In the year 1776, just a few short years after attempting to make the largest cup of tea in the history of the world in the Boston harbor, because Americans like big things or possibly other reasons, the American colonies declared independence from the United Kingdom. [The British were unimpressed, inspiring the idiom, “That’s weak tea.”] In doing so, they prepared one of the greatest documents in history, calling it the Declaration of Independence. The preamble of that declaration is one of the best and most beautiful pieces of prose ever written, saying:
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.
I’m not sure that anyone had ever said that treasured phrase before. See, I love that they said that. They were willing to set out at the beginning of their argument the things that they didn’t think needed proof or explanation. It’s possible, though, that they missed some truths they held to be self evident even before that, like who the “men” that were created equal included.
Things got awkward from there, as the constitution they established for their United States of America allowed for slaves without any right to liberty or the pursuit of happiness – or even life, really. Those rights certainly weren’t unalienable for them. Beyond that, in Article I, section ii, they say that for census purposes, all free people are to be counted fully, but all slaves are only worth 3/5 of a person. But all men are created equal. That’s self-evident.
Maybe it’s that they’re created equal but can be made less equal? Maybe it’s that “men” doesn’t mean slave men?
Maybe the problem is the term “self evident.”
Because all of our arguments begin with the truths we hold to be self-evident. They’re so evident to us that they remain unsaid but at their core aren’t evident at all to the people we’re arguing with.
I’m going to jump in on #TakeAKnee, here. Congratulations if you already got there before me. You’re very smart. Now bear with me, because afterwards we’re going to jump off somewhere different.
People in the United States are currently very angry with each other. You may have noticed. I’m Canadian, so I’m not angry with anybody, although I’m sorry for that. They’re angry because one professional football player decided that during the playing of the national anthem he would go down on one knee rather than stand. He chose to do this because he believed that it would bring attention to the fact that people who looked like him were generally not, in fact, considered by people who look like me to have been created equal with unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. People who look like me would generally deny that, of course, but based on what was going on in the news at the time, he held that truth to be self evident. Self evident is the fact that this garnered more national attention and conversation than just about any other peaceful way he could have brought this topic up.
It sparked so much debate that the President of the United States called him a son of a bitch, along with the many, many others who have followed up this football player’s lead, taking up the practice of kneeling during the national anthem until all the supposedly equal people who don’t look like me have the unalienable rights that I people who look like me have. It sparked so much debate that people have called for his job and his life. People are very, very angry.
So they argue. For the most part, the angry people aren’t even arguing about what the players are protesting, though – they’re arguing about the form that protest takes.They do it mostly in comments and tweets. And they aren’t hearing each other. They can’t understand… they can’t fathom why people on the other side of the debate can hold such stupid, ill-informed opinions and beliefs.
Maybe it’s because there’s no room for preamble in a tweet and no one reads a comment long enough to have one, and the truths that they hold self evident stand only in the background.
Leaving behind the reasons for the protest, we focus on whether or not it’s okay for someone to kneel during the nation anthem. After all, men have fought and died for that anthem and the flag it describes, and to disrespect that anthem is to disrespect them. And it disrespects the country. And the principles the country was founded on. And we hold those principles dearly. They are sacred. The flag is sacred. The anthem is sacrosanct. This is not an acceptable form of protest. That is self evident.
Leaving behind the reasons for the protest, we focus on whether or not it’s okay for someone to kneel during the nation anthem. After all, men have fought and died for centuries for the right to self expression and peaceful protest against government-sanctioned tyranny; for the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all equal men. The greatest way to honor their sacrifice is to exercise the rights they fought and died for in an attempt to make better the country that the flag and anthem represent. Kneeling during the anthem is a profoundly patriotic form of protest. That is self evident.
And so these two mutually exclusive, self evident truths put pots on their heads and run at each other like rutting sheep until there’s nothing left but pain and a lot of loud, clanging noise. And that is a microcosm of how we treat each other all the time in every debate we engage in, and it’s why we just get angrier instead of understanding each other.
I’m not an expert in football. I’m not really an expert in America or American politics, although I have watched The West Wing through three times and have a Facebook account. What I am a theoretical expert in is communication and Christian religious expression. And that’s why it’s taken me a thousand words to come to what I really want to say.
