So wrote Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. Those words give me a shiver–they promise so much! But on this eve of July 4th, our Independence Day, let’s start with “Life.” The opposite of Death. We are very moved by death, personal, national, global. The recent deaths of 17 firefighters in Colorado. The deaths of thousands in New York and Pennsylvania during 9/11. The starvation of some 200,000 Somali children during a prolonged famine in the 1990s.
If we pause long enough, as I did recently at my parents’ beautiful (but buggy) gravesite near Charleston, South Carolina, Death means personal loss. It means memory and appreciation and forgiveness. These emotions for essentially good people, my parents, who nurtured me physically and artistically and socially. They made huge mistakes, but often their mistakes were so different that they balanced each other out: excessive rage at black people, versus excessive silence and noninvolvement. Excessive order versus excessive randomness.
Life comes first, to us personally and as an aggregate.
Recently, a masters student in education concluded her final project surveying violence prevention and protection in three Minnesota schools. As we talked, one of her committee, a white woman who works in a northern Minnesota Native American school, commented that during her friend’s survey of the school, a horrendous murder occurred among Native American youths–one was hacked to death with an ax. Yet the school said nothing about it. Of course the students knew. They went home to the community where it happened. Yet the school, peopled largely by whites, kept silent. This is neither preventive nor protective. It’s about fear and a huge sense of distance. A refusal to act in concert, as if the basic right to Life did not mean the same to all of us.
There are many instances of violence that snuffs out life among people marginalized by poverty, disease, race. The violence is also marginalized. It does not receive the scrutiny or larger mourning it deserves.
Now we come to Liberty. Liberty initially meant freedom from England, freedom from the oppression of what had become an alien power, across the seas. Freedom to set our own national standards and mores, to pursue our own goals. This was not the kind of liberty that gave license to violence. This kind of Liberty supported Life.
Yet, as we discussed during our review of this student’s project, any recent attempt to enact national gun-control legislation has been met by excessive ramping up of gun-purchasing and toting. The loud shout of NO legal body of the United States, CAN INFRINGE ON THIS BASIC RIGHT. How basic is this right to snuff out another’s life? Hmm? How basic is it to carry an automatic weapon with hundreds of fast-shooting rounds of ammo along a crowded street, into a school? Is this Liberty or unbridled license?
Finally we come to the Pursuit of Happiness. I love pursing happiness. Basic sybarite at heart, happiness is for me is leisure, happiness is chosing a mate and having the right and liberty for full protection under the law for your union. Happiness can demand vigor. Think of those runners at the Boston Marathon whose pursuit was bombed. Think of the happiness of young families whose children were shot. Happiness is NOT shooting or bombing. But sometimes it requires fighting, as in the First Minnesota Regiment who volunteered to fight for the lives, liberty and yes pursuit of happiness for African Americans. .
Happy 4th, Happy celebration of all our Lives in the Liberty of safe and secure protection, in our individual and collective happiness.