all over the place, but just don’t say anything about Islam. You know, it’s very interesting in America, the stuff that could be said about Jesus and get away with it, it’s just unbelievable what is said, especially by our artists and our celebrities and our films and our paintings.
But, at the time the Declaration was written, the issue that couldn’t be touched was slavery. And, of course, there was the woman issue, too. Now, of course, by our time — we have an African-American president, or a president with African-American blood in him, and women, all over the place, in every office, and we’re still talking about voting rights and those kind of things even today in the 21st century. But when these words were spoken about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that is given to us as an entitlement by the unalienable rights that we have from the laws of nature and the nature’s god, we have to know that we’re talking about rich white men, nobody else, that have these rights at that time, and the others had to be worked out through the following couple hundred years, up until the present time. And we’re still trying to work it out; there’s still issues about what the Constitution says, what it means, and perhaps even what it should say. For example, should there be a constitutional amendment that says that fetuses in their mother’s womb are persons and have legal rights. There’s a big debate about that just recently over something that happened in the Catholic hospital.
We’re still into all of this stuff, but when we look at the Declaration itself and the words that it has, we have to realize who wrote it and who are these kind of people? If we take just the author of the Declaration and think a little more about him, Thomas Jefferson, besides saying that he was a very rich, plantation owning, wine connoisseur, European traveling man, who had a beautiful mistress (Sally Hemming) but in any case, — and he was not married to her and didn’t think he needed to be, and at the time there was no way he even could be, because you could not have marriage between the races as we have today, at that time. And of course, at that time, the idea of marriage between the same sexes was completely off the radar screen, that wouldn’t even have been considered practically at the time of the Declaration. And you could not put in the Declaration that also gay people and lesbians have also these unalienable rights that are guaranteed to them by nature’s god. And then when you think about homosexuality, you have the huge debate to this present day that, even if you’re following nature’s god — not to speak of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus Christ, the one and true God, the Father of Jesus — you have a huge discussion of what is natural, what is nature? Can we make arguments from nature at all, the fact that we’re made men and women, for example? Is this a viable part of the discussion about human sexuality and relations? We still haven’t solved that. And of course, even when Christian people might argue that same-sex attraction is an objective disorder, which you can learn by just observing nature itself, people say that’s not true.
Andrew Sullivan, for example, a great advocate of homosexual rights and freedoms under the American law, he said that, “Sure, it’s true, Saint Paul was right, when he said you can’t act contrary to nature. But what we didn’t know,” and what they certainly didn’t know at the time of the Declaration of Independence that, according to Andrew Sullivan, we know now, is that for some folks, for some human beings, to be same-sex attracted, to be homosexual in desires is natural. Yeah, we should follow nature, but according to nature, it is not natural that everyone would have an erotic attraction to a human being of the other sex; some people could have an erotic attraction to a person of their own sex, and that’s perfectly natural for a minority of people, and those minority’s rights should be honored and valorized, and they should be allowed to have every right according to the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, including the right to marriage, because marriage is a civil right as the sign says.
So, getting back to Jefferson, boy, it was a different time. We have to remember it was a different time, which raises another question: if you have a document that was written over two hundred years ago, can it still viably function as a document that is the basic law of a land now, more than two hundred years later? We could say, “Oh, we Christians, we use a law that was thousands of years ago written, the Law of Moses.” But even the Law of Moses was reinterpreted by our Lord Jesus Christ and shown for what it really means, so there is a growth here. But the question really is, how do you interpret the Constitution and Declaration of Independence that’s written more than two hundred years ago in a society that’s completely changed and is changing all the time — you could debate whether it’s for the better for the worst; probably in some sense it is for the better and in other senses it’s really for the worse, from a Christian perspective — but in any case, we’re still using this and interpreting it, the same way we exegete the Bible, so we have to exegete the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence: What is being said here? What are the foundations of it? What’s the ideology behind it? What’s it’s intention? This is what we Americans are dealing with every day in our laws and in our law courts, and in our politics.
