“For whom was the Bill of Rights written?” I often asked this to participants in my workshops.
“Everyone,” was often the first answer. Occasionally, I would hear answers like, “Rich men in those days.” The assumption behind this answer was that these rights were not given to those who are powerless, especially women and the poor.
“However,” I continued, “the people who proposed the Bill of Rights were already powerful men. Why do they need to make sure that the Constitution is amended to have these rights stated explicitly?” Many participants from the workshop were still puzzled. “Since they were powerful men, they already had the rights to worship in any religious establishment that they chose, they could say and print anything they wanted, and they could assemble and petition the government for redresses anytime they wanted. They could have as many guns as they wanted and they can protect their homes from unreasonable search and seizures. So, why do they need to put these rights in the constitution? So for whom was the Bill of Rights written?”
The Bills of Rights were specifically written to protect the powerless in society. The thing I admired most about members of the first Congress of the United States of America was that they, having achieved a great level of power, took the responsibilities to make sure that others, especially those powerless in society, also have the same rights.
During the debates on the adoption of the Constitution, many repeatedly charged that the Constitution as drafted would open the way to tyranny by the central government just like many countries in the world. Fresh in their memory was the British violation of civil rights before and during the Revolution. They demanded a "bill of rights" that would spell out the immunities of individual citizens. Several state conventions in their formal ratification of the Constitution asked for such amendments; others ratified the Constitution with the understanding that the amendments would be offered.
On September 25, 1789, the First Congress proposed 12 amendments to the Constitution that met arguments most frequently advanced against it. The first two proposed amendments were not ratified. Articles 3 to 12, however, ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures, constitute the first 10 amendments of the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights.
At the foundation of the Bill of Rights is the responsibility to uphold them for others. While I have the right to say, and publish anything I want, I do not have the right to impose my ideas on others. If what I say and publish caused harm to others or infringed on other’s rights, I have to face the consequences. For example, I have the right to own a gun, but when I use my gun to shoot and kill someone, I will be investigated and may go to trial. Furthermore, if I am powerful and influential, I need to take the responsibilities to uphold other’s rights!
People who believe they have rights but do not take the responsibility to make sure others have the same rights are bullies. Rights and responsibilities are key to creating a sustainable and socially healthy community.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Reflection Questions for Proper 17 (Year B)
Song of Solomon
Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15,
Eric H. F. Law
For competent leadership in a diverse changing world
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