BBC Radio 4 Thought for the Day, led by Dr Revd Sam Wells on 04/07/2019

Good morning. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident,

  • that all men are created equal,
  • that they’re endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights,
  • that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’

Those words were agreed on the 4th of July, 1776 in the Declaration of Independence. Americans have spent the last 243 years debating what they mean.

  • Does ‘all men’ mean African Americans? Until the 1860s it seemed not. For Europeans the journey across the Atlantic was from persecution to freedom; for Africans, the journey was from freedom to persecution.
  • Does ‘all men’ mean women? In 1848 the Seneca Falls Convention began the campaign to read ‘all men’ as ‘all men and women’; some doubt if that campaign is truly over.
  • Does ‘all men’ mean Native Americans? As America spread west in the nineteenth century, inalienable rights for some involved trampled rights for others.
  • Does ‘all men’ mean all people throughout the world? America’s never quite decided if it’s leading the rest of the world into freedom or if it’s requiring the rest of the world to suffer degrees of oppression to ensure that Americans can be free.
  • Does ‘all men’ mean migrants? The inscription on the Statue of Liberty says ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’ But it’s hard to argue that such rhetoric has always been honoured.

The story of America shows all of us how hard it is to balance freedom and equality. Regarding freedom as an individual right creates an atomised society where everyone asserts their incompatible entitlements. Meanwhile equality is notoriously hard to define. Does it mean equality of opportunity, regard, or outcome?

I wonder if it’s time to stop seeing freedom and equality as ends in themselves, and begin to see them as steps towards something bigger. Surely that something bigger should be universal flourishing: in other words, a goal that combines and freedom and equality and transcends both. On a personal level, freedom is a gift to society when it generates the widest range of examples of what flourishing looks like. On a collective level, equality ensures that flourishing is genuinely common to all.

The activities of a church are often categorised as ministry and mission. You could see ministry as creating opportunities to express longing and discover faith, while mission seeks that gifts such as wisdom, hope and compassion are received and enjoyed by the maximum number and diversity of people. So ministry is about learning how to be free, and mission is about advancing equality.

In Jesus, Christians see one who embodied true freedom, and sought to extend that freedom equally to everyone. Not just now, but forever.