Now, getting back again to Thomas Jefferson, we know that Jefferson was certainly not a Christian, and we even know that, like Leo Tolstoy in Russia — and they both, by the way, loved a philosopher name Rousseau, who, I believe, died of some sexually transmitted disease in his old age, Rousseau, the French philosoph — but, both of them, I believe were great disciples of Rousseau, and, I know Jefferson — I think it was Jefferson, or Tolstoy, or both of them, I think it was Tolstoy — wore a locket around his neck of Rousseau, Jean Jacque Rousseau; not of Jesus Christ, not an image of the Cross, but Rousseau. But in any case, Thomas Jefferson and Leo Tolstoy in Russia, they have one thing definitely in common, they both lived in countries that thought that they were chosen by God — America was the chosen people and Russia was the holy, chosen nation, and there’s huge debates in their lifetimes about what that meant — but, it’s really interesting that Leo Tolstoy totally rejected the view of Holy Russia that the members of the Church would have had, certainly the bishops in Russia at his time — of course there was no patriarch then, it had been suppressed by Peter the Great long before Leo Tolstoy.
But Tolstoy and Thomas Jefferson, they had one thing in common, beside being disciples of Rousseau and the Enlightenment generally: they both rewrote the New Testament; they both rewrote the New Testament. Thomas Jefferson — you can buy Jefferson’s Bible where he crosses out the parts that he thinks are not acceptable, the parts that are too much connected to “Christian religion,” and that would include all of the references to any kind of great, marvelous wonders of God that we usually call the miracles; all of the miracles are out of the picture, the divinity of Christ is out of the picture, Jesus is a great, ethical leader, he is not God’s Son, he is certainly not God, light from light, true God of true God — Thomas Jefferson actually, openly rewrote the New Testament, just like Leo Tolstoy did.
In fact, Leo Tolstoy, in Russia, the great writer of War and Peace and Anna Karenina (which is now a movie out again, that people are going to and making millions of dollars) Leo not only rewrote the New Testament — you can by Tolstoy’s New Testament, too, which is basically the same as Jefferson’s — but Leo also wrote a catechism against the catechism of Metropolitan Philaret, Saint Philaret of Moscow. All the questions and answers in that catechetical form that existed at that time, Leo Tolstoy answers in a radically different way than Saint Philaret of Moscow. And in his terrible novel called Resurrection, Leo Tolstoy just blasphemes the Divine Liturgy in the most ugly way and, as Father Alexander Schmemann used to say, he should have known better. It’s just disgusting, what he does, and it’s a caricature and a blasphemy to such a form that you can’t even read it. We say, “Let us love one another,” — he says, “Oh, that’s wonderful. That’s from God” — “that we may, with one mind confess Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Trinity, one in essence and undivided.” He said, “That’s just a lot of baloney, that’s just crazy, so let’s keep the ‘let us love one another,’ but let’s absolutely reject the ‘one mind’ of worshiping Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
Now, getting over to Jefferson again, Jefferson also spoke about the human mind. If you go to the Jeffersonian shrine in Washington D.C., you will see there this huge shrine, it’s like a church, it has like a cupola and there’s pillars, and he’s larger than life in his statue, five times larger than life. And there’s a scripture that is chiseled into the cupola around the top, like in churches we write “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty.” Well, in Jefferson’s shrine, (go to the Holy Land of Washington and see it with your own eyes,) the sentence that he put in there is, (this may not be totally verbatim, but it’s certainly close,) he said, “I have sworn unending hostility (or enmity) against every form of enslavement over the human mind.” “I have sworn on the altar of God,” I think it says even, “nature’s god,” not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, not the God of Israel, not God of Jesus, but nature’s god, the deistic god, “I have sworn on nature’s god eternal enmity against every form of subjugation (or slavery) over the human mind.”
