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 . . . .
We repeat these great words as though we believe them, and most of us probably think we do, as long as we don’t have to explain what we mean by them, including what we do not mean by them. Like justice, equality is a noble concept, a grand idea, a truth more easily held as ideal than applied to life’s choices. Just how radical and how difficult a thought equality becomes when taken seriously enough to influence our choices and challenge our prejudices may not occur to us.
Needless to say, all people are not equal in wealth, education, measured intelligence, influence, or social standing. In the United States, we like to perpetuate the fantasy of equal opportunity, even as powerful forces in American society do their best to make sure it never becomes the nation’s reality. Indeed, those who feel themselves entitled to superiority and who enjoy far greater privilege than most Americans are the very ones who insist most loudly and steadfastly that opportunity and only opportunity should be equal for all Americans. Make it if you can, but don’t expect help! Thereby, we perpetuate the delusion that people get what they earn and no more or less than they deserve, even as those with influence make sure hard work does not pay off for most of the disadvantaged and there is never a level playing field of opportunity.
In what sense, then, are all people equal? Since equal opportunity is a lie, does any truth remain to the profession of equality among human beings?
I was taught to believe that people are all of equal worth – not worthiness, but worth, value. Human societies, of course, have not accepted this idea but, rather, have structured themselves upon the belief that human beings are of decidedly and measurably unequal worth. Hence, even in the land of one person, one vote (when it’s not suppressed), we have always had the lessers and the greaters, the “common people” and the aristocrats. These days, we even have an educational concept, however unworthy of the name, called “value added” – added, that is, to our children! Do parents realize their children can come home from school more valuable than when they left the house? Valuable to whom, and by what measure? The answer is that they are being trained to be of more use to the masters of the world of business and commerce whose measurements for our children are being standardized. In the face of rampant standardization, constant competition, and ceaseless faulty measurements, how can we maintain that all people are of equal worth?
Parents already know the answer. One of their sons or daughters may be better at this or that, maybe even more successful at life overall, but none is of greater worth than another. Why not? The system of valuation is relational not competitive, and the measure is love. Which child is loved more? That question is easy to answer: the one in more immediate need of the love receives it more intensely at the time. None is truly loved more. It’s just that the need of one or the other is more pressing at the moment.
In the biblical view, human life is relational, and the truth of God is relational, also. There is no such thing as “value added” to a person. There can be growth, development, improvement, forgiveness, and even redemption, but not value added. But the biblical view goes further. According to the Bible, starting with the book of Exodus, God does not simply declare equality an ideal but deliberately takes up the cause of the very lowest of human beings: slaves. The Creator of the universe enters the stage of human history as the God of slaves, thereby turning our human notions of relative worth upside down. So, it is that “the first will be last and the last first.”
I have much more to consider on the topics of equality and justice and on their relation to each other. Is justice proportional – that is, are some entitled to more in life because of the accidents of their birth (to some sort of aristocracy) or their exploitation of their advantages (financial success)? Or should there be such a thing as equal justice? Further, is justice retributive (punishing) or restorative? What does it mean to love justice?
“. . . with liberty and justice for all.” The words sound noble and eminently fair. What do we mean by them, and what do we steadfastly not mean by them?