Epiphany: "Striving for Equality"

The Revd Brutus Green

This is taken from Obama’s Inaugural address:

“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth. It is now our generation's task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law — for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country. Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm. That is our generation's task — to make these words, these rights, these values — of Life, and Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness — real for every American. Being true to our founding documents does not require us to agree on every contour of life; it does not mean we will all define liberty in exactly the same way, or follow the same precise path to happiness. Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time — but it does require us to act in our time.”

Americans, of course, do God, and it would not be a presidential address if it didn’t end with a plea for God’s blessing. They also do nationhood in a way that Europeans have good historical reasons to be a little more wary of. But this has also been a week for nationalism and democracy. The inauguration was on Martin Luther King day, support for Scottish independence may be falling but even the English enjoy Burns’ Night; yesterday was Australia Day, and who could forget our own great leader’s offer of a democratic referendum on the question of Britain in Europe.

Obama’s speech was a kind of rhapsody with variations, if you like, on their founding document, the American Declaration of Independence (independence, lest we forget, against the ‘cruel and perfidious tyrant’ George III). Famously it declares: “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 French historian Alexis de Tocqueville called ‘equality’ the religion of modernity. I suppose not least because it would seem like a blasphemy - political incorrectness gone mad - to say otherwise; and yet one does not get very far down the street before one sees evidence of the contrary. I have only to glance enviously at our talented musicians to feel equality’s lack. Equality is both obvious sacred doctrine and yet very far from being self-evident.

People have tried to define on what basis this notion of equality is true. Some philosophers suggested reason, others conscience. The pre-eminent philosopher at the time of the American revolution, Immanuel Kant reflected: “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.’ The only trouble is that the twentieth-century tore holes in this philosophy. The politicians of the day devised systems of reason capable of rationally liquidating millions of innocents, and men and women capable of carrying that out. The philosopher in 1945 faced with the question - what makes humans anything more than brute beasts of the field was somewhat at a loss. If humans were in any way equal, it was not in terms of their rights but their fragility and vulnerability.

The enlightenment thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries were not godless people, by any means, but they took the Reformation to its limits. The Reformation had cut away at superstition, cut up Catholic Europe into nation states and given the individual immediate unmediated access to God and literacy. The Enlightenment took all this further cutting away from politics and ethics anything smacking of sacred doctrine. But with the failure of reason and conscience in the first half of the twentieth-century, the idea of unalienable rights and equality seemed on shaky ground.

Here is perhaps where Christianity has something to say from behind the shadows of a demystified secularism.

In the epistle we heard we can see the roots of Western liberalism and the reforming impetus of early Christianity. In claiming the equality of all baptized - whether Greek or Jew, slave or free, male and female - we have a promise in the radical community of the New Testament, stultified by one and a half millennia of imperial establishment, but a kernel of liberal truth that pressed against society as a divinely inspired force of reform. Only there is a significant contradiction in what Paul is saying, driven by his desire to say two things simultaneously. On the one hand his metaphor of the body is convincing. The different parts do their jobs and while a hand looks more significant you won’t get very far without your liver. But equally he wants them to aspire - ‘strive for the greater gifts’, he says, and that God has ordered the gifts, ‘first apostles, second prophets, third teachers’. There is equality in Christ and yet there is also a hierarchy in which the people of God should strive to make the most of their potential.

This might seem like an Orwellian kind of ‘some animals are more equal than others’ nightmare. The dichotomy is important though because without acknowledging differences in gifts, honour, ability and resources, equality is an empty lie. The equality where everyone succeeds according to the amount of effort she puts in is never going to be true. Equality and individualism are natural enemies. St Paul understands that the only way ‘equality’ functions is if we consider ourselves to be part of one body. Edmund Burke famously wrote not of the abstract rights of men, but the rights of Englishmen. The preamble to the US constitution concerns “we the people”. Attempts at global equality are doomed to limited progress as they require a personal investment in the welfare of anonymous people; it is difficult enough to muster Edmund Burke’s solidarity with Englishmen! The vision of Europe being offered, take it or leave it, depends on you thinking that people from other countries deserve the same privileges British people enjoy in their own country.

But the teaching of St Paul here is trying to convince the Corinthians of their investment in the Body of Christ. This is not an abstract idea. He has convinced these foreigners of the reality of the risen Christ at work within them. It is on the basis of this that equality stands a chance. If every time I look at a fellow Christian - and of course Christ’s teaching extends this even more challengingly to all people in need - every time I look then at another person, to see in them Christ, to see someone I love, to see part of myself; and understand that my well-being is linked to theirs, that their happiness is my happiness, their woe, my woe; then, only then, we have equality. This then is the flip side of our striving for the greater gifts, that we raise up the least honourable parts of the body of Christ, as it is the weakest among us that are ‘indispensible’ to God.

When we come to the Gospel, now, we can perhaps better understand the beginning of Jesus’ mission and ministry. He is not just saying that we need to be nice. When he says he has come ‘to bring good news to the poor… to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight… to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’; he is not saying let’s be socially responsible and give to charity. He’s saying that these people are part of the kingdom of God which has arrived, part of God’s love for humanity, part of the body of Christ. That means that we are invested in them and if one of them suffers, we suffer, if one of them is honoured, we are honoured; one of them degraded, our God is blasphemed. Equality is not some empty abstract rhetoric that we know isn’t really true. And it does not mean we have to feel guilty or become like the weakest members of our body. It is about ‘raising up the lowly,’ not losing sight of our shared humanity, and in whatever gifts we have using that to benefit the whole body.

Obama’s speech was a great speech because, despite failing to close Guatamo and his limited success with healthcare reform, it showed that he and America had not succumbed to the prose of cynicism. The president whose 2008 campaign poster carried the single word “Hope” had not given up the dream of equality. For all that equality is unlikely to ever be a material reality, it must continue to press upon us as an ethical imperative and, if we are to imitate Jesus, a state of mind. We are the body of Christ. We the people are created in the image of God. We are required, according to our gifts, to act in our time.