Ironic Prophets

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Tourists inspecting the interior of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Sometimes the wrong person says the right thing – and humanity is better for it.

“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.”  These words are familiar to most Americans, despite the fact that they may fail to remember whether they come from a) the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, b) the Bill of Rights, or c) the Declaration of Independence. (If you guessed “c”, you’re right.) Whenever an American feels their rights are being violated, they’re likely to make some mention of this universal claim to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, the holy trilogy that tends to define our sense of individual dignity.

Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, was a true believer in the philosophical ideas of the Enlightenment.  Historians debate the primary inspirations for Jefferson’s text, but one person commonly mentioned is the English writer John Locke.  In his classic work, Two Treatises of Government, Locke argued that government exists to protect the individual’s “life, liberty and estate”, or more generally “property”.

Similar language also existed in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, authored by George Mason, which was adopted a few weeks before the Declaration of Independence and seems to draw heavily on Locke’s themes.  It spoke of a person’s “inherent right”, which it specified as “the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety”.  It seems likely that one or both of these documents influenced Jefferson, though we may never know for sure why he chose not to emphasize “property” or “estate”, opting instead for the “pursuit of happiness”.

It has always been particularly interesting to me that Thomas Jefferson was the one to write these words, even if he drew much of his inspiration from other sources.  First of all, Jefferson’s skepticism toward religion has been well noted – one might even say excessively noted.  You can buy copies of the Bible that remove the same passages which Jefferson clipped out of his own version, the chief offense in Jefferson’s eyes being any reference to supernatural occurrences.

Despite believing the Baptists of his day to be a rather extreme bunch, he supported their right to have ordained clergy that were not part of the Church of England, drafting the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (adopted in 1786) on behalf of the Baptists and all other minority groups.  Jefferson was, at most, a deist – one who believed that any God that might exist was uninvolved in the contemporary world – and not a practicing Christian.  His belief in a “Creator”, however real, did not seem to have a major impact on his life.

Thus, it is rather strange that Jefferson goes out of his way to note that men are “created equal” and that from that “Creator” come their “unalienable rights”.  It is not actually a violation of his religious tenets to say that God created, since deists do believe that God set the universe in motion.  However, his de-emphasis on the divine in his personal life makes his purposeful inclusion of such phrasing a bit odd.  Perhaps Jefferson is simply one of countless authors over the years who have paid lip service to the common religion in their writings to make their ideas appear more respectable, or maybe he truly had a moment of spiritual conviction.  We will never know which is true.

Reproduction of Rembrandt Peale's 1805 painting of Thomas Jefferson

Reproduction of Rembrandt Peale’s 1805 painting of Thomas Jefferson

But if Jefferson’s proclamation of a divine hand guiding the universe is a bit of a stretch, his assertion that all people are equal before that God and have guaranteed rights is unquestionably hypocritical.  If Jefferson’s deism has been well documented, his status as a slaveholder has attracted even greater attention.  Take a trip to his Monticello plantation near Charlottesville, Virginia, and you will be struck by this reality in the house, the fields, and the museum exhibits.  While numerous scholars and relatives have attempted over the years to portray the people working on Jefferson’s land as members of his family who were treated well (some were even literally his children), the fact is that they were not free people in charge of their own destinies and given all the advantages of white Americans.  The chief criticism of Jefferson is how far his daily reality came from the words that he penned.

Did Jefferson truly believe the things that he wrote in the Declaration, or was he simply too blind to realize that his words, which would later be claimed by generations of Americans hoping for increased rights, applied to more than just the white, male upper class?  This seems to be a case of something halfway between dramatic irony and a Freudian slip.  Perhaps Jefferson the politician was one of the earliest victims of the gaffe, which was famously defined by journalist Michael Kinsley. “A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth – some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.”

He reminds me of one of Shakespeare’s fools who manages to make pronouncements far above his perceived level of insight, unwittingly revealing a truth that the “wiser” characters are unable to see.  In the depths of racial prejudice, Thomas Jefferson and others of his day were unable to truly understand that “all men are created equal”.  Wise though they may have been in a number of areas, they were fools on this issue of such great importance.  But as Neil Gaiman wrote in Dream Country, “It is a fool’s prerogative to utter truths that no one else will speak.”

Jefferson’s words proved prophetic.  The rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” have been expanded throughout American history to include new groups of people, even the descendants of Jefferson’s slaves.  Shakespeare himself noted the phenomenon, writing in King Lear that, “Jesters do oft prove prophets.”  The author of the Declaration provides us with a primary example of this trend, but perhaps my favorite instance comes from the biblical Gospel of John.

Immediately following the story in which Christ raises Lazarus from the dead, John recounts a meeting of the chief Jewish religious leaders in which they discuss the growing popularity of the prophet from Nazareth.  Here is the full text:

Therefore the chief priests and the Pharisees convened a council, and were saying, “What are we doing? For this man is performing many signs. If we let Him go on like this, all men will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all, nor do you take into account that it is expedient for you that one man die for the people, and that the whole nation not perish.” Now he did not say this on his own initiative, but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but in order that He might also gather together into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. So from that day on they planned together to kill Him.  (John 11:47-53, NASB)[1]

The painting "Christ before Caiaphas" by the Dutch artist Matthias Stom

The painting “Christ before Caiaphas” by the Dutch artist Matthias Stom

John inserts his own commentary to help the reader recognize the irony of Caiaphas’ words.  He sees a double meaning in the concept of Christ dying for the nation, believing that his death provided spiritual life “not for the nation only, but in order that He might also gather together into one the children of God who are scattered abroad”.  Clearly, Caiaphas did not intend for his statement to be interpreted in this way.  But much like Jefferson and countless others throughout history, his words ended up taking on a significance far beyond anything he could have imagined.

John is quick to assure his readers that this ironic double meaning was no accident.  “Now he did not say thison his own initiative, but being high priest that year, he prophesied…”  While Caiaphas is portrayed in scripture as an opponent of Christ who was unable to see God’s truth, John says that even this act of foolishness did not prevent a truly divine message from getting through.  Even as Caiaphas sets himself against the living Word of God (for so John describes Christ in the first chapter of his Gospel), he becomes a vessel through which the Word of God is spoken.  Completely unintentionally (and against his own will), Caiaphas makes one of the most important prophecies in history, despite being one of the least likely persons on earth to acknowledge it.

In the words of Jefferson and Caiaphas, we see how the truth has a tendency to win out despite the best intentions of those who refuse to acknowledge it.  The delightful irony of having a slave owner champion human rights, or the main biblical opponent of Jesus of Nazareth declaring this man to be the savior of the Jewish people, are the things of which scholarly tomes are born.  As for what to do about this all too human phenomenon, I submit that we must simply wait for the history books to be written, when many of us will surely prove to be the prophets of our own demise.


[1] Scripture taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960,1962,1963,1968,1971,1972,1973,1975,1977,1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.