When I look to ground my view that every individual deserves equal protection under law, that every human deserves to be protected against violence, coercion, and outrages against their person, I return to, of course, the Constitution. But when I take it one step further, when I think of our responsibility as individuals and as a society, to ensure these rights, I also return, in a way that their authors would most likely not have approved, to the Bible and to John Donne. Even stripped of their specifically religious content, Matthew 25 and Donne's Meditation XVII carry powerful reflections on our interconnectedness and our inherent duty to one another as free, thinking beings.
34 "Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'I think you can understand the force of this injunction without believing in any divinity or eternal reward. The same for Donne's Meditation XVII, which reminds us more directly that we are all connected:
37"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'
40"The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'
41"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'
44"They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'
45"He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'
46"Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.Though the part of Meditation XVII that everyone knows is "No man is an island," I find myself much more drawn to Donne's following thoughts. The realization that no man can stand alone could, after all, be a simple acceptance of need, born out of self-interest. It's only when Donne reaches, "Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind," that we reach a truly disinterested understanding of common humanity, a radical openness to the separate reality of others and their claims on us.
"I am involved in mankind," affirmatively stated, almost as if it is a choice, an obligation assumed rather than required. For Donne, that obligation is assumed because we are all equal in the eyes of the Lord. For this nonbeliever, the interconnectedness Donne sees needs no supernatural foundation to have active force; acknowledgment of our common humanity is sufficient to make a moral imperative of the avoidance of heedless violence, torture, and precipitate war--and the bringing to justice of those who advocate such abominations. Common humanity demands that we insure unbroken continuance of the long line of history and thought that have wrought the idea that all are equal under law, and that we abhor and punish those who, acting in our very names, try to subvert that founding ideal.