The modern world was birthed in the ideal of freedom, eloquently expressed in the three-word slogan of the French Revolution – “liberty, equality, fraternity” – and the soaring rhetoric of the US Declaration of Independence that
“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.”
Of course, when those words were uttered, they were not applied to women, America’s indigenous peoples, nor the Africans who were enslaved on American plantations. Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the draft of the version that was ultimately adopted, had hundreds of slaves working on his estates in Virginia. Nonetheless, the idea of equality, once rooted in the heart and mind, relentlessly drove the struggle for equality for all.
Abraham Lincoln invoked the declaration to demand freedom for America’s slaves. In the Gettysburg Address he famously claimed that
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.
The Gettysburg Address
A year earlier Lincoln argued the authors of the Declaration
meant to set up a standard maxim for free society which should be familiar to all,—constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even, though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people, of all colors, everywhere.
The declaration was invoked in one of the earliest feminist documents, the “Declaration of Sentiments”
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…
Now, in view of this entire disfranchisement of one-half the people of this country, their social and religious degradation—in view of the unjust laws above mentioned, and because women do feel themselves aggrieved, oppressed, and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights, we insist that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of these United States.
In entering upon the great work before us, we anticipate no small amount of misconception, misrepresentation, and ridicule; but we shall use every instrumentality within our power to effect our object. We shall employ agents, circulate tracts, petition the State and national Legislatures, and endeavor to enlist the pulpit and the press in our behalf. We hope this Convention will be followed by a series of Conventions, embracing every part of the country.
Declaration of Sentiments, 1848
With the wisdom of hindsight, it is easy to wonder how people could ever have questioned that slaves should be free and that civil rights be extended to every member of society regardless of their skin colour or sex. Yet the truth is that every generation has struggled to match reality with ideal. Are not the psychological destructions of refugees on Manus and Nauru, our meagre foreign aid budget, the repeated denial of indigenous aspiration, the under-representation of women in our board rooms and among our clergy, and the contemptuous assertions about LGBITQ people made in the current marriage equality debate, signs of our generation’s struggle?
At the same time that we have been inspired by the lofty ideal of equality, we have constructed mythologies that justify inequality. Colonialism was justified on the grounds that European values and culture were superior to those of colonised nations; the eugenics movement, which led to the sterilisation of people considered genetically deficient, was popular across Western society until discredited by its awful implementation by Germany’s Nazi government; the abominable treatment of asylum seekers in offshore detention centres is justified by declaring the refugees unworthy or arguing that their degradation is a necessary evil to prevent an even greater evil; theologies of a “creation order” are used to justify the subordination of women, discrimination against gays and lesbians, and to marginalise transsexuals. I have deliberately mentioned dark and sinister episodes from history alongside those that are much more altruistic, as a reminder that the denial of equality and freedom need not have its origins in the brutal pragmatism of power or the appalling ideologies of Nazism, but is found also in the hearts, minds and practices of people who are otherwise good, generous, loving, kind, compassionate and Christlike.
At the heart of every push for freedom lies the assumption that equality trumps everything else, that if all people are created equal they should be treated as such. This does not mean that any and every behaviour is justified (for example, my freedom does not justify cheating on my spouse) or that there are no grounds for discrimination (for example, when we require a person to have certain skills to do a particular job). It does however mean that no person should experience discrimination, exclusion, or impairment of opportunity because of something intrinsic to their humanity such as their gender, sex, or “race”, or because they have fallen foul of the economic, social, political and cultural systems we create.
The fruit of inequality is a stable social order that entrenches the rights and freedoms of some at the expense of others. To those included in the circle of equality and freedom the world looks well-ordered. They find good reason to justify their privilege and all too often are deaf to the pain of those to whom equality is denied. But, for those with ears to hear, there are stories of humiliation, pain, disadvantage and sorrow that must be heard, and new frontiers of freedom that must be championed. For equality always has a price. Recognising the equality of others means those who hold power must let go of privilege and demands the transformation of social, economic and political systems that preference the interests of some over others. It is incredibly difficult to resist the seductions of privilege and power, but it is the pathway laid down for us by none other than our Creator.