The Declaration of Independence is a defining document that sparked the pursuit of liberty and fanned the flame of freedom in America. The document itself is primarily a detailed list of all the grievances the colonists had against King George and the British crown. Yet, in the midst of the litany of complaints, the phrase “all men are created equal” makes a stunning and transcendent appearance.
That declaration, within the Declaration, launched a national soul-conflicting conversation that continues today. It isn’t a question of the verity of the values. Rather, the question is how to bring our individual and national behavior into alignment with the ideals we profess relating equality (and a host of other principles for that matter).
I am convinced that it was not an accident, but divine design, that “all men are created equal” was inserted into the Declaration of Independence.
Such a statement and that kind of ideal, placed in the hearts of individuals, creates a divine discontent or internal tension that remains until the principle and behavioral performance are congruent and in alignment.
If you have ever thrown out your back, you understand the pain that comes from misalignment. When principles and behavior are not aligned, pain is the natural consequence.
An oversimplified example from my world is that I can say that I am committed to the principle of health. If, however, I am sitting on my couch at night eating my fifth slice of pizza, second helping of chocolate cake and binge-watching my fourth TV show, my performance is wildly out of alignment with my commitment to a healthy lifestyle. The misalignment may manifest itself slowly in the form of disease, or quickly in the loss of energy, self-esteem and opportunity. The remedy for alignment appears to be simple — push away the food, get off the couch and engage in some exercise. Understanding misalignment isn’t that difficult. Changing long-practiced behavior often is.
The cynic looks at misalignment and declares the individual a hypocrite. The cynic looks at a nation not living up to its values as compromised, uninspired, fraudulent and without foundation. It is easy to become pessimistic about people and cynical toward our fellow citizens and toward society. Joe Klein wisely wrote, “Cynicism is what passes for insight among the mediocre.”
Some cynics are attempting to undermine the very founding principles of America. They make the case that the Founding Fathers, who declared these ideals, were flawed and not living congruently, or aligned with, what they declared in our nation’s founding documents. Such an approach recognizes the pain of the misalignment of behavior with principle but doesn’t create space for alignment and elevation of thought or performance.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. taught that the better angels of our nature and a divine discontent inherently spur us to bring our professed beliefs and our daily walk into alignment. The history of nations pursues a similar path. As King recounted, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Justice itself is an alignment, or balance, of the demands of justice and human mercy.
I have been a Jackie Robinson fan for as long as I can remember. He was a reformer and barrier-breaker when he became the first African American to play in Major League Baseball. He endured taunts, slurs and abuses of every kind. Yet, he kept his belief, not only in his professional pursuit, but in a vision of the kind of equality that could unite the nation. Such unity could bring the behavior of individuals and society into alignment with the idea that “all men were created equal.”
As he stood on the field, listening to the national anthem in Atlanta in 1948, Jackie Robinson noted that black and white players stood together, shoulder to shoulder, in alignment. He reflected, “What I have always believed has come to be.” His dream of equality was beginning to become reality. Such belief is the bedrock of good causes and great character.
Several years later, Robinson participated in a radio essay program called, “This I believe.” I have listened to it countless times over the years and never tire of hearing his soft-spoken, inspired and inspiring words. Robinson said, “And what is it that I have always believed? First, that imperfections are human. But that wherever human beings were given room to breathe and time to think, those imperfections would disappear, no matter how slowly.”
Then Robinson taught powerful life lessons and shared nation-defining principles saying, “Whatever obstacles I found made me fight all the harder. But it would have been impossible for me to fight at all, except that I was sustained by the personal and deep-rooted belief that my fight had a chance. It had a chance because it took place in a free society. Not once was I forced to face and fight an immovable object. Not once was the situation so cast-iron rigid that I had no chance at all. Free minds and human hearts were at work all around me; and so there was the probability of improvement … I can say to my children: There is a chance for you. No guarantee, but a chance.”
The great promise of a liberty loving land and a free people is that everyone and every cause has a fair and fighting chance to change, overcome, endure and ultimately find success.
Aligning our principles and our behavior in America is a perpetual struggle, and individually we must make it our struggle. Our halting and often stumbling steps as a nation toward equality and justice for all must continue. All minorities, all women, all people must be treated fairly and with dignity if “all men are created equal” is to have meaning in America. Thankfully, we live in a nation where the struggle for societal behavior congruent with our founding ideal of equality has a fighting change. As Robinson stated, “My fight had a chance. It had a chance because it took place in a free society.”
Tolerance and understanding, civility and love are also important American principles. As a nation, our current behavior relating to these principles is wildly out of alignment — the reason for much of the pain and suffering experienced in our families, neighborhoods and communities. Realigning our behavior to these principles is the only path to healing a divided nation.
Because we live in a most extraordinary nation, we have the chance to change and become congruent.
Robinson concluded his radio message by saying, “I believe in the human race. I believe in the warm heart. I believe in man’s integrity. I believe in the goodness of a free society. And I believe that the society can remain good only as long as we are willing to fight for it — and to fight against whatever imperfections may exist.”
It is up to each of us to live aligned to our principles, to be congruent with what we profess to believe and to be equal to the task the founders set before the nation.