“Few are guilty but all are responsible,” the great religious scholar and leader Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote about the moral state of a people. As a people, we Americans are at a turning point in our history. The core issue challenging us is alienation. Alienation is at the root of decades of increasing violence and misogyny. It is at the root of destruction for destruction’s sake in our politics, too many newscasts, and internet vitriol. And it is at the root of how we have failed to come together to respond effectively to the pandemic, to gun violence, and to climate change. Out of my deep concern and fear, this is the fourth of six posts which are passages from chapters 12 and 13 in my book The Midnight Hour which I believe can help us reclaim responsibility for the spirit of our country.
Taking Responsibility for Remembering the Roots of America’s Greatness
“I fear forgetfulness as much as I fear hatred and death,” Elie Wiesel declared in his powerful book From the Kingdom of Memory. To forget is to deny our origins, our roots, and our people. If we don’t know the past, we cannot understand the present or clearly judge how to influence the future. If we are cut off from our roots—our national soul—we will begin to wither and lose our selfhood. Imagine the shocking rage that John Adams witnessed when he saw a Boston tax collector being tarred and feathered shortly before our American Revolution began. This violent outburst by otherwise peaceful citizens was the result of feeling ignored by their government. It shocked John Adams into realizing the need for radical changes in home rule. The rage in our country today should awaken us in a similar way. That rage was the beginning of our national history, and a turning point in western history. If our beginnings are not forgotten, they are not gone; they are still alive today.
Imagine, if you would, those people from the past—John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and all the others—gathered in a building in Philadelphia, struggling to reach the point of adopting a Declaration of Independence. They knew they were risking everything, because if they lost, they would be hung as traitors. In that struggle, they gave birth to a challenge that would shape our history and that of the Western world.
“Freedom, equality, and opportunity” may be sublime ideas, but they are much, much more than that. Freedom, equality, and opportunity are needs that were born out of the soul of humanity, out of the very heart of humankind—our kind—in the Western world. This birth took place in the land ruled by the most powerful king of the age, and in a society where liberty and equality were not in style.
The courageous people who gave birth to our Declaration of Independence were human beings, like all of us. They were products of their time and had their flaws and weaknesses, like all of us. But their example challenges us to face life with more courage and the deep desire to fulfill our part in carrying our country’s founding vision a step forward in our lifetime. They did not create an outline for a perfect world. The Declaration, and our Constitution, reflect some of the human flaws of those who wrote it, but the moral vision they created challenges us to meet it, and enlarge it in the world we are helping to create. The challenge to our hearts is to remember and carry forward the vision of “Liberty” married to “Equality” as stated in our Declaration of Independence; and we must remember the people we elect become the embodiment of who we are.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident…that all men 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… to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men…” These words also fueled the French Revolution and have brought inspiration to the Western world since they were written. This vision from the soul of humanity should be the backbone of our national life because it is the force that transforms us from subjects into citizens, every one of us. Like our founding fathers, we need to find the greatness of heart and spirit to transcend our fears and weaknesses. If we forget to nourish this taproot in our history, it will die. If we remember it, it lives on, unites us, and empowers our vision of life. It is this vision that has made our nation truly great; admired by the world in a way that supersedes material, economic, and military might.
Remember, with this vision, a bunch of ragged farmers and frontiersmen defeated the strongest government in the Western world at the time. It is our destiny to keep it alive and to fulfill our generation’s duty towards it. We must wake up because we who should be tending the flame are in danger of betraying that vision and allowing the flame to be smothered.
Go deeper into this and related topics in The Midnight Hour: A Jungian Perspective on America’s Current Pivotal Moment.
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