America’s Declaration of Independence is a political document written to dissolve England’s ruling relationship over its 13 colonies in America.
As the authors of America’s declaration believed independence to be an entitlement corresponding with “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” the influence of the sacred on the political — and vice versa — was woven into the fabric of America. From there, only a small step was necessary to proclaim: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”
The truths of the declaration’s authors are twofold. First, all men are equal. Second, these equal men were endowed by God with unalienable rights.
But, as evidenced by then-contemporary experiences and historical review, policies and activities ensured that “men” were not equal and that God-endowed rights did not apply to non-white, non-male, non-landowners of a particular social rank.
The truths that served as the grounds for independence were not the same truths applied to the functioning of a burgeoning republic. The truths held by persons who possess power are at the heart of the matter.
Having observed “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” what truths can be constructed? Who benefits from such construction? Who is neither present nor represented when truth’s blueprints are being sketched?
Truth’s architects hold the pen and control the purse, so politically and economically, they inform the American experiment. Truth’s architects become America’s arbiters for what constitutes nature and what characterizes God.
America is as we are because the truths we hold have been fashioned by a privileged and empowered few at the resulting, and sometimes overt, suppression of all others.
This is one reason we remember the person and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. Because he understood the impact of the truths America held, King called for a reconsideration of these truths.
One hundred eighty-seven years after its issuance, on August 28, 1963, King spoke of the Declaration of Independence as a defaulted promissory note that repeatedly failed African Americans.
Like the framers of the declaration, King observed America’s nature and noted the nature of the God he had known. King concluded that a land of sufficiency that had been insufficient for African Americans was antithetical to nature and nature’s God. America’s truths needed reconsideration.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of King’s call to reconsider our truths, and the call remains.
Discussions about reparations rarely get off the ground because truth can demand divestment of egocentrism in favor of justice for others. School board meetings have become opportunities to obscure and erase history because truth makes guilty consciences uncomfortable.
Elected officials have been physically attacked by people who will accept only their desired outcome because truth reveals a reality for which they are unprepared. The purposeful misinterpretation and weaponization of “defunding police” occurred because truth demonstrates the distance between reality and one’s reflection of self, and it is easier to look elsewhere.
Truths regarding economic issues, education, elections and experience were central to King’s call. They remain the grounds for truths that we must reconsider. To reconsider the truths we hold is to ask questions about the truths, but we must also ask: “Who is the ‘we’ that holds the truths?”
In many ways, King was observably unique from the framers of the declaration. Differences in ethnicity, life experiences, education, economics, environment and vocation created a perspective for King that the framers did not possess.
Thus, the power to interpret the impact of America’s truths was inherently King’s. As he called back to the framers, King’s voice was the one that resonated. King represented the “we” who chose not independence but truth-inspired inclusion.
From his vantage point, King recognized that “their destiny is tied up with our destiny” and “their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.”
For King, “we” represented a coalition of persons who agree about truth’s necessity, no matter their differing traits. Importantly, this coalition is shaped by the sacred and political spaces where truths are reimagined by persons the declaration disregarded.
This suggests that the truths we hold may be challenging to name. The truth must first be allowed to encounter us, to make demands of us, to make us uncomfortable, to prepare us for the future, and to require that we see who we are.
If the truths we hold are worth keeping, then they can withstand such reconsideration.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week to call attention to Monday, January 16, 2023, as Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The other articles in the series are:
Martin Luther King Jr.: An Exemplar of Prophetic Citizenship | Wendell Griffen
How MLK’s Pastoral Ministry Shaped His Civil Rights Work | Terrell Carter
Following the Lead of a ‘Transformed Nonconformist’ | Starlette Thomas
Pastor of WORD For Life Church Ministries in Ft. Washington, Maryland, Rev. Robertson is also a Ph. D. Candidate in the African American Preaching and Sacred Rhetoric program at Christian Theological Seminary.