Independence Day (2018)

Even apart from these celestial gifts distinguishing the saints from other living people, there are further ways of recognizing their superiority. For instance, Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, summoned to him all the peoples to worship the image that he had set up (cf. Dan. 3:1-30). But God in His wisdom so disposed things that the virtue of three children should be made known to everyone and should teach everyone that there is one true God, who dwells in the heavens. Three children, captive and deprived of their liberty, spoke out boldly before him; and while everyone else, in great fear, worshipped the image, and even if not convinced did not dare to say anything, but was virtually speechless, like beasts dragged along by the nose, these children behaved very differently.

They did not want their refusal to worship the image to go unrecognized or to escape notice, but they declared in the hearing of all: ‘We do not worship your gods, 0 king, nor will we bow down before the golden image that you have set up.’ Yet the terrible furnace into which they were cast as punishment was not a furnace for them and did not manifest its normal function; but as if reverencing the children it kept them free from harm. And everyone, including the king himself, through them recognized the true God. Not only those on earth, but the angelic choirs themselves were amazed at these children. (St Symeon Metaphrastis,, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc.  33936-58)

As we celebrate Independence Day in the United States, we can think about the nature of freedom by considering the narrative in the Book of Daniel about the Three Youth in the fiery furnace.   Those 3 Jewish children though captives exiled in Babylon were able to exercise their free will despite their enslaved existence.  The Babylonians on the other hand though living at home as free citizens  also lived in fear of the king and were not able to exercise their consciences but rather lived the king’s lie.  So who was truly free – the slaves who had free will or the citizens who had no right to refuse their king’s demands?

Christian freedom means the right to live the godly life even if threatened by punishment of death.  Choosing martyrdom for Christ is the greatest example of choosing free will.  Christian freedom is not just about making all kinds of consumer choices, or being able to express oneself without constraint.  Christian freedom is far greater than any rights guaranteed in the Constitution or in the Bill of Rights.  As becomes obvious in the Orthodox spiritual tradition, freedom is denying oneself in order to follow Christ.   As St. Mark the Monk  noted Christian freedom,  has nothing to do with unrestricted self-expression ( Counsels on the Spiritual Life, Kindle Location 1717-1718).  Rather the Christian is one who is able to deny the self in order to conform himself to the will of the Creator.  This is something all of us Christians in America need to consider.  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

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MLK Holiday 2017

Enshrined in the National African American History Museum in Washington, DC, are words by Archbishop Iakovos who was the head of the Greek Orthodox Church in America from 1959-1996.   He was well known for his support of racial equality and civil rights.

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He was a visible presence with Martin Luther King in America.  By his life he indicated the importance of living the Gospel by supporting human rights.  For many migrants who brought with them their Orthodox faith to the American shores, they were looking exactly for civil and human rights, and some suffered rejection by those who saw this “foreign invasion” as endangering American society.  We all have benefited from those who have fought for the rights of minorities.  Besides the National African American Museum in Washington, DC, I would highly recommend to all the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, OH.   These museums do present us with our history as Americans – and the ongoing efforts to keep us all free.

 

A Statue of Responsibility

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“In a universe where values are relative and individual autonomy reigns supreme, personal responsibility is a doubtful proposition. Responsibility implies accountability to a higher authority than the face in the mirror, there is no need for shame or guilt. Even if you get caught, it is always the fault of someone else: your parents, your teachers, the government, faulty genes (again your parents! And no need for repentance if you can obtain the services of a clever lawyer!). Dr. Victor Frankl was an admirer of the United States and the many freedoms enjoyed by its citizens, but with some caveats. ‘Freedom…is a negative concept which requires a positive complement. And the positive complement is responsibleness..[which] refers to a meaning for whose fulfillment we are responsible, and also to a being before whom we are responsible…Freedom threatens to degenerate into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness..the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast [of the United States] should be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.’” (Daniel B. Hinshaw, Suffering and the Nature of Healing, p. 81)

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To Sin is Not Freedom but Slavery

Theologically speaking, freedom and free will have particular connotations in Orthodox thinking that they don’t have in secular culture.  Modern Western culture, influenced by the Enlightenment, sees true human freedom as the ability of an individual to shake off the shackles which society imposes on the individual’s thinking.  Freedom in popular thinking is defined more as the individual choosing to do whatever that person wants to do.  Government, society, law, all become oppressors of the individual as do tradition, culture, social or religious norms.  Freedom means freeing oneself from the expectations of others.

