As we turn our attention toward honoring American presidents during February, Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, comes to mind. During his eight years in office as our 3rd president (1801-1809), Jefferson devoted regular, private time to a book project dear to his heart. His goal was to create a book which contained the words and deeds which reflected the authentic messages conveyed by Jesus, Jefferson believed. These he referred to as “diamonds” because they provided the guideposts for an ethical human experience. They were, “…fragments of the most sublime edifice of morality which had ever been exhibited to man.” Jefferson constructed this, “wee-little book”, as he called it, by literally cutting and pasting from original texts in several languages. After 15 years of work the final version entitled, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, was published in 1820.
Jefferson kept this book at his bedside, and read from it often before going to sleep. When he died 6 years later, few people knew of the book’s existence, and it faded from view.
Seventy-five years later in 1895, the book was discovered in the library of Jefferson’s great- granddaughter, Carolina. It was displayed in the U. S. Capitol and met with great favor. In 1904, the Government Printing Office published the first reproduction which became affectionately known as The Jefferson Bible. A copy was given to each U.S. Congressperson upon taking office until 1957, when the practice quietly stopped.
The focus of today’s reflection is not to critique Jefferson’s skill or intent as a text editor. Rather, it is to consider how Jefferson was able construct a living balance between the ethical and moral principles of Jesus and the monumental actions of his presidency, which at times appeared contradictory.
Jefferson orchestrated some of the greatest land expansion activities in our young nation’s history to the crushing detriment of the indigenous peoples occupying those lands.
-Love thy neighbor?
Jefferson promoted the culture of slavery in the United States, participating actively as a slave owner himself.
-Do unto others?
Jefferson helped solidify the foundations of socioeconomic inequality that continue to plague our nation today.
-Picture Jesus, upsetting the tables of the money lenders.
To quell the cavalier ease with which we might criticize Thomas Jefferson and his actions, we need only glance in a mirror. This brings to mind another great teaching from the man from Nazareth concerning the right for those without fault to cast the first stone.
With these examples and cautions in mind, Jefferson offers us a contemplative gift. This gift is an invitation for us to formulate our own personal intention. Such an intention would draw forth ethical and moral diamonds as we understand them, and apply them through the human activities with which we are presented. This may become a daily opportunity for us to strive toward peace between ideals and reality. A template for such an intention could look something like this:
May I be compassionate and kind toward myself and others, embracing joys, hardships, and challenges throughout this human journey.
| Image courtesy of Jim Arnold.