The Moral Question
By Douglas T. Ncebere
The declaration of independence of the United States of America, which is also enshrined in the constitution of the land, regards all inhabitants of this nation as “the people.” The words that declare all people as equal were restated by Frederick Douglass in his speech at Rochester, NY on July 5th 1852, and again by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his Mountaintop Speech of 1967. Douglass and MLK remind us that the constitution indeed represents all the people, except that it is not followed to the letter. MLK’s dissatisfaction with the unmet purpose of the constitution is summed up in these words: “But if a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.”
These words capture the imagination of Thursday, the 24th of January, 2013, in our trip to Christiana and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. There exists the tension over the interpretation of this legal document, an interpretation which goes hand in hand with the choices that are made, or the predicaments to be faced. This tension is evident in the way two characters, Edward Gorsuch, a slave-owner in Christiana, PA, and William Parker, a brave fighter against slavery, understood the subject of slavery and morality over this matter. Both the slave-owner and the anti-slavery crusader saw God’s approval in their various actions. This connects well with “The Slavery Question” in which “different Americans saw slavery in different ways—as mortal sin or God’s will or a lifelong sentence to labor and oppression. American’s differing beliefs about slavery were a source of enduring bitter conflict” (words found in the Gettysburg Museum). However, Douglass and King were able to assert, with much clarity, that slavery and poverty are evils that the society needed to fight against.
The recurring issue of slavery and poverty where human beings were and are treated as property did arise in Christiana, PA, especially in our meetings in the Unitarian and King of Kings Churches. The time of speaking about the vulnerabilities suffered exposed utter brokenness of the society we live in: the fear to speak about the condition of poverty in all its forms. This raises the question of the place for human dignity in our contemporary situation. We live at a time when human beings view others not as people but as bodies to be utilized in industries, shopping malls, and other sectors of the economy for maximum profit production. The question of a just wage, the immigration status and the documentation that goes with it, unemployment, health insurance, housing, etc, emerged. Any system that does not treat all people equally and with the dignity they require can never claim to have done justice in its entirety. Rather, it is emblematic of the structures of injustice that need transformation. The main question is why hide under the cover of unfair systems and use the same to benefit from others and thus render them poor and powerless? For me this is the moral question of our time that must be dealt with.