I remember one time in my own life looking at that, I thought to myself, “Hey, Thomas, what about the slavery of the human mind itself? What about the fallenness and the degradation of the human mind that we have all over the place.” If the human mind is the ultimate arbiter of truth and righteousness, and goodness, we’re in huge trouble. And that’s why America is in huge trouble.
And in some sense, America is one of the hardest countries in the world to be a Christian in, because in other places like Islamic countries and communist countries, they just killed you if you were too much of a Christian. If you spoke too much, if you witnessed too much, if you preached too much, you were shot, killed, quartered, or put in prison. But in America, we’re not, but we’re told all the time that we can rewrite the Bible, we can read the Bible and write in the margin, “Good point,” but the ultimate arbiter is our own mind, our own will, and nature’s god entitles us to that kind of a freedom.
So, here we have it. Now, the sentence that we want to look at here in a couple of minutes, that sentence that the laws of nature and nature’s god entitle every human being — and now, we’re still working on every human being, and we have that litany in all the speeches, “Men and women, black and white, slave and free, immigrant or native.” It sounds like Saint Paul, “Neither male nor female, slave…,” where he writes about in Christ everyone is possessing the same relationship with God the Father, even though Saint Paul insists on the distinction between men and women.
It’s so interesting how certain sentences of Saint Paul will be given the seal of approval nowadays, but most of them that have to do with women (I think there’s eleven of them), ten of them are never mentioned because Saint Paul still asserted the distinction between men and women, even though he spoke about, not so much their equality, but their unity in God and their value before God as being identically the same with the same humanity. And of course, Saint Paul here is a hugely unfavorable character in the people who wrote the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
So, nature’s god is enabling all (and Barak Obama and others are working to make sure it’s all, gay and straight, black and white, slaves…there’s no slaves anymore, but middle class and lower class and elites and whatever) to have the same possibilities before God, and especially “the unalienable right, endowed by their creator, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Now, what I’d just like to do for the next few minutes, to end this reflection — stir up our thinking about these things — is…“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” And I would ask this question: “How would ancient Christians, especially what Bart Ehrman calls the ‘proto-Orthodox,’ the Orthodox Christians of the earliest time — that would mean not the gnostics, not the Monanists, not the Marcionites, not the Ebionites, which we consider sectarian groups that are now making a big comeback thanks to Bart Ehrman and others who are rehabilitating the gnostic literature — but how would the canonical Gospels, and those who believe in the canonical Gospels, namely us, and generally classical Christians — Evangelicals, certainly, Roman Catholics, certainly, the Oriental Orthodox, the Coptic Christians in Egypt and so on — when we think of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and ask this question: “What would that mean for a Christian?”
What would that mean for an Orthodox Christian, and ancient Christian, a classical Christian, those who would believe that the 27 writings of the New Testament are the proper interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures, and they all speak about Jesus, who is God’s Son with the same divinity as God the Father and the Holy Spirit, the Trinity, one in essence and undivided — Christ crucified, raised, glorified — how do we relate to words like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and happiness itself? Well, first of all, I think we would have to say this: there’s a sense in which these are rights, but we should notice that, in our literature, and certainly in the Scriptures — the Hebrew Scriptures and the 27 writings of the New Testament — virtually nothing is said about human rights. The word rights is not a category. I would say that, if you took the parallel category to rights in the Scripture, it would be graces, gifts. The claim would be that everything is a gift of God. We don’t have any rights before God at all. Creatures don’t have rights; creatures have gifts. Creatures have callings. Creatures have the virtues of participation in divine life, but no one can claim a right to any of these things, even the right to life.
We had the march recently in January, Roe vs. Wade, the right to life. You know, my teachers used to criticize that expression in our classes when I was a young fellow. They would say, “What kind of rights does a human being have before God?” What can we claim as our right? Now, we can say God gives us certain rights in the political sphere, but even that is highly debated.