Every embittered, vitriolic argument that we get into is because we hold truths to be self evident. And they aren’t. Virtually no truth is self evident. I mean, it’s evident to ourselves, but we can’t assume that it’s evident to everyone else’s selves. And that is incredibly difficult to get our heads around. We resist that discovery. We can’t understand how anything so MIND-BLOWINGLY OBVIOUS can’t be understood by THESE IDIOTS who are clearly OBSTINATE AND WILLFULLY IGNORANT. And neither can they. About us.
When the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 1:20 that, “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse,” what he’s saying is that the truth of God is self-evident. His qualities. His desires. His very existence. And we, who are Christians, tend to agree. Whether from our observations of the natural world, our studies of scripture, our indoctrination, or our experiences with the supernatural world, we enter into every conversation and debate with that underlying principle: God Is. And not only Is he, but his word and will known. And not only are his word and will know, but they are paramount.
Atheists enter the discussion knowing that the natural, observable world is all there is. There is no Invisible Sky-Man having a floating tea-party with a flying spaghetti monster. Religion is simply an attempt by the elite to control the masses or a crutch for the intellectually and emotionally needy. That is self evident.
And that’s fine when the argument is about God’s existence, because those core issues are in play. We’re debating those things that we each hold to be self evident, and even if we can’t understand why the other side doesn’t, we understand that the bearing they have on the discussion.
The problem comes during the myriad of other cultural land-mines we discuss.
Same sex marriage.
In every discussion one side enters in holding certain truths to be self evident. God is. His will is apparent. His will is paramount. [In the case of abortion, that a fetus or zygote or whatever is a fully human person, created equal and endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.]
The other side side enters in holding the self evident truths that personal equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are unalienable rights, personal decision is sacrosanct, and no one can take them away on the millennia old, made up word of some invisible sky-man.
Even within the Christian community, we carry beliefs about the nature of God that inform every position we hold, every nuanced interpretation of scripture, every way we live out our faith in the world. And we hold them to be self evident. Calvinists hold the truth to be self evident that God’s sovereignty extends to willing all that happens. Arminians hold the truth to be self evident that God’s love necessitates free will for his creation.
We all agree that God is Love, but somewhere underneath it is a self evident truth about what that means that others don’t find to be evident at all.
We all agree that love is good, but somewhere underneath it is a self evident truth about what that means that others don’t find to be evident at all.
We assume that our interpretation of scripture is correct.
We assume that other people should care about what we understand scripture teaches.
We assume that if we are just forceful enough, other people will accede to our self evident truths and thereby arrive at the same position we hold that flows from them.
But we keep arguing the position that flows from them and will never arrive at agreement unless we can agree on the foundational principles that under-gird them.
We need to take a deep breath and accept that the truths we hold dear are not self evident. They require knowledge and experience to arrive at. And maybe, just maybe, we haven’t had the knowledge and experience to arrive at the truths that someone else holds to be self evident.
Does this mean we quit talking? Of course not. But it means we have to have a measure of grace for each other. We have to understand that people who disagree with us are not intrinsically stupid or mean-spirited or whatever. They are using a different foundation to build on. Unless we understand their foundation, their building won’t make sense. And we ridicule things that don’t make sense. And that doesn’t make anything better.
So we talk. We share our stories. We share our beliefs. We listen as other people do the same. We stop making statements as if they are self evident. And we do all this with the basic assumption that their argument makes as much sense as ours does. We find out how they got there and discuss that. In order to be understood, we must first seek to understand. That’s useful communication. That’s loving communication. That’s Godly communication. Otherwise all anyone hears is a clanging gong or a noisy cymbal. That’s why the soundtrack of our world is a vast multitude of pots banging against each other and wounded people falling to the ground.
I hold that truth to be self evident.
“Mercy triumphs over judgement,” says James. This is not to say that mercy eliminates judgement, or that which is to be judged is no longer worthy of judgement, but that after judgement comes mercy.
Judge. Judge rightly, and with justice. Know the difference between right and wrong — righteousness and disregard. Dig a deep hole, and pour that judgement into it. Dig it deep enough to fill it to the brim! Once you’ve poured it all out, look at that pool of judgement and admire the rightness of it. Feel confident in it.
Then cover it with mercy.
Spread the mercy on thick. If you don’t have any of your own to put on there, pray for it. It should come from the same place your judgement does, or else your judgement isn’t righteous; it’s self-righteous. Keep adding mercy until the judgement stops seeping through. Keep tending it until something new starts to grow from its fertile soil.
In the end, the judgement is still there, but all anyone should see is mercy.
Put in another way, “Love covers over a multitude of sins.”