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Reflections of a Guilty Bystander

Justin Vorbach was a teacher in Seattle for two years before coming to 
live at Casa Juan Diego as a Catholic Worker.

I came to work at Casa Juan Diego in August. The past six months have 
been challenging but ultimately very rewarding. One rewarding
 experience has been studying U.S. history with Jacobo, a sixteen-year-old Salvadoran. His father can no longer work due to an
 accident that left him paralyzed. Jacobo sends most of the money he
 earns back to his parents and four younger brothers and sisters.
 Despite his long days of manual labor, he is eager to learn when we meet 
on Thursday evenings. We have been studying a textbook called Voices of Freedom: English for U.S. History, Government and Citizenship. It is a study guide for the U.S. Citizenship Test.

The book contains the traditional basics of U.S. history including 
America’s philosophical commitment to human rights. On page 24 we read:

“The Declaration of Independence is a very important document in American history. It says that all men are created equal. This is the basic belief of the Declaration of Independence. It says that all people have rights that nobody can take away. These rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

A few chapters later, Lincoln’s famous words at Gettysburg are

“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on
 this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Near the book’s end, Martin Luther King’s speech at the 1963 March on
 Washington is described:

“I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'”

Studying with Jacobo has reminded me of the struggle of Americans to
 live out our commitment to human rights as articulated in the
 Declaration of Independence.

Jefferson’s words in the Declaration mark a point of philosophical
 continuity from the Judaeo-Christian Middle Ages into the modern secular world view. The Biblical idea of the individual soul made in the image of God and endowed with sacred unalienable rights was not rejected but rather borrowed and kept alive by modern humanism. Thus, a commitment to human rights is fundamental to being a Christian and to being an American.

Consider a human rights issue that challenged Christians and Americans
 for decades: slavery. I wonder what I would have done if I lived in the
 U.S. in the 1850’s. Would I have realized the contradiction between 
slavery and Jefferson’s declaration that “all men are created equal?”
 Would I have condoned the working conditions of the slaves as necessary to the health of the economy and continuity of the “American” lifestyle? Would I have helped slaves who risked their lives to escape or would I have looked upon them as criminals? Would I have struggled to bring about the end of slavery without resorting to violence? Would my
 lifestyle have reflected a solidarity with those struggling under the
 yoke of oppression? In short, would I have lived out my Christian and 
American ideals?

In my time at Casa Juan Diego I have realized that such questions need
 not be asked hypothetically. In 1996 I can ask similar questions. Do I
 realize the contradiction between third world oppression and the 
Judaeo-Christian/Jeffersonian ideal that all are created equal and
 endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights? Do I condone 
third-world working conditions as necessary to the health of the global
 economy and continuity of the first-world lifestyle? Do I help those, 
like Jacobo, risking their lives to escape inhuman conditions or do I
 look on them as criminals? Am I committed to bringing about the
 realization of justice without resorting to violence? Does my lifestyle
 reflect solidarity with those millions struggling under the yoke of

Jacobo and I have both found that in studying U.S. history, one is
 required to respond to difficult questions.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XVI, No. 2, Mar.-Apr. 1996.