By Bret Bernhardt
Working on Capitol Hill provides many opportunities unlike those found in other workplaces. Recently, my wife and I along with a close friend took a bike ride around the Tidal Basin where the monuments of Martin Luther King and Thomas Jefferson stand.
It struck me that these two men now stand juxtaposed via their monuments across from one another and I wondered what conversations they might be having.
Jefferson, the father of the Declaration of Independence championed the ideals of freedom and equality, yet was a living contradiction as a slave-holding Virginian. While he attempted to reconcile this glaring incongruity, he died without doing so.
King, the father of the modern civil rights movement, ushered in a new era of understanding among people in America, and accomplished this through peaceful civil protest. However, his dream of one America was not fulfilled in a life cut short.
The two, now forever sharing the same venue, have time to talk and begin a long overdue conversation:
“Martin, I’ve been thinking a great deal about things lately. I’m troubled by what I see and the things I neglected in life. I genuinely believed in equality but succumbed to political and economic expediency in not only accepting, but partaking in the hideous institution of slavery.
“And yet, as abominable an imperfection this was in my life, and with great cost to society, I was still used to give life to the truth that all men are indeed created equal. This, for the first time in all of human experience, was at the heart of the founding of a national government.
“Despite the shortcomings of our fledging republic, my hope was that our nation would ultimately perfect the ideals of equality by the deliberative and statutory process established in our founding principles. And I stand here today humbled by the grace shown to me in light of my human frailty to be given such a divine gift. I ask, how can I reconcile this great inequality I see in my own life?”
King responded saying, “Thomas, you are right that men are given these perfect gifts in spite of their imperfections. Our nation’s understanding of equality you were given was yet in its infancy. You were a father to a great ideal, yet you were unaware of what had truly been born. As mothers and fathers, we learn as we grow in light of the revelations given us.
“You were early in your understanding of equality, and you did wrestle greatly with it. But, because you did wrestle, the ideal was allowed to grow and mature. Along with the principle of equality, thankfully our form of government provided the means to bring those ideals into a more perfect state.
“And, where is that ideal today? It is experiencing substantial growing pains, and is in need of careful deliberation and change as you describe. It is a critical time in its life, yet my prayer is that by acting through our constitutional means, we will achieve both the convictions and actions necessary for the equality we sought.”
A pensive Jefferson replied:
“But Martin, the world today seems to have grown far too complex and confused about this ideal. I hope my great negligence does not erode what we had dreamed would be a new birth of freedom. I can see from where I now stand what I could not see before, that we were so close but still far from this great objective. Please tell me that we still have hope.”
Graciously, King responded:
“With prayer, conviction, and intentionality it can and will happen. Yet it comes with a warning – the more we believe we control our own destiny the more we find futility in that pursuit. Thankfully, our fate is not in our hands but in One who has written our final chapter.
“It reveals a countless multitude standing as one before him, from every nation, tribe, people and language. This is a reality not just for eternity but also a call for us to usher into this life, which has already begun. It is not a mere hope, but a divine promise. And for that, we can work fervently.”
With that a remorseful yet hopeful Jefferson concluded the exchange:
“You have given me much to consider, Martin, and for that I am grateful. We have much to discuss from across the basin, but thankfully we have been given the gift of time to do so. Until tomorrow….”
Bret Bernhardt served on the Hill as chief of staff to senators Don Nickles of Oklahoma and Jim DeMint of South Carolina. He is now a member of the board of directors of Faith & Law and the Conservative Partnership Institute.