When John F. Kennedy delivered one of the most significant lines in the history of presidential inaugural addresses, he placed himself in a long tradition of national service on the basis of the gift that is America. As Thurston Clarke has noted, one can find numerous examples in previous speeches or quotations from American history espousing the obligation to give back to one’s country. Thurston goes on to suggest a possible Lukan ground to this thought in which Jesus declares that “to whom much is given much is required” (Luke 12:48).
In the context of the speech, the charge to consider what service each American should render to the country flows from two ideas: that Americans are heirs of a constitutional order and a history that secures and preserves their rights, and that such rights come from “the hand of God” rather than from any political contract. Central to these rights is the freedom of self-determination and its corollary, the freedom of nation-states to determine their national existence. By placing the exercise of freedom under the sacred canopy of national inheritance and divine beneficence, Kennedy could appeal at once to his fellow Americans and to the world to fulfill the moral obligations of human life.
Grounded in “nature and nature’s God,” this commitment to liberty and its exercise has a long history in Western civilization, but it takes on particular importance in medieval theology, being employed by a number of theologians to underscore how humans must think of themselves before God. The fundamental point of creaturely existence is its donative nature. It is not simply that life is a gift, but that humans enter life in circumstances and with fundamental qualities that they have done nothing to earn. The hospitality of planet earth in the form of air, rich soil, mountains, and plains is part of the much larger collection of gifts that make human life possible. Likewise, the dignity of human nature as found in the capacity to reason, will, and cultivate virtue is simply part of the datum of homo sapiens. Human freedom takes its first steps through the recognition that such an exercise is the result of a deep generosity found in the creator of all living things.
Hugh of St. Victor and Bernard of Clairvaux went back and forth between describing these gifts of nature as “creating grace” and as “natural law,” to reinforce a movement between gift and debt. On the one hand, the language of natural goods that humans possess by virtue of their own nature speaks to the intrinsic moral value of the gifts. Such gifts involve not only the capacity to reflect and deliberate, but the appetites for justice and happiness. As Bernard states, “justice is the vital, natural food of the rational soul,” which Jesus connects to beatitude when he states that those who hunger and thirst for justice shall be filled. On the other hand, these gifts, like all gifts, come with sets of obligations to the giver. Just as children “repay” their parents by utilizing what they have inherited to promote their own good and the good of others, so all humans stand in a position of debt for a dignity they received. This is an important impulse behind the language of a “natural law.” Yet, this law has been conceived in terms of the service rendered to nature and nature’s God for the gifts.
The original sin was in moving too fast from the language of gift to the language of right, and missing entirely the language of debt. Bernard claims that ignorance makes beasts of humans, because they begin “to use gifts as if they belonged to one by natural right.” The ignorance in question is not simply a lack of awareness of the creator, but a fundamental failure to know oneself as a creature. And so, Bernard asks that each person know two facts: what you are, and that you are not that by your own hand. With the acknowledgement of these two facets of human existence come the moral obligations that should shape human freedom. In short, humans owe their existence to something beyond themselves, and they should live in light of that debt. Before claiming their rights, individuals need to acknowledge their debts and order the discharge of those debts accordingly, as first to God and then to neighbor.
Anselm of Canterbury would build his understanding of the atonement on these premises. The gift of human nature entails the obligation to pursue justice as the vehicle by which humans fulfill their debt to God and realize their potential. They fulfill the appetite for happiness through the pursuit of justice. When humans turn this debt into a “natural right,” they turn away from the origin of the gifts of nature and forfeit justice in the process. Anselm’s use of the language of debt in relation to sin is part of an overarching moral framework in which humans come into this world with gifts and a purpose that entail obligations. All obligations to other humans, including political communities, stem from the recognition of the more fundamental debt one owes to God for capacities one possesses.
This is the medieval underpinning to Kennedy’s words of 1961. It is also the Christian basis for citizenship in any nation, and for the particular gratitude Christians should have for living out their earthly existence in the United States. Too many people today have skipped over debts and gone straight to rights. Hence, to ask what you can do for your country seems to be a particularly important question at this juncture of American history. All Americans stand as heirs to a union that seeks to preserve their freedoms, which creates an obligation to serve. Yet, this obligation to serve one’s country as a debt of freedom holds as long as the discharge of the debt preserves the very freedom that humans possess as a gift of nature. And, when it does not, as Martin Luther King, Jr. argued, the debt to God compels citizens to change the country to which they belong. The arc of history can bend in many ways, toward and away from justice. It all depends on how humans discharge the debt they owe in light of the many gifts they have received.
Dale M. Coulter is associate professor of historical theology at Regent University.