I've only glanced at the letters and news stories around the latest land use controversy in the county, so when a rancher friend asked me something about it Saturday, I wasn't prepared. But when he started talking about property and inheritance rights, I surprised myself with a mild explosion.
My answer went something like "I'm sick of it all. Tired of all the 'ME,' 'MY,' 'ME,' and how do I get what's coming to ME, and distressed at the lack of thinking about what is best for the whole lot of us. I'm tired of the news about growing income disparities, and the worry about the one percent of Americans who still pay some inheritance taxes. I am worried about the folks trying to make it on $6.50 an hour."
The arguments are ones that the two of us have touched on before, and I'm sure that I didn't change his mind, and know that my own concerns for private property rights - they do occupy some space in my value system - were not heightened by his arguments.
That afternoon, Judy and I had the great pleasure of attending the wedding and reception of our newest neighbors, Marcy and Brian Concannon. Marcy is an Oregonian who was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Zaire a decade ago. She met Brian while working for a United Nations program in Haiti, where he is a human rights lawyer. Marcy came back to Oregon about a year ago looking for a quiet place with clean air to finish up written reports on her overseas work - and she found the Wallowas. And now she's convinced Brian that they should make Joseph their home - at least part time while he continues his work in and for Haiti.
For a week before the wedding, friends and relatives from Africa and Haiti and all over the United States arrived in Joseph, hiked and swam and enjoyed our good place. The wedding at St. Katherine's in Enterprise was packed with this diverse and gushing group, and it seemed especially fitting for such an international celebration that Father Peter, our local parish priest, is from Sri Lanka.
Although I had met some members of the wedding party previously, it was at the ceremony itself that I began feeling a great lifting of spirit. A brief introduction preceded the first scriptural reading, and explained that the "swords into ploughshares, spears into fish hooks" passage had been chosen because the story of these two young people was one of commitment to peace and justice. Old Catholics and young Catholics, many of them from New England, marched up to participate in the ceremony, and even the homily played on the themes that are the life work and passion of the new couple.
At the reception in Joseph, we had a chance to meet more of the visitors. The Peace Corps stories were not just "two years in Africa" and back to business. Many of the guests had put in years working with international and domestic humanitarian programs. The visitors from Haiti included people from that country and others who have worked ? and again, worked for years to advance causes of justice and economic and educational opportunity for the people of that beleaguered nation. A woman at our table tried to return to the States after several years there, and finally settled in at a medical non-profit in Florida where she can return to Haiti at least once a month. One family member and friend after another rose to toast the energy and commitment of Marcy and Brian. It was obvious that the humanitarian work that drew the couple together was multi-generational.
I was on a high that night and all of Sunday, but the conversation about property and inheritance lurked in the back of my mind. Finally, on Monday evening I got out a copy of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. And friends, there is no doubt in my mind which party the framers would have attended. The first "fact" submitted to a "candid world" about the King of England and the reason for the Declaration is that "He has refused his assent to laws the most wholesome and necessary for the public good." There is much talk of justice, and complaint of a "military independent of, and superior to, the civil power." "Property" is down the page.
But for space, I'd cite the entire preamble to the Constitution. It begins with "in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice..." My cursory reading didn't find "inheritance," although it certainly might be in the fine print.
Yes, we can argue about how "fair" it is to pass on our hard earned assets to our offspring, or how "free" we should each be to do what we will with our "own" property. We can - and do - argue about the constitutionality of these questions. But even a quick reading of our basic documents tells me that the passions that built this country were not primarily selfish passions. And that the objects of those passions were not houses and businesses and stock portfolios.