Theologically though freedom has more to do with the path we choose in life and the consequences of those decisions.  God places before each individual life and all its choices.  There is a path that leads to humans being more godlike, and there is a path which leads away from God.  We are free to choose the path we will follow, but the paths have very different consequences for ourselves and for all of humanity.

One path, which does follow human choice also means we become more attuned to ourselves as individuals, isolated and alienated from all others.  On this path, we lose our belonging to humanity as a whole, we lose our sense of being a relational, interdependent being.  We choose our way into a confinement, a slavery to self which ends up being guided by sin.  This path seems like the greatest personal freedom but it also involves ever increasingly becoming a slave to self, to sin, to death.

Christ, Adam and Eve in Eden

The other path also requires choice, and sometimes is a difficult path, but in it we choose to maintain our relationship with God and with others.  It is a path of love which leads to self denial – for the good of the other.  We sometimes may feel we are giving up personal freedoms to follow a path of another – of God.  But it also is the path which enables us to become most godlike.  It involves free choice, but the choice is to limit one’s self interest.  It means not making self preservation the greatest good, but to choose to make love for others to be the greatest good.

If we follow the first path we do end up being slaves to self, sin, death and Satan.  It may maximize our sense of being freed from the constraint of others. We choose our way to that end. But it does separate us from others and from God, and thus is death.   But God who is love willingly provides redemption for those who find themselves in that dead end.  No matter how far down that path one may walk, God provides the way out.  But, we have to choose to accept God’s offer.

St. Basil the Great writes:

“…let him hear the whole truth of the matter: that every human soul has bowed down under the evil yoke of slavery imposed by the common enemy of all and, being deprived of the very freedom which it received from the Creator, has been led captive through sin. Every captive has need of ransoms for his freedom. Now, neither a brother can ransom his brother, nor can anyone ransom himself, because he who is ransoming must be much better than he who has been overcome and is now a slave. But, actually, no man has the power with respect to God to make atonement for a sinner, since he himself is liable for sin. ‘All have sinned have need of the glory of God. They are justified freely by his grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus’ our Lord.‘”  (The Fathers of the Church: St. Basil Exegetic Homilies, p. 317)

God’s love for us never ends, even when we choose our way to slavery to sin and death.  We will find in that enslavement that we are not free to grow in godliness or to attain eternal life.  God provides us a way out of that enslavement to sin and death.  We cannot free ourselves of it, but God offers us life if we choose our way back to Him.

Christian Freedom – Detachment from the World

In the United States, July 4 is celebrated as Independence Day which many Americans consider to be the very basis for personal freedoms.  We can as Christians look at history to see how Christians in past Centuries (long before there was a United States) understood the notion of freedom.  One expression of Christian freedom which grew rapidly after the establishment of the Christian Roman Empire is monasticism.  Monastics, among other things, wanted to be able to practice their faith fully, without state interference and without being influenced by the masses of Christians who the monks felt practiced a watered-down version of Christianity.  For these monastic Christians, the monasteries and the deserts into which they fled, leaving behind the Christian state, offered them freedom.  Certainly we can recognize the value of some of the freedoms they sought.

“The telos of the monks’ life in the desert was freedom: freedom from anxiety about the future; freedom from the tyranny of haunting memories of the past; freedom from an attachment to the ego which precluded intimacy with others and with God. They hoped also that this freedom would express itself in a positive sense: freedom to love others; freedom to enjoy the presence of God; freedom to live in the innocence of a new paradise. The desert fathers’ aspiration toward freedom expressed itself in many different guises and touched upon various levels of their lives. They drew heavily upon biblical images to articulate their hopes, focusing on such New Testament ideas as “not being anxious about anything (Mt 9:25),” “not worrying about tomorrow (Mt 6:34),” “seeking first God’s kingdom (Mt. 6:33),” believing in the limitless goodness of God (Mk 9:23), and on what the Psalms call “casting one’s cares upon the Lord (Ps 54:23).” Taken altogether, these images comprise a montage expressing the ultimate goal of renunciation and detachment for the desert fathers: freedom from worry, anxiety, and care, born of a sense of total dependence upon and confidence in God.” (Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert, p. 222)

They felt themselves freed of worldly values and norms and able to live completely in and for the Kingdom of God.

Human Freedom means God’s Enslavement

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  (Philippians 2:5-7)

One of the great mysteries of Christian theology is the humility of God.  God is willing to serve our needs, and to even humble himself to become a servant, a slave who works for our salvation.  God’s humility and God’s willingness to serve us are true because God is love.  God is willing to empty Himself (kenosis) for us humans and for our salvation.  This is the incarnation of love – God becoming human in Jesus Christ.