For centuries Christians lived with kings and monarchs. They lived with slavery. Jefferson still lived with slavery, although he was very much against high priests and kings and monarchs. In fact, one of the most colorful sentences of Thomas Jefferson was, “There will never be life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and equality for all human beings,” even though he himself would exclude women, and slaves, and black people. He said, “There will never be equality and freedom until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” How about that for a sentence. We’ll never come of age and be what nature’s god wants us to be until “the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last bishop (the last priest).”
And you might put that the other way around, until the last bishop is strangled with the last king, or prince, or duke, or whatever that society had until very recent time. In every part of the world you had kings and that kind of a life. In fact, in places where Orthodox Christians are the most numerous, it’s for the first time in history is in the 20th century that they have a democratic, pluralistic society, at least allegedly, if you want to call that with Putin in Russia. They at least on paper have it. Before that, they had imperial monarchies and kings and emperors with full autocratic power, and then they went into communism for 70 years, or 50 years in the Balkans and now are catching up with the rest of the world by having liberal democracies in those countries, at least allegedly.
However, kings and priests are the big enemies here, and in America the greatest enemies to the American way of life were kings and priests; they have to be kept in their place, and, if possible, they should disappear from human life completely. At least, Thomas Jefferson would have held that; so would have Lincoln. Probably so would have Washington. But in any case — and of course there were no Roman Catholics among these people at that time either, or certainly not Jews or Orthodox.
But, anyway, this right to life. So you have the language of rights…is very questionable for Christianity. We have the duty to support life, under God, even under nature’s god. Even nature’s god tells us that we shouldn’t stick things into a woman’s womb when she’s pregnant to kill what’s in there. You don’t have to be a Christian to accept that; you just have to be a human being with a shred of the image of God left in you to see that. And that’s still being debated to this present day also. But what we see there is, that life is spoken about — life.
And we’re still debating what is life. We still are debating what is a human life. Is an embryo a human life? Is an old person in a nursing home who’s gaga and demented? Are they living? Are they valuable? We still have to come to terms with what life is. And not just existence, but life. And here, for a Christian, just simplistically put, it is so very clear that, if we are Christians in the classical sense, Christ is our life. Saint Paul says that when Christ, who is our life, appears, we will appear with him in glory. Jesus said, “I am the life. I am the resurrection and the life. I am the way and the truth and the life.” Jesus is life, and he speaks about his commandments as life-giving commandments; the cross that dies on is the life-giving cross. The Holy Spirit is the life-creating Spirit. That’s our language of Scripture that we use in our Orthodox liturgy all the time: the one, holy, good, and life-creating Spirit; the life-creating cross — in Greek and Slavonic zhivotvoryashchiy this “life-creating” — that’s life. And Jesus says, “Why do you refuse to come to me that you may have life?” He says, “I have come that you may have life, and have life in abundance.” He defines life. “And this is eternal life,” Jesus says in John 17, “to know you, the only truly existing God” — the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus and not simply “nature’s god,” although that true God is also nature’s God — “This is eternal life: to know you the only, truly existing God, and Jesus Christ, whom he has sent,” because he is the life, and the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, is the Spirit of Life.
So, we Christians cannot even think of life apart from Christ and God. It’s impossible; it’s just not life. And how many times Jesus speaks that way? He says, “The way is hard and the gate is narrow that leads to life and few there be who find it.” The Psalm says, “Seek God and your life will live — your soul will live.” It’s all about life, the content of life, what life is. What Saint Paul in Timothy letter calls “the life that is life indeed.” That’s what Christians are interested in, and that is Christ, and that is God, and that’s from the Holy Spirit, and that is not something that’s given simply by nature in itself, by a kind of a deistic god that we ourselves have invented because of our rebellion against the one, true, and living God who created heaven and earth — the God of Christ, the God of Jesus, the God of the prophets and the patriarchs and the apostles and the martyrs.
