I have been traveling in the Pacific Northwest and have been away from any cell phone signal and only limited internet access for several days. It has been a wonderful respite. I had time for three long, beautiful runs through the foothills of the Cascade Mountains and lots of quiet evenings to read. Right now though, I am sitting in the Seattle airport, catching up on e-mail and drinking some of the incomparable coffee from this corner of the world. This next week will be quite busy: I am speaking at a teacher training conference tomorrow in Franklin and at Chattanooga's First Presbyterian Church on Wednesday; in addition, I have three chapters due on a book I'm working to complete. So, as much as I hate to admit it, it will be good to no longer be incommunicado.
Every life is worth affirming, enabling, and protecting-issues of race, ideological orientation, and socio-economic status only reinforce this notion.
Whenever a crisis occurs our first concern is for the people involved. What happened? Is everyone alright? Was anybody hurt? Did help arrive in time? Is there anything we can do?
It doesn't really matter whether it was a natural disaster or a terrorist attack. It isn't particularly important whether it was an accident or a crime. It makes no real difference whether it was a national calamity or a personal tragedy. Our first thought is always of the people.
If a fire ravages an apartment complex but everyone is able to get out safely we invariably breathe a sigh of relief. Even if they have lost everything they own, we will say, “At least no one was hurt. That is the most important thing.” Indeed it is the most important thing. People matter.
If our child is involved in a car wreck, the first thing we want to know is if they are going to be OK. We are not interested in the damage to the vehicle, what happened in the intersection, or where the fault lies-not until we hear a voice on the other end of the phone say, “I'm fine, Mom. Really, I got out without a scratch. Don't worry.” In moments like that our priorities are crystal clear. It is the people that matter.
It is amazing how quickly the things we thought were important-our latest project at work, the win-loss record of our favorite team, how our diet and exercise program is going, what the current value of our stock portfolio is, or how we look in the new outfit we're planning on wearing this weekend-cease to matter very much to us. We will drop everything, without a moment's hesitation, in the face of human necessity. People matter.
When we hear about a bad winter storm, if we see a report of a crime wave on the evening news, or if we get a message about an epidemic of the flu, we immediately fire off the e-mails and phone calls to check on the people we care about. We want to find out how they're doing. We care. We care because people matter. People matter more anything else.
People are precious. Their lives are of inestimable value. They are gifts. They must never be taken for granted. Things can be replaced-but there is no replacement for a mother or father or sister or brother or aunt or uncle or friend or neighbor.
Civil societies always recognize this vital principle and they build their cultural institutions upon it. They will do anything and everything they possibly can to protect the dignity, integrity, and sanctity of life. Because there are no expendable or disposable people, every life is worth honoring, protecting, and saving. Ultimately, the rule of law depends upon an absolute respect for the value of people.
The great liberties that we have enjoyed in America over more than two hundred years of history were secured against the arbitrary and fickle whims of men and movements by the rule of law. The American system of government has not depended upon the benevolence of the magistrates, or the altruism of the wealthy, or the condescension of the powerful. Every citizen, rich or poor, man or woman, native-born or immigrant, hale or handicapped, young or old, has been considered equal under the standard of unchanging, immutable, and impartial justice. Everyone was to be treated equally because everyone mattered equally.
As Thomas Paine wrote in Common Sense, the powerful booklet that helped spark the War for Independence, "In America, the law is king.”
If left to the mere discretion of human authorities, statutes, edicts, and ordinances inevitably devolve into tyranny. History is replete with examples of the very best of intentions shipwrecked on the shifting shoals of subjectivity. There must therefore be an absolute against which no encroachment of prejudice or preference may interfere. There must be a foundation that the winds of change and the waters of circumstance cannot erode. There must be an objective basis for law that can be depended upon at all times, in all places, and in every situation.
Apart from this Christian innovation in the affairs of men there can be no freedom. There never has been before, and there never will be again. The Founding Fathers of the American republic knew that only too well.
