On Thursday, while there were still two young men terrorizing my neighborhood, I was in Virginia with all three kids. We spent the day at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate. Near the end of the day, we took an hour-long tour of the estate which focused on slave life at the plantation and Washington’s changing understanding of the institution. Washington is a hero of ours, and hearing how he transitioned from an eleven year-old slave owner to a man who ultimately came to see slavery as wrong and who freed his slaves at the end of his life was powerful. And yet, as the president of the Constitutional Convention and faced with southern states who would not ratify the constitution without accommodations made for slavery, Washington said that if he had to chose between ending slavery and preserving the union, he would choose the union.
A man who spent his life fighting for the principle that “all men are created are equal” wasn’t able to uphold that principle for the black men who laid down their lives fighting alongside him. But, as our guide said as she ended our tour, “You can’t put words like that in a box.”
Let that rattle around in your spirit for a minute. You can’t put words like that in a box.
I woke up yesterday prepared to head home to Cambridge. I wanted to be at home – with Jeff, with my friends and neighbors, with my city. Then we heard the news that there was a terrorist on the loose. We packed the car and started for home, wondering if we would make it all the way.
We stopped in DC to visit the National Archive and see the Declaration of Independence, the very document that had inspired Washington and that he ultimately failed to uphold. As we bent over the parchment, I had tears in my eyes. This document inspired a man to leave his home and beloved wife for more than half of their forty years of marriage. This document inspired the enslaved people who escaped from his home. Those words have inspired countless others for more than two centuries. And they likely inspired the immigrant family whose sons ultimately chose to deny it’s powerful truth that all people are endowed by their Creator with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Whatever those young mens’ intentions, though, you can’t put words like that in a box.
Before leaving town, we stopped at the MLK memorial. In his I Have a Dream speech, he called the Declaration of Independence a promissory note. He saw the evils of oppression all around, but he never lost faith in the promise of that great document. Rephrasing a quote from a 19th century abolitionist, King confidently reminded the country that, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
His monument looks out across the tidal basin at the monument to Jefferson, author of the promissory Declaration. Those men and their words form a conversation that spans time and triumphs over circumstance.
As I drove home yesterday, the kids kept asking if we were going to make it all the way home. I told them that I didn’t know if we would make it all the way home to Daddy that night. But eventually, one way or another, in this life or the next, we would absolutely make it all the way home. My lack of fear was surprising for me, but I was unusually confident of the words written two thousand years ago by a friend of Jesus: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Terrorism and oppression and even death have no power over the truth of that. Those words are louder than bombs. You can’t kill them, and you can’t scare them off. You can’t put light in a box.