So, life is at the center of our condition. We believe that Jesus gives life, the commandments are life. If we’re not following God, we’re dead; we’re spiritually dead. So, we cannot think of life simply as a biological, earthly phenomenon that we enjoy between what Leo Tolstoy himself called “between the foolish birth and the foolish death, a foolish life,” and the best thing you can do there is enjoy it as much as you can, and if you’re a really good guy or gal, you’ll want other people to enjoy it as well, with the same opportunities. But that’s all that exists and there’s nothing beyond it, unless you have some kind of Rousseauean view of everlasting life where everybody goes to a better place, no matter what, when they die. So, we have all this on earth, and heaven too, so to speak. To give these men their due, Rousseau and his followers, Rousseau did claim that everyone will have to answer for how they used their life before nature’s god, but that’s another story. So, we have life, a very different understanding of life when you read about it in the Scripture. Read the Scriptures just looking at the word life: “Do this and you will live,” Jesus says. “Come to me and have life”,“I am the life.”
And what about liberty? It’s the same thing. For Christians, liberty is communion with God; it’s obedience to God. If we are not free in God, then we are enslaved by sin; we’re enslaved by madness, insanity, impurity, darkness, perversion, corruption, pollution. And, if we are not alive in God, we are simply dead. And then there is biological death, which, according to the Christian Holy Scriptures, is the last enemy. Christ tramples down death by death — biological death on the cross — the last enemy to be destroyed is death. So life lives, as Saint Chrysostom says in his Pascal homily. Liberty is freedom from death; it’s freedom from every demon, every son of perdition, every man of lawlessness — every anthropos tis anomios, as Saint Paul says, the man of lawlessness — every anti-christ, every evil spirit and the devil and Satan himself. That’s liberty. That is liberty.
And so there are people who are biologically alive who are really dead and they’re not free at all; they’re slaves to unrighteousness and to sin. And then there are those who are biologically dead who are alive: the Lord Jesus Christ, the Holy Mother of God, all of the Saints are alive right now. They’re alive with God in the Kingdom because Christ is risen. And the life which is real life, is the freedom of everlasting life forever, the greatest liberty is the liberty never to die. It is not simply political freedom or freedoms under the law, or freedom to have equal opportunity in the American dream and come to the height of conclusion in the American way of life, where we all have the opportunity to become rich and to be someone, and to be the President of the United States, and we already have one with African, black blood in him, see how far we’ve come, and everybody, some of us are looking ahead wondering, “Well, the next time around, will we have our first woman?” which is very possible also, to show that the life and the liberty are really given in the United States. In other countries, of course, before us — Thatcher in England and Ursula in Germany, and in Asian countries, usually children of high-ranking political, powerful figures — we have many women now leading countries on earth, and that was even from the old time. The Old Testament had women prophetesses and the Byzantine Empire had lots of women empresses who are even canonized saints. It’s not something really new in democracy; there were women, powerful women leaders among the elites and the ruling class a long time ago before America even existed.
So, liberty. Saint Paul says, “We are called to liberty (to freedom), but let’s not use our freedom for license and lasciviousness and for evil.” Saint Paul said that we follow the nomos of Christ, which is freedom — the law of Christ, which is freedom. Jesus says you will know the truth, and it’s the truth that makes you free. It’s not a political statement that makes you free, it’s the truth that makes you free. And we know that James, in his letter, he even speaks about the law of freedom. Saint Paul speaks of this nomos tis eleftherias, the law of freedom, the law of liberty, and Paul speaks about it all the time: “All nature is groaning and in travail until the revelation of the children of God and the glorious liberty of the children of God” — the liberty of the children of God. Saint Paul says, “Where the Holy Spirit is, there is freedom.” So, we’re all for freedom, we’re all for liberty. We’re for life and liberty, and they go together, and they are gifts from God. They’re not rights from political instruments or nature’s deistic god who is an absolute and not even personal and cannot love because nature’s god is not a personal, hypostatic being, as we understand the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to be.
