The early twentieth century French writer Andre Gide once observed, “To free oneself is nothing; the truly arduous task is to know what to do with one’s freedom.”
That truly arduous task took a significant turn 224 years ago today when some intrepid pioneers in Philadelphia adopted these words and the articles that followed them:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
On this anniversary (an official holiday!), I’m tempted to parse each of those highly-charged clauses and phrases in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, but I’m particularly struck by the second one: “to form a more perfect Union.”
That laudable goal has been repeatedly tested in American history, especially when it seems at odds with the seventh phrase, “the Blessings of Liberty.”
The Tea Party end of today’s political spectrum has exacerbated that tension between union and liberty in rather stark terms. Some of them apparently believe that we ought to let people die if they don’t have health insurance, which is quite a price to pay for liberty’s “blessings.” (I’m not making this up. Read about it here.)
There’s much more at stake here than the same old partisan bickering over the role of the federal government, not least is how we will define and practice “liberty.” If it means the freedom not to care about the less fortunate, even when they’re dying, why bother with perfecting our “union”?
I suppose we could imagine a “union” formed by those who look alike, are like-minded, and have all the resources they need to take care of themselves. If so, then the U.S. Constitution would form a more perfect country club, but certainly not a country.
What we do with our freedom is as much an arduous theological task as it is a political one.
In the history of Christian theology, freedom has never meant living without constraint, or the freedom to do whatever we want. The grace of God in Christ frees us from bondage to sin and also thereby frees us for living into that grace with others.
The freedom to live for and with others appears in clauses eight and nine of the Constitution’s Preamble: “to provide for the common defence” and to “promote the general Welfare.” As U.S. citizens have always realized, that’s far easier said than done.
Christians have likewise realized how difficult freedom can be. I’ve been thinking about that just recently in my work on the Blessings Project of the Episcopal Church, which has been collecting and developing resources for the blessing of same-gender relationships. As part of that work, we’ve tried to address the ongoing (and centuries-old) challenge of living with disagreements in the Church – the religious version of forming a “more perfect union.”
Reflecting on that daunting task, my colleagues and I kept coming back to this: Christian unity is not a product of our own efforts but is instead a gift from God. The Church enacts that gift in baptism, which initiates us into the Body of Christ. Salvation, in other words, is thoroughly social and communal.
More pointedly put, baptism joins us to God by joining us to others who are different from us.
Now that’s a rather peculiar claim, and remarkably similar to trying to form a nation from people who don’t have anything else in common but a “constitution.”
St. Paul (no less) insisted on this view of baptism by urging the Galatians to set aside the social and cultural distinctions with which they were most familiar and which threatened to keep them divided. If you are baptized, Paul claimed, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
Christians are united, not because we agree with each other about everything or because we happen to like each other’s company, but because God has joined us together in Christ (whether we like it or not).
In that sense, both the Gospel and the U.S. Constitution are wonderfully and terrifyingly peculiar (to say the least). My salvation is inextricably bound to the salvation of others; my life in the United States is tied to the lives of everyone else in this country (whether I like it or not).
Those are not aspirational statements. They are facts, and the challenge in both cases is to learn how to live into the fact of our deeply interconnected and intertwined lives, not only in the Church and not only in the United States, but also on this planet.
As I’ve tried to do that In The Episcopal Church, I have been pleasantly surprised by occasional moments of feeling remarkably connected, even fondly so, to those with whom I profoundly disagree. Those were clearly moments of divine grace (trust me on that), which I would have missed had I not stuck with the struggle.
On the night before Jesus died, according to John’s gospel, he prayed for unity. In the midst of that prayer, Jesus commanded his disciples to love each other, a reminder they likely needed to hear. But this commandment was not a grit-your-teeth-and-bear-it onerous obligation. Jesus commanded it so that they might have joy (John 15:9-11).
As we mark the anniversary of the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, let’s take some of that peculiar Gospel energy into our civic lives. That will demand a lot from us, and it won’t be easy to live fully into that “more perfect Union” in an amazingly diverse society. But if we stick with it, and with God’s help, we may yet discover in new ways that the “truly arduous task” can lead us into joy.