We the People (COMMENTARY)

Momany_HeaderIt has been quite a summer for human rights and human dignity. A very brutal summer, and a summer of hope. The Supreme Court has changed the way we talk about equality in America. A lost and murderous young man has broken our hearts in a Charleston Church. And that flag. It has been a wrenching and yet hopeful summer.

Christians have found themselves thrown into the mix of tragedy and promise. How should they respond? Many believers distance themselves from national discourse. Others invoke superficial cultural assumptions to defend less-than-Christian behavior. I believe we can be both followers of Christ and thoughtful citizens.

We’ve been here before. For instance, over one hundred and fifty years ago we looked into the yawning chasm of a terrible Civil War. What were people thinking and saying then?

The accepted way of framing that debate pitted the “rights” of particular states against the federal government. The legacy of this conflict remains. Turn on the news today and you will hear the tension between state and federal government mentioned again and again. Should we work through our differences within individual states or seek an overall, federal resolution? Often, this oppositional thinking is presented as the only way to debate issues. Yet a contrast between state and federal power is not really the issue for believers. That’s right. It is important, but not the foundation of our moral imagination – and obligation.

Theologically speaking, people are our priority around questions of government. For Wesleyans, all people – each and every person – are/is critical to our understanding of government. This has been a point emphasized by me elsewhere when examining our doctrine of the Atonement. We believe that Jesus came for all, not only the elect or some other category of “insider.”

At Adrian College, where I teach and serve as chaplain, we have the original, handwritten manuscript/notebook of our founding president, Asa Mahan. He was an abolitionist and a first-rate philosopher. This worn and weathered leather-bound document (now restored) contains sermon outlines, lectures, and a very lengthy commentary on the Constitution of the United States. Our founder ended his manuscript with over sixty-five pages of notes on the Constitution that were then passed along to undergraduate students. This record speaks from the eve of our horrible Civil War.

President Mahan began his reflection by pondering the meaning of “We the People.” He wrote: “It is not as states, but as a people, that this constitution was ordained and established.” Notice that he did not contrast the states with the federal government (even though he supported the Union). His entire interpretation revolved around the rights of people.

Recently, some regional lawmakers have offered comments to the effect that rights are determined by the majority. This position asserts that if the majority chooses to share rights with a minority, fine. If not, then too bad. In other words, governmental entities, controlled by majorities (of numbers, wealth, or some other form of power) determine human rights. This view runs counter to our nation’s founding philosophy. Everything about the American experiment has started with some claim that rights are a part of human existence, given by either nature or God. Governments are instituted by the people to protect these rights – for all. This does not make federal powers the creators of rights any more than the states. But it does make both state and federal government the protectors of rights they did not create and cannot eliminate.

We might note that in 1948 some very insightful thinkers were tasked with drafting the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and they were obstructed in much of their work by the Soviet Union. These drafters insisted that human rights are a given, something to be recognized in humanity and not something determined by political bodies. The Soviets objected for many ostensible reasons, but their resistance amounted to the claim that rights are a construction of the political order. They would decide if so-called rights were to be honored or dismissed among their empire. In the end, the recognition that rights are inherent to human nature won out. It would be a shame if some Americans took the Soviet model as their inspiration and claimed that oppressive majorities can grant or ignore rights at will.

Recognizing that all people bear an intrinsic worth and that their rights should be respected is more American than apple pie. It is also consistent with a gospel that teaches how Jesus lived, died, and rose for all.

Chris Momany, UMR Columnist

Chris Momany

Chris Momany has been chaplain and director of church relations at Adrian College since 1996 and has taught in the Department of Philosophy/Religion since 1998. He is an ordained United Methodist minister, and a graduate of Adrian College, Princeton Theological Seminary, and Drew University. His academic interests focus on Christian ethics and philosophy. He has been published in the Christian Century, the Wesleyan Theological Journal, The Asbury Theological Journal, the Circuit Rider magazine, the United Methodist Reporter, and other venues. Chris also writes for the Daily Bible Study curriculum of the United Methodist Publishing House and for MinistryMatters, an online ministry resource. His book on the Wesleyan ethic of love and justice bears the title, Doing Good: A Grace-Filled Approach to Holiness. Chris has led many conferences, workshops, and continuing education events. For several years he has combined his research and teaching with a focus on human trafficking. Today it is estimated that 27 million people are held as slaves throughout the world. Chris has been a national leader among college and church professionals in confronting this issue.

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