St. Ephrem the Syrian in one of his hymns on the Nativity of Christ expresses this kenotic theology this way:

“Behold, our freedom forced our Lord to be a servant to us.” (HYMNS, p 181)

When God created us with free will, God knew full well that we might choose against him.  God knew our freedom might lead to His needing to save us.  Thus, as St. Ephrem notes, the freedom which we so enjoy carries the implication, the corollary, that God would have to become our servant to save us.  This doesn’t alter God’s love for us.  Despite the humility required from God in creating us (needed to save us through the incarnation), God created us anyway.  He gifts us with freedom knowing He will have to save us – thus our freedom forces God to be our servant.

This is the great mystery of God’s kenotic love.

Next time you hear the expression, “Freedom isn’t free”, think about what our freedom cost God.

Religious Freedom

“Freedom obliges, freedom calls for sacrificial self-giving, freedom determines one’s honesty and strictness with oneself and one’s path. And if we want to be strict and honest, worthy of the freedom given us, we must first of all test our own attitude toward our spiritual world. We have no right to wax tender hearted over all our past indiscriminately – much of that past is far loftier and purer than we are, but much of it is sinful and criminal. We should aspire to the lofty and combat the sinful. […] And it would be a great lie to tell searching souls: ‘Go to church, because there you will find peace.’ The opposite is true. She tells those who are at peace and asleep: ‘Go to church, because there you will feel real alarm about your sins, about your perdition, about the world’s sins and perdition. There you will feel an unappeasable hunger for Christ’s truth. There instead of lukewarm you will become ardent, instead of pacified you will become alarmed, instead of learning the wisdom of this world you will become foolish in Christ.’

Lady Freedom

It is to this foolishness, this folly in Christ, that our freedom calls us. Freedom calls us, contrary to the whole world, contrary not only to the pagans but to many who style themselves Christians, to undertake the Church’s work in what is precisely the most difficult way. And we will become fools in Christ, because we know not only the difficulty of this path but also the immense happiness of feeling God’s hand upon what we do.”

(Mother Maria Skobtsova, Essential Writings, pp 114-115)

 

Thomas Jefferson: A Blessed Patriarch

Most Blessed PatriarchI’ve tried for many years to read an American history book around the 4th of July.   This year I read Annette Gordon-Reed’s “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination .   I was trying to gain some understanding of how Jefferson was able to on one hand declare that “all men were created equal” and yet be a slave owner.  The book does deal with this issue, but I’m not sure I understand it any better for having read the book.  What I learned from the book was that Jefferson had actually penned (for example in his NOTES ON VIRGINIA) some searing critiques of slavery and how it demeaned and dehumanized the slave owners turning them into inhumane tyrants.  But he then seems to have imagined himself to be some sort of benevolent slave owner with his slaves actually being happy to be part of his patriarchal estate.  Gordon-Reed writes:

Would moneymaking Virginians like Jefferson himself overcome their self-interest in order to secure the commonwealth’s republican future? Laws shaped manners, as their sequence in Notes on Virginia suggested, and educating, emancipating, and then expatriating Virginia’s slaves was the only guarantee that the younger generation would not be “nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny” and so be “stamped” by the institution with its “odious peculiarities.”  (Kindle Location 2334-2338)

Jefferson writes that slavery ruins the morals of the children of slave owners, and that slavery needed to be abolished, and yet he loved his landed gentry lifestyle and was not so moved to free his slaves or even to provoke his fellow white slave holders by taking a firm stand against slavery.  He despised the wealthy class of Europe because their elite lifestyle was based in the oppression of the masses.  But Jefferson was willing to enslave some people in order that others like himself could have a comfortable lifestyle – to live like a patriarch.  He was indeed a child of and slave to the Enlightenment and entitlement.  He imagined the American gentry owning large parcels of land and thus maintaining their personal independence (thus he saw himself as a most blessed patriarch).  The state was to stay out of the affairs of personal estates.  Slavery was thus a personal thing for the gentry class, beyond the rule of the state since the state had to respect and protect the privacy and freedom of the gentry class.  His personal failure to deal with the issue of slavery, condemned countless thousands of human beings to the dehumanizing effects of slavery in our country.  A price for that was eventually paid by the nation in the civil war.  Jefferson actually contributed to all that suffering by not being willing to live by his own moral standards.   He saw slave owning as an evil that he was willing to benefit from.

