"Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of the least considered and ignored persons in society, you did it to me." Matthew 25:40
One of the most powerful movies I have ever seen is Steven Spielberg’s Amistad, a true, albeit made-for-Hollywood saga about illegally kidnapped Africans who revolted on the Spanish slave-ship la Amistad. Recaptured by Americans, justice for the Africans was circumvented time and again by greedy Spaniards and Americans, as well as Southern slave-holders who threatened to embroil the young nation in a war over the issue. The Amistad case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1841.
At this point, Cinque, leader of the embattled Africans, utters one of the most profound statements I have ever heard. Although he knew that the upcoming court hearing would be extremely difficult to win (as all previous cases were won and then subsequently set aside), Cinque said he was nevertheless prepared because he had called upon the help of all of his ancestors. For it was his ancestors' lives and labors that made Cinque's tribe the people they had come to be, and "right now," he said, "I am the whole reason they have existed at all."
This astounding statement was not lost on Cinque's aged lawyer, John Quincy Adams, who like his father John Adams was a former U.S. president and a "father" of the nation.
As some of you may know (and as I state on my sidebar profile), I see human history as a struggle in closing the gaps:
"The struggle to close the gaps between what is believed and what is done, what is and what could be, is the greatest human drama of every culture in every age. The heights of human imagination and achievement, as well as depravity, dwell in the gaps. The former escape to brighten the world. The latter remain forever imprisoned, and constantly seeks company."
The case of the Amistad Africans is one of many examples of North America's long struggle to close the gap between its much vaunted ideals of inalienable rights and liberties on the one hand and actions too often motivated by selfishness, greed, prejudice and fear on the other.
Miraculously, Adams argued the case successfully before the Supreme Court. Surprised and elated, Cinque asked him what words he could have said to persuade the judges (some of whom were from Southern slave states) to free them when all previous words and court cases had failed. Adams replied: "Yours." He referred of course to Cinque’s words that at that moment, he was the whole reason his ancestors had existed at all.
Think how the greatness of American or even Christian ideals are to be measured. Not by the rights, wealth and deference enjoyed by the powerful, but by the rights, dignity and opportunity enjoyed by the powerless.
1937. What is wrong with this picture?
A believer in American ideals of liberty cannot escape the truth of the statement that "any nation is judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members" (Cardinal Roger Mahony).
A believer in the Christian ideal of love of God evidenced by love of neighbor cannot escape the truth of Jesus' statement that the way we treat those least in our society is a reflection of how we treat him. In other words, to claim to love a God we've never seen, but not love people we can see everyday, is not a religion that Jesus had any part of.
If our American and Christian ideals (and I am not necessarily equating the two) mean nothing for the Cinque's of the world (for women, the poor, people of color, the discarded laborer, the disabled, in a word, the "other"), then do we not dishonor those ideals and the people who sacrificed so much to make them a reality? That is to say, do we not dishonor those we claim so much to honor?
After all, the very least regarded individuals among us, are “the whole reason they existed at all.”