Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens caused quite a stir a month ago when he proposed in a New York Times Op-Ed piece “…a constitutional amendment to get rid of the Second Amendment.” The Justice’s gripe was not so much with the amendment as with the current interpretation of the Second Amendment. The Second Amendment certainly and correctly recognizes the human right to self-defense.
The problem arises when some citizens see in this amendment the justification for a standing army while others understand this amendment to legitimize the possession of a handgun by any individual citizen. That Americans have a natural right to self-defense is not debatable; that this right guarantees a handgun in every bureau drawer might be debatable. The first ten amendments to the American constitution, commonly called the Bill of Rights, do not confer rights on American citizens; these amendments respectfully recognize rights which are inherent in human nature as such and not merely in American citizenship. Every human being, regardless of race, nationality, or geography, is entitled by nature, not merely by legislation, to freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, petition, self-defense, due process, even reasonable punishment. The American Constitution happily makes these innate rights explicit even if their application generates debate.
A similar argument could be proposed about the Biblical Ten Commandments, the celebrated Decalogue enumerated several times in both the Old and New Testaments. The Ten Commandments do not impose any obligations on any believer or on any human being. The Ten Commandments simply and wisely recognize obligations that are inherent in human nature itself. The right to religious expression (commandments 1,2,3) as well as a reverence for authority, life, marriage, private prosperity, good reputation and mutual respect (commandments 4,5,6,7,8,9 and10) are not unique to Jews and Christians. Every human person, believer or non-believer, is interiorly obligated by these natural duties. Violating the Ten Commandments does not simply break the law; defying the Ten Commandments perverts human nature. Self-respect, along with social awareness, is a primary reason for observing the Ten Commandments.
The Jewish feast of Pentecost, obviously pre-dating the Christian observance of Pentecost by 1,500 years, originally celebrated the giving of the Law, the Ten Commandments, to Moses on Sinai. God did the Jews a great favor by revealing to them a succinct expression of what is expected from human nature under every circumstance. The Ten Commandments are simply the natural law, applicable to every time and circumstance and to every man and woman. And, as the natural law, the Ten Commandments are ignored at the peril of all mankind. The neglect of God and his Name and his Day, the disparagement of parental authority, human life, marital fidelity, private property, good reputation and civic respect affect all human society, as the current distress of Western civilization sadly, but amply, illustrates.
Unlike the American Bill of Rights and the Hebrew Ten Commandments, the Christian solemnity of Pentecost is not simply the celebration of prior human rights and duties being made explicit. The descent of God’s Holy Spirit on the Christian community at Jerusalem two thousand years ago was not a celebration of human nature but a unique elevation of human nature into a Divinely empowered supernatural world. With the arrival of the Holy Spirit, the goodness inherent in human nature, even if flawed by original sin, is not merely sustained and strengthened; it is truly supplemented and swelled by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Christian feast of Pentecost is a celebration of Divine grace strengthening human goodness. Through the work of Jesus Christ and his Spirit, God has radically transformed the human situation so that mankind may now rely not only on humanity’s native resources but even more so on the very power of God himself. “And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them flashes of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.” The effects of this heaven-sent Spirit would surpass the natural instincts of the human soul, fostering and enhancing “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”
The Spirit-filled believer would be able to exceed even the moral obligations of the Commandments: “…if you are guided by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” Christians should indeed appreciate and celebrate the noble rights and duties inherent in human nature. But Christians must appreciate and celebrate even more the heavenly gifts of the Holy Spirit that enrich, uplift and expand the dignity and potency of human nature.