Despite the slaves, he still couldn’t make his plantation run profitably.  He didn’t live within his means, which is maybe one of the sad legacies of Jefferson that the American government and peoples embodies today.  As he aged, his children and grandchildren worked hard (read: enabled!) to allow Jefferson to live his fantasy even as his entire plantation enterprise was financially failing.  Upon his death, they ended up selling just about everything to pay his debts.  None of this takes away from his great contribution to the American revolution or the shaping of the American way.  It only says that his personal vision of life for the gentry was unsustainable with or without slavery.  His failure on this level though also condemned so many to slavery, so the price was very high.

A couple of random quotes from the book.  Jefferson did fear that the American revolution would be undone by people trying to create a European style upper class – an imperial class.  [But of course he didn’t seem to think the slave-holding gentry were like this! Indeed in Europe slavery had already been abolished].

But what if that “spirit” waned, as Jefferson had feared it might after independence was won? “From the conclusion of this war we shall be going down hill,” he warned: rights will be “disregarded,” and Virginians will “forget themselves, but in the sole faculty of making money.”   (Kindle, Location 2326-2328)

Jefferson feared greed might be the undoing of American independence.  People would make wealth the highest good and be willing to sacrifice their independence from oppressive government as long as they became wealthy.  He felt independence required an ongoing fight and revolution.  Not sure what he would have made of the modern belief that we should be able to be both rich and independent and that independence requires no sacrifice, no price.

And for our presidential election year, this thought:

The success of America’s republican experiment thus depended on transparency and responsibility: politicians were the people’s “servants,” not their masters, and they should certainly not allow themselves to be influenced by would-be courtiers.  (Kindle Location 2925-2927)

Now elections are all about money and those with money have inordinate amount of influence and power in elections.  The Supreme Court has decided that money talks in elections, and this is free speech.  Jefferson, I think, would have been puzzled by our willingness to let money control our politicians.

Lastly, wisdom for us to consider on many levels.

One is reminded of the words that the Roman historian Tacitus puts into the mouth of a Caledonian general, criticizing the Romans and their depredations in Scotland: ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant—“they make a desert, and they call it peace.”  (Kindle Location 1197-1199)

Thoughts on a Refugee Crisis But No Solution

The great human tragedy and resulting human suffering of mass migration out of the Mideast has been caused by the actions of certain adherents of Islam.  These people bear full responsibility for what has happened to all these displaced people including all the deaths that have occurred.    They should be held accountable by the world community for the evil they have done which certainly are crimes against humanity.

The mass migration has put many European countries to the test, and have challenged the moral values of Christians throughout the world.  How should Christians respond to these aliens and strangers who come knocking at our borders?   How do we treat migrants who themselves are related to people who have inflicted oppression and suffering on Christians?

Syrian internally displaced people walk in the Atme camp, along the Turkish border in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, on March 19, 2013. The conflict in Syria between rebel forces and pro-government troops has killed at least 70,000 people, and forced more than one million Syrians to seek refuge abroad. AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC        (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
(Photo credit  BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

In the past few months as I survived my chemotherapy, my heart and mind were often with these refugees.  My suffering seemed small compared to theirs.  Mine was limited, but for them, there is no end to the suffering in sight.  Nevertheless my own suffering made me more acutely aware of theirs and far more compassionate toward them.

I don’t have any easy solutions to the issue, but some words from our scripture come to my mind.  These words challenge my thinking as much as the presence of the suffering migrants who are fleeing war and violence.   First words from the Torah:

“And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I command you this day for your good? Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it; yet the LORD set his heart in love upon your fathers and chose their descendants after them, you above all peoples, as at this day. Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the terrible God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.  (Deuteronomy 10:12-19)

God is a lover of these sojourners who are fleeing persecution.  God so loved Israel in bringing them out of Egypt and into the Promised Land.  God, according to Deuteronomy, provides for such sojourners and expects us to treat them as He Himself treats them.

God is love.

In the New Testament we see how difficult it is to have sympathy for strangers and sojourners, especially when we see them as a threat or as enemies, not people.

Prophet Elijah

And Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his own country. But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when there came a great famine over all the land; and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha; and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and put him out of the city, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw him down headlong. But passing through the midst of them he went away.  (Luke 4:24-30)

Jesus reminds his fellow Jews of a simple truth in history.  There were times when God did not bless or favor the Jews, but rather chose a foreigner, stranger or sojourner upon whom to shower His grace.  That truth so enraged the Jews listening to Jesus that they wanted to kill Him.   They were the chosen people who enjoyed divine exceptionalism.  They had no intention of letting Jesus point out to them how God acted with mercy and love toward a suffering Syrian.