The opening refrain of the Declaration of Independence affirms the necessity of an absolute standard upon which the rule of law must be based, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
This did not mean that the Founders believed that all men actually were equal-in ability, in station, or even in opportunity. As we'll see in a later chapter, they were very well are of the fact that we life in a very diverse and fallen world where differences between us are all too obvious. Rather, it meant that they were committed to the equal value of every single life, every single citizen, and every single person.
Appealing to the “Supreme Judge of the World” for guidance, and relying on His “Divine Providence” for wisdom, the Framers committed themselves and their posterity to the absolute standard of “the laws of nature and nature's God.” And the essence of that standard, they said, were the inalienable, God-given, and sovereignly endowed rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. A “just government exists,” they argued, solely and completely to “provide guards” for the “future security” of that essence. Take that away, and not only is sure and secure justice no longer possible, the rule of law is no longer possible either.
Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of that document, later asserted that, “The chief purpose of government is to protect life. Abandon that and you have abandoned all.”
Whenever the principle of the dignity and sanctity of life is questioned, the rule of law is thrown into very real jeopardy. No one is absolutely secure, because absoluteness is thrown out of the constitutional vocabulary. When the right to life is abrogated for at least some citizens, all the liberties of all the citizens are at risk because suddenly arbitrariness, relativism, and randomness enters the legal equation. The checks against petty partiality and blatant bias are disabled.
That is why the struggle for the abolition of the slave trade, the emancipation of the slaves, and the guarantee of their civil rights afterward was such a test of the genuineness of the American constitutional vision. At stake was not simply the dignity, integrity, and sanctity of the lives of African Americans-it was not just their rights which were threatened. At stake was the entire American vision because suddenly we were confronted by an exception to the principle that people matter-indeed, that all people matter.
That is hardly the rule of law. Instead, it is the brutal imposition of fashion and fancy by privileged interlopers. It is the denial of everything that the great American experiment in liberty has thus far stood for. Left unchecked, such notions would surely prove to be the harbinger of the end of that experiment.
Thomas Jefferson even acknowledged as much, saying, “Can the liberties of a nation be sure when we remove their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people, that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed, I tremble for my country, when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever, that revolution of the wheel of fortune, a change of situation, is among possible events; that it may become probable by supernatural influence! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in that event.”
Because Americans built their culture on the principle that people matter, we became known around the world not only for our laws insuring liberty but for our mores insuring respect. We became known for our native friendliness, hospitality, sincerity, warmth, and respect. While always gregarious, ardent, confident, and demonstrative, such enthusiasms invariably seemed to be tempered with a contagious sociability that was obvious even to the casual visitor.
Abraham Kuyper, the remarkable Dutch statesman, visited the United States just before he became prime minister of the Netherlands at the turn of the last century. He was immediately struck by the fact that “the average American is by no means hidebound by the formal conventions of European pomp and protocol, which can, after all, prove to be rather stuff at times. Nevertheless, he is affable, cordial, and companionable. His good nature is pleasantly evident and his honest character is genially transparent.”
Likewise, John Buchan, the Scottish diplomat and literary lion, visited America in the service of King George VI just prior to World War II. He observed that the “common courtesy of Americans is everywhere obvious. In the shops and upon the streets, at work and at play, in the midst of their hurly-burley and their hustle-bustle they are invariably considerate, polite, respectful, and mannerly.”
Because we have always believed that people matter, our culture not only protected the dignity, integrity, and sanctity of life, we respected it as well. The entire structure of liberty rested on this foundation.
Although this truth has always been “self-evident” in the sense that it is written on the fleshly tablet of every man's heart, it certainly has not always been universally accepted. In fact, such reasoning is, to some a “stumbling block,” and to others, “mere foolishness.” That is because the rule of law and respect for life is a Christian idea, made possible only by the revelation of law from on high. And all too many Americans have attempted to “suppress” that truth in one way, shape, form or another. That is why the struggle to maintain the dignity and sanctity of life has always been an uphill battle.