Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #168. First published in the St. Cloud Times online July 1, 2021; in print July 4

“We hold these truths to be self-evident...”

These 245-year-old words are often cited as the fundamental and timeless basis of what America is, who Americans are.

But that’s not how the Declaration begins. It starts in the midst of change, even of turmoil: “When in the course of human events … .”

The men gathered in Philadelphia acknowledge that what they are doing is specific to a time and place: The course of human events in the American colonies of the British empire has reached a point when “the way things are” is no longer justified. Stating the causes for this challenge to the way things are, they say, is required by “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.”

They – many steeped in the classics of ancient Greece and Rome – knew perfectly well how various “the opinions of mankind” are. The fate of Socrates proved that truth-telling could be lethal. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and the 53 other signatories had no illusions that everyone would say “Oh, of course! Thank you for setting us right!”

The prospect of blowback didn’t deter them, however. They stated, as clearly and eloquently and circumstantially as they could, the reasons why the timeless “self-evident truths” had specific consequences for them in their particular time and place “in the course of human events.”

Human events didn’t stop being in course.

Lincoln made the point at Gettysburg: “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” had been founded 87 years earlier; “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”

Human events haven’t stopped being in course.

America’s reckoning with racism is a facing-up not just to where the course of human events has brought us now. Centuries of inhuman events have lulled us into a callous “way things are” that blinds us who are white to structures, laws, traditions, customs, assumptions that deny to people who don’t look like us – and let’s be honest, many people who do look like us – full access to the timeless values of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Some, to inflame political passions, call it “critical race theory.” It’s actually historical truth. And somebody I revere is credited with saying “The truth will make you free.”

The best thing about this 2021 Independence Day happened a couple of weeks ago – President Biden’s signing the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act that passed the Senate unanimously and had only 14 nays (all Republican) in the House.

The very name of the legislation links our today with the today of 1776. Commemorating the moment in 1865 when slaves in Texas learned for the first time that they were free underscores the plain truth that 1776’s “all are created equal” didn’t originally mean “all.”

President Biden’s proclamation puts the national holiday in perspective.

“Great nations don’t ignore the most painful chapters of their past. Great nations confront them. … We celebrate the centuries of struggle, courage, and hope that have brought us to this time of progress and possibility. That work has been led throughout our history by abolitionists and educators, civil rights advocates and lawyers, courageous activists and trade unionists, public officials, and everyday Americans who have helped make real the ideals of our founding documents for all. Juneteenth … calls us to action today … to eradicate systemic racism that still undermines our founding ideals and collective prosperity.”

A recent Times Writers Group columnist, excoriating “critical race theory,” declared that it claims “defects are systemic and cannot be eradicated.” Something’s being “systemic” means it’s not easy to root out, sure, but “ineradicable,” no.

I wish that columnist had been at Lake George, as I was, on June 12, at the 24th annual St. Cloud Juneteenth celebration, organized by the African American Male Forum and supported by Higher Works Collaborative, the St. Cloud NAACP, St. Cloud State University and the City of St. Cloud.

Five late St. Cloud African American leaders – NAACP presidents LeRoy Hill and Clarence White, SCSU career mentor Lula Mische, artist Fred Yiran, and community activist Dexter Stanton – were honored with tributes headlined “Their Legacy Lives Forever.”

Pastor James Alberts called on all to continue the work of these giants by participating in a year-long project of safe-space conversations. “This community belongs to all of us.”

What harms some of us harms most of us, what helps some helps most of us. Alberts and many others know how – in light of the self-evident truths – to state the causes for the challenge to the way things are in the course of human events now. The problems are not ineradicable, but James Baldwin got it right: “Nothing can be changed until it is faced.”