We Christians need to remember these stories from our scriptures. We Orthodox just this past weekend read the Gospel lesson found in Luke 10:25-37 of the Good Samaritan in which the hero, the moral person in the story, is a foreigner and it is this stranger, even enemy, who acts like God in displaying mercy toward a fellow human being.

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Icon of the parable of the Good Samaritan

In July, 1938, a poll of Americans asked whether Americans should accept refugees from Europe who were escaping political events there specifically the rise of fascism and the oppression it represented.  At that time,  67% of Americans opposed allowing these refugees into America.   Then following the events of Kristallnacht when it became clear that the oppression of Jews had already begun in Europe, Americans were polled by Gallup’s American Institute of Public Opinion in January 1939.   Two-thirds of Americans still opposed bringing refugee children to America.   Americans were overwhelmingly against bringing 10,000 German Jewish refugee children into our country to help them escape persecution and the impending holocaust.  We know the result of our unwillingness to take such Jewish refugees in at that time.

Jewish cemetery in Prague

We can not afford to take the Syrian refugees into our countries and we cannot afford not to.  This situation has been seen in the world before.  As Christians, we have God’s Word to guide out thinking.  Clearly there are risks to follow and enact the teachings of Christ.  On the other hand, there are eternal consequences for not following His teachings as well.  We need to feel the pressure of this issue.

A few final thoughts:

This humanitarian crisis is the result of policies by Muslim leaders in Muslim countries.   Many argue that these leaders and countries are not “truly” Islamic.  But they certainly aren’t Christian or Jewish or Buddhist.   They are countries and leaders shaped by Islam.   Muslims need to consider what is it in Islam that brings this situation into existence and allows it to continue to exist?    It is people claiming to follow Islam who have created this humanitarians crisis.

Note also that the Muslims fleeing the suffering are not in general seeking admission to Islamic countries.  Nor do we see Islamic countries doing everything possible to welcome their fellow Muslims.  Muslims are fleeing traditionally Muslim countries and trying to find their way to non-Islamic countries.  Why?   Again, Muslims need to ask themselves what is it in Islam that allows and causes this to happen?  It may be true that some leaders and countries are distorting Islam, but what in Islam lends itself so readily to such distortion?

Even though Europe and most of the West are considered to be “post-Christian”, we see it is Christian morality which causes people to welcome refugees in.  It is Christian morality which Muslim refugees are seeking.  Even when Christians and “post-“Christians are conflicted about how to deal with these refugees, still it is Christian values which causes people to agonize over how to treat these refugees.

Christians cannot claim a perfectly pristine moral history when it comes to dealing with strangers and sojourners and Jews or Muslims.  But the crisis the world faces now is born in Islamic civilization, even if it is a distortion of Islam.

I would say for my fellow Christians, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is not Christian morality.   Neither is an attitude that we should kill others for wounding us.  Or that we should kill seventy fold for everyone of us who dies at the hands of terrorists (this idea belongs to Lamech in Genesis 4, not to those following the Lord).

As Americans, we might remember the ideal we find enshrined on our own Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

 

JFK: Riding the Wave

JFKSince the 50th Anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy has filled the airwaves, the printed media and the Internet with nostalgia for the slain president, I decided to ride the wave publish one more blog on JFK (see also my JFK Assassination Plot: 50 Years in the Making), this time quoting a speech he gave at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on April 27, 1961.  It has a great deal of America’s self-mythology  in it, which the Camelot President was great at voicing to inspire Americans about their role in the world and their hopeful future.  Somewhere in the last day or so I heard a quote which I tried to find on the world wide web but didn’t succeed and I don’t remember where I heard it or who said it.  The quote was something like: “America is the first nation on earth which believes it was born perfect but whose task is to constantly improve itself.”  That is why our nation has the split personality of permanently enshrining the ideals of the constitution (a conservative principle) and yet ever pushing into the future with the hope of an even better tomorrow.   We uphold the ideal of the past (Declaration of Independence and the Constitution) and find new ways of applying it to the present to shape the future.  The conservatism demands constant creativity to apply it to every new situation which arise in the present.   It creates the strange situation where both liberals and conservatives deny they are establishment but both lay claim to be the true heirs of the political tradition.  The federal government is given the sacred trust to protect the rights of citizens and yet the citizens don’t trust the federal government or anyone else to do it.

