In