Life, Liberty and a 911 Carrera
In an opening prologue to worship this Sunday, Ebenezer Diabene, LPC’s newest American citizen, will read a portion of the Declaration of Independence. Among the words Ebenezer will say are these, “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.”
We can leave to the historians to debate the exact origins of the phrase “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” To be sure, it is a new rendering of John Locke’s “life, liberty and property,” and some have argued that the “pursuit of happiness” is also from Locke. But Thomas Jefferson wrote the words and the Declaration has enshrined them as something uniquely American. And while the Constitution is careful to elaborate protections and assurances for life and liberty, happiness itself, whatever it is, appears not to be something that the government can assure or, in the end, protect.
In speaking of happiness, Jefferson seems to have had in mind a kind of well-being both individual and common. In a letter to James Monroe he said, "The Giver of life gave it for happiness and not for wretchedness." To Ellicot Thomas he wrote, “"I sincerely pray that all the members of the human family may, in the time prescribed by the Father of us all, find themselves securely established in the enjoyment of life, liberty, and happiness." (click here and scroll to bottom of page for citations.)
Americans in ways uniquely American have pursued happiness; something, whatever it is, that is not wretchedness.
At our best, the American pursuit of happiness has been more attuned to common good than individual satisfaction, remembering always that the community is made of individuals. Knowing the wretchedness of inequality, we pursue liberty and justice for all. Understanding the wretchedness of ignorance, we pursue opportunities for education – we build libraries, schools and universities. Though we’re still trying to figure out the policy details, we agree on the wretchedness of lacking medical care and so we pursue a better way. We see the wretched hopelessness in which many in other countries live and we pursue a just policy to allow the doors of immigration to remain open. And, yes, knowing the wretched danger of group-think and conformity we pursue broad freedom for the individual. Perhaps Jeffersonian happiness is found somewhere at the junction of justice, education, health, hope and free expression.
At our worst, this pursuit of happiness has been trivialized into self-satisfaction, self-realization, self-gratification, indeed, self-glorification. Finding himself in a wretchedly dull routine, the middle-aged man pursues happiness in the form of the proverbial red convertible and younger woman. The career-successful woman nevertheless sees her life as wretchedly empty and so she pursues new age spirituality and Oprahized self-help. Emerging adults find themselves in wretched despair about having to become an adult and so they pursue non-commitment in friendships, romance and vocation.
But fleeing wretchedness, few of us find happiness.
Thomas Jefferson was neither the friend to orthodox Christianity that some hope him to be nor the enemy others make him out to be. What Christian orthodoxy knows, what Jefferson may not have known, is that the pursuit of happiness is a paradoxical pursuit, to say the least. The old “Good News Bible” versions of the New Testament replaced the “blessed are” of the beatitudes with “happy are.” No other modern translation has followed suit, probably because of our culture’s trivialization of happiness. But there’s a point to be made. “Happy are those who mourn…” “Happy are you when people insult you and persecute you and tell all kinds of evil lies against you because you are my followers…” The pursuit of biblical happiness is paradoxical.
Worship with us Sunday. Hear our newest American celebrate his new country. Raise your voice with us as we sing to the Author of liberty and pray that God might mend our nation’s every flaw. Listen to the Word as we return to Bethel with Jacob.
But also this weekend, watch some fireworks, wear red, white and blue. Fly a flag, find a parade, have a picnic. Celebrate Independence Day. Give thanks for a nation where the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are considered self-evident and unalienable.
And keep in mind just how paradoxical is that pursuit of happiness.
Life, Liberty and a 911 Carrera