Constitution DetailThough history shows Kennedy didn’t live up to his own idealism (think Bay of Pigs  and also his personal sexual escapades), he did in speech express our ideals well.  In this speech we see some of these ideals which we need to reawaken in our country today.  The press is the only business protected by the Constitution.  The world is dangerous, but a secret and oppressive society is not the answer; rather, a free and open society is the correct response.  Disagreement, dissent and debate are not the signs of a society fragmenting into irreconcilable factions, but a firm footing for democracy.  Critics of government policy are not disloyal; instead, they are an important resource for improving the general welfare of the people.  Government has its proper role as defined by the Constitution to serve the citizenry and to uphold America’s ideals, but government is not infallible and can embrace a means toward an end in which the means and/or the ends are simply wrong.  America may have been born perfect (at least in our self mythology), but neither the nation nor its government nor its citizenry always behave perfectly.   We have to be honest enough to point that out and recognize that truth.  You can listen to Kennedy delivering the speech at JFK: Presidency and the Press  or read the text of his 1961 speech below:

“The very word “secrecy” is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and secret proceedings.

We decided long ago that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweighed the dangers which are cited to justify it. Even today, there is little value in opposing the threat of a closed society by imitating its arbitrary restrictions.

Even today, there is little value in insuring the survival of our nation if our traditions do not survive with it. And there is very grave danger that an announced need for increased security will be seized upon by those anxious to expand its meaning to the very limits of official censorship and concealment.

That I do not intend to permit to the extent that it is in my control.

And no official of my Administration, whether his rank is high or low, civilian or military, should interpret my words here tonight as an excuse to censor the news, to stifle dissent, to cover up our mistakes or to withhold from the press and the public the facts they deserve to know.”

For we are opposed around the world by a monolithic and ruthless conspiracy that relies on covert means for expanding its sphere of influence–on infiltration instead of invasion, on subversion instead of elections, on intimidation instead of free choice, on guerrillas by night instead of armies by day.

It is a system which has conscripted vast human and material resources into the building of a tightly knit, highly efficient machine that combines military, diplomatic, intelligence, economic, scientific and political operations.

Its preparations are concealed, not published. Its mistakes are buried not headlined. Its dissenters are silenced, not praised. No expenditure is questioned, no rumor is printed, no secret is revealed.”

Time42312No President should fear public scrutiny of his program. For from that scrutiny comes understanding; and from that understanding comes support or opposition. And both are necessary.

I am not asking your newspapers to support the Administration, but I am asking your help in the tremendous task of informing and alerting the American people. For I have complete confidence in the response and dedication of our citizens whenever they are fully informed.

I not only could not stifle controversy among your readers– I welcome it.

This Administration intends to be candid about its errors; for as a wise man once said: “An error does not become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.” We intend to accept full responsibility for our errors; and we expect you to point them out when we miss them.

Without debate, without criticism, no Administration and no country can succeed– and no republic can survive.

That is why the Athenian lawmaker Solon decreed it a crime for any citizen to shrink from controversy.

U.S. Bill of Rights
U.S. Bill of Rights

And that is why our press was protected by the First (emphasized) Amendment– the only business in America specifically protected by the Constitution– not primarily to amuse and entertain, not to emphasize the trivial and sentimental, not to simply “give the public what it wants”–but to inform, to arouse, to reflect, to state our dangers and our opportunities, to indicate our crises and our choices, to lead, mold educate and sometimes even anger public opinion.

This means greater coverage and analysis of international news– for it is no longer far away and foreign but close at hand and local. It means greater attention to improved understanding of the news as well as improved transmission. And it means, finally, that government at all levels must meet its obligation to provide you with the fullest possible information outside the narrowest limits of national security…

And so it is to the printing press–to the recorder of man’s deeds, the keeper of his conscience, the courier of his news– that we look for strength and assistance, confident that with your help man will be what he was born to be: free and independent.”

President Lincoln is credited with freeing the slaves in America.  Yet we too can become slaves to prosperity – deciding that wealth is the ultimate and highest good and that we must sacrifice some or all freedoms to preserve the nation’s prosperity and wealth.  Or maybe we come to realize that we need to put some limits on government or business in order to preserve the freedom and independence of every citizen and the general welfare of the nation.   Jesus said that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath.  So too the Constitution was made for man and not man for the Constitution.  The Constitution exists for the good of the people.    It is the people the Constitution and the government are meant to serve: “government of the people, by the people, for the people”.  As Lincoln said in his Gettysburg Address (whose 150th Anniversary was also celebrated this month):

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.