Then, in addition to life and liberty coming from God, we have happiness. Now this pursuit of happiness, it’s also a double-meaning sentence. Sure, people should want to be happy. In fact, in classical language, the “happy life” was called the “blessed life,” and that word makarios or beatos in Latin, it meant “how happy,” like the Beatitudes. You could say, “Happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of God.” “Happy are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” “Happy are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” “Oh, how happy” — and about the Virgin Mary, it says none is more happy than the Virgin Mary in that sense of the term.
But according to Christianity, we cannot pursue happiness directly. Happiness, according to the Christian Scriptures and teachings and the lives of the Saints, is a by-product. You have to seek truth, then you are free; then you are alive. You have to seek the living God, then you live; the true God, and in the truth, you find freedom, in the Spirit of truth, the life-creating Spirit. This is where real life and liberty are, and this is where real joy is. And all of our holy fathers and mothers, they tell us, “Don’t pursue happiness, pursue truth, pursue righteousness.” “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” not for happiness, “theirs is Kingdom of God,” and only the righteous person is ultimately happy. But the Scriptural word would not be happiness, it would be joy. Christ says, “I give you my joy that no man can take away.” In fact, joy is one of the commandments of God, to rejoice. We are commanded to rejoice in the risen Christ, commanded to rejoice that we are saved by God, commanded to rejoice in enjoying all the gifts of God, even the gifts of nature — the trees, the beauty, the fruits, the lands, the sky, the sea — we are called to rejoice in all of that, but it doesn’t give us joy until we see it for what it really is. And here, we’ve just got to say it point blank: to pursue happiness is madness; to live only for happiness, because then happiness usually becomes carnal pleasure, and power, and position, and possessions, and properties, and privilege. That’s what happiness in this world is all about. And in some sense, that’s the only happiness that guys like Jefferson and Rousseau were talking about. There isn’t any happiness beyond this. Some have their tweaky views about how that could be, but for the Christian, the joy in God, (and here we sing in church “Through the cross, joy has come into all the world”,) and after the resurrection the apostles were constantly in the Temple (until it was destroyed) joyfully. They went daily in joy; they went in joy to God; God was their joy. Eternal life was their joy, righteousness, and truth and virtue was their joy, not anything else.
So, what is happiness, ultimately? It is certainly not carnal satisfaction, because that does not do the trick. In fact, virtually all people who live only for carnal happiness in this fallen world, and in political type of prestige, and in celebretous popularity — People Magazine — they just end up simply drug addicted, crazy and they’re looking for happiness in crazy ways. That’s why we are the most drug-addicted, suicide-filled, more people in American prisons than in any country in the whole world, because we’re all told from our early life, “You can be happy, you are special, all the liberties should be yours.” It’s because in some sense those beautiful words life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness have been twisted and perverted to mean anything but what they mean in the Christian vision of reality.
So, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We would say yes, life, liberty, and the seeking of God, the seeking of truth, the seeking of reality and virtue, that will bring the happiness, and it also brings the liberty, and it also gives us life, that Saint Paul calls “the life, which is life indeed,” the life which Jesus brought to us in abundance, and the life that Jesus Christ himself is, who said, “I am the life.” And when Christ who is our life appears in the age to come, which will be a kingdom — the age to come is a kingdom, not a democracy, not a republic, it’s going to be a kingdom — Christ is going to reign and all who belong to him are going to reign together with him. And there’s going to be no subjects in the Kingdom of God; everybody is going to reign. That’s the Christian view.
So, let’s do a little thinking and reflection. I invite you. Think about the scriptures of the United States: Constitution, Bill of Rights, Amendment Two for the right to bear arms — I don’t know what — the Declaration of Independence, the speeches of Jefferson and Washington, and especially Lincoln. Think of all of those things, and think of the American civil religion. And then think of the Orthodox, Catholic, Christian faith. Think of America, and then think of the Church, the Christian Church, the Church, which is Christ’s body, the fulness of him who fill all in all, and compare the two, and see what you come up with.