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; and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness …
– Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence
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“Forgiveness is surrendering my right to hurt you back if you hurt me,” writes psychologist Dr. Archibald Hart.*
This suggests that forgiveness, the most recent of the core Pilgrim values to be considered in this context, is closely allied with the next: meekness. The connection is in fact one of inclusive subordination: that is to say, forgiveness is simply a sub-category or sub-species of meekness. For in the language of the New Testament, meekness is all about surrendering rights – not just my right to hurt you back, but any right whatsoever.
“Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild,” cynically caricatured by the poet Swinburne as the “pale Galilean,” is not a popular figure with most of us. We prefer the bold and brawny Christ of Ezra Pound: the whip-wielding Cleanser of the Temple. This is all well and good as far as it goes. But it fails to take into account that the Master Himself used the word meek (Greek praus, “gentle or mild”) to describe the Blessed inheritors of the earth. It was a rash, senseless, absurd thing to say in face of the kosmic wisdom which asserts that nothing is gained or “inherited” apart from self-assertiveness.
Give up your rights and gain the whole world. What an idea! This upside-down view of reality is difficult for most us to swallow. After all, rights are the foundation and capstone of the American worldview. Rights have been our Creed and Mantra from beginning to end. We have a right to demand our rights because they are rightfully ours. And we know – the lesson having been pounded into our heads time and time again – that rights and freedoms are not free: no, they must be wrested violently from the hands of enemies, tyrants, and villains. Rights have to be seized, preserved, and protected by sheer brute force. Once secured, we have an obligation to fight and kill in order to retain them. And why? Because our rights, for reasons we’ve never even stopped to examine, are what human existence is all about.
Or are they?
Apparently Moses didn’t think so. When his own brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam, stood up and questioned his right to lead the people of Israel, Moses spoke never a word in his own defense. Instead, he stepped aside and let God plead his cause. That’s why the writer of the Book of Numbers was able to say, “Now the man Moses was very meek, meeker than all men who were on the face of the earth.”
Paul of Tarsus, too, though not the sort of man anyone could accuse of being ”the meekest on the face of the earth,” had a firm grasp of this principle. In his first letter to the Christians at Corinth, he wrote that, as an apostle, he had a right to expect physical and financial support from the church. “Nevertheless,” he said, “we have not used this right, but endure all things lest we hinder the gospel of Christ.”
Forfeiting my rights for the sake of others and in service to a greater design — this is what it means to be meek. And meekness is a vital feature of the Pilgrim way. Can we possibly understand this – we who dwell in a land where children are regularly sacrificed in order that adults might secure to themselves the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?” Can we ever hope to walk this path — we who believe so fervently in the practice of politics, which is in essence nothing but the active grasping, holding, and wielding of self-interested power?
Sometimes one has to give up rights in order to do what’s right.
* Archibald Hart, Unlocking The Mystery Of Your Emotions.