A brief post-Fourth of July reflection…
This year on the Fourth of July, as I have so done many times, I re-read the Declaration of Independence. I am still a patriotic U.S. American citizen. The Declaration of Independence is THE foundational document which I respect and appreciate.
This year I was also struck by the way that document signed by the “Founding Fathers” has been understood and interpreted over the years. A number of my women friends have protested the “all men” reference as misogynistic. Whether it is a text like this one from the pen of Thomas Jefferson or a biblical text, to correctly understand what the author meant one has to take an historical critical look at the original text. The first goal of historical criticism is to discover the text’s primitive or original meaning in its original historical context. (With biblical texts one has the added responsibility of going back to an historical critical look at the text in its original Greek or Hebrew.) The next goal is to ask what that text means today.
The U.S. Declaration of Independence from Great Britain was adopted by the Second Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on July 4, 1776, more than a year after the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War (April 19, 1775 – September 3, 1783). The memorable lines of course are: “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.”
Dr. Jack Norman Rakove, historian at Stanford University, explains in his Pulitzer Prize book: Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution, that when the Continental Congress adopted this historic text, they did not intend it to mean individual equality. Rather, what they declared was that American colonists, as a people, had the same rights to self-government as other nations.
After the successful Revolution, U.S. Americans began reading and interpreting that famous text differently. The words that “all men” are “created equal” soon meant white, male landowners. It did not include Black and Indigenous people. And of course it did not include WOMEN. It took a very long time in U.S. history for people to realize and accept that women might also be equal and have rights.
Eighty-seven years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, southern white men went to war to reshape the country into a nation in which African Americans, Indigenous Americans, Chinese, and Irish were locked into a lower status than the accepted white men. The Confederate rebellion failed. The United States endured, and gradually U.S. Americans began to expand the idea that “all men” are created equal meant Black men, men of color, and eventually even women. Women’s suffrage took a very long time, however. It was one hundred and forty-four years before the Nineteenth Amendment became part of the U.S. Constitution on August 18, 1920. That amendment clearly states: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
We cannot change the wording of the Declaration of Independence but we can proclaim today that all people: all men, all women, all races, all genders, are equal. And we can stress LGBTQ rights as well.
We do grow in our understanding of what texts meant back then and what they mean or should mean today. We are historical people. We learn. We grow in our understanding.
So how do we work with texts today? Certainly the texts have to be factually accurate and comprehensive. This week, however, thinking about “all men” in the July 4th document, I would like to stress the use inclusive language.
We should write about “women and men,” not just use “men.” We are a society of women and men. We are not “mankind.”
As an encouragement that he use inclusive language, I once took the opening lines of a bishop friend’s pastoral letter, changing the text to inclusive language. Where the bishop had written “Dear Brothers, God our father in his wisdom has called all men to be kind brothers in the faith” I suggested he write: “Dear Sisters and Brothers, God who is just as much our mother as our father, acting in her wisdom, has called all of us to be loving sisters and brothers in the faith.” My bishop friend was not amused. Nevertheless, but I continued the discussion and sent him a few more examples, along with suggested changes in liturgical prayers. Well, the Vatican could use some inclusive language education as well.
We must use and insist on using inclusive language. In reading biblical texts, I always say “sisters and brothers” when the text says just “brothers.” If you are going to recite the Nicene Creed, which states “who for us men and our salvation came down from heaven” at least drop the word “men.”
We must be prophetic and Insist on inclusive language which stresses the dignity and freedom of all people – all races, all genders. As a university professor I would only accept and approve a master’s or a doctoral thesis if the student used inclusive language. As editor of a university journal for many years, I insisted on inclusive language.
For their personal biblical reading, I encourage people to read and use an inclusive Bible. For liturgical readings, why not insist on an inclusive lectionary? Any why not use inclusive prayers? The historical Jesus was not a misogynist. We should not be either, if we are truly followers of Jesus and Christian believers.
Using gender-loaded language reinforces inaccurate assumptions about the roles that women and men should occupy — and can successfully reach. The use of inclusive language offers us a chance to grow and become better communicators. When congratulating colleagues, why not say: ‘Well done, all’ instead of ‘Well done, guys.’”
Sisters and brothers we can move forward. God in her wisdom enables us to do that.