Culture and Society

The Lesson of Context

When I was in 8th grade, my music teacher played the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album in it’s entirety in our weekly one hour music class.  She preceded it by explaining that, though it was 25 years old, what we were about to hear was the most important rock and roll album of all time.  When it was finished, I looked around the room and saw a combination of confusion and disappointment.  There were some catchy songs, even some that we recognized. As far as the “most important rock and roll album of all time” was concerned, we weren’t hearing it.  Most of us thought that our music teacher, like most of our parents, likely stopped listening to music in 1970.

Context is an important concept.  When you’re 14, you really don’t have much of it.   None of us understood what we were listening to. We didn’t understand what music sounded like before 1967.  We didn’t understand that the album we were hearing was the first rock and roll album released without a single.  That it was the first album composed with the express purpose to be listened to in it’s entirety.  That it would never or could never be played live any more than Da Vinci intended to repaint the Mona Lisa for a live audience.    As a result, for the first time, people would begin to view rock and roll artists as artists instead of entertainers. We didn’t get any of that. All that we heard was music that sounded like the music that we had been listening to our whole lives; like someone today watching Citizen Kane or reading the New Testament or watching Johnny Unitas throw a football.  Those are all examples of immensely different importance yet analogous all the same.  They represent the genesis of the norms in our life that we’ve become accustomed to.  And in our minds, somewhere the seed was planted that they were important, though for many of us, we lack the context to understand why.   Having conviction that something is critically important, without understanding why can be problematic.  If you’re talking about the basis for your government, it can be down right dangerous.

For most of the history of organized mankind, we have been ruled by self serving, intolerant, autocratic entities.  Living gods, pharoahs, caesars, monarchs, for thousands of years, we were ruled, not represented.  In 1787, when our forefather’s met to create the Constitution of the United States of America, the four most powerful nations on the planet were England, France, Spain and the Netherlands.  All were either constitutional or absolute monarchies.  All had narrow limitations on class and religion of people who could hold government office.  None allowed a single vote be cast to help establish their head of state.  You could pick any point in time over the preceding two thousand years and the countries might change, but those defining characteristics of governing would not.  That is the context in which our founding fathers wrote our Constitution.  228 years later, democracy and human rights is now the expectation for our first world countries.  The Constitution of the United States of America is the genesis of our modern global governmental norms.  Which is one of the reasons most people can tell you that the Constitution of the United States is important.  Many, like me, even swore an oath to defend it against all enemies at risk to our own lives.  But understanding what makes it important is critically more important than understanding that it is important.

Like the music I ignorantly listened to in my classroom 25 years ago, context helps us if we endeavor to truly understand why the Constitution is so important to mankind.   Amongst the backdrop of a world that had always been ruled, where the lesser privileged existed to be exploited, where empires were built on the backs of the downtrodden for the benefit of the few, America, in it’s infancy, stood apart and demanded to be represented; all of us, or at least as much as all of us that 1787 could handle.  Never more would we be satisfied by a government that would do any less.  On Friday, Pope Francis addressed a joint session of Congress and reiterated, in better words than I ever could, the resolute aim of our founding fathers.

“Your own responsibility as members of Congress is to enable this country, by your legislative activity, to grow as a nation. You are the face of its people, their representatives. You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics. A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk. Legislative activity is always based on care for the people. To this you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you.”

It’s been a long time since many of us thought of Congress as the face of our people, charged with defending our dignity.  But if we seek context, and remember that the Constitution was drafted with the express purpose of creating a government more representative, more inclusive and more aimed at serving its people than anything else the modern world had ever seen, we can actually understand its importance.   The Constitution of the United States of America is not a document that granted license to stop caring about our fellow man in the name of liberty and freedom.  As the Pontiff pointed out, it was, in fact the opposite.  It was and still is a charter to include and serve.  The first the world had ever seen, and that though every American alive today has known no reality without it, it wasn’t always this way.  And keeping it takes a type of work we’re in danger of losing the appetite for; the virtuous work of caring about others.  Thank you Pope Francis for the reminder of why our great nation did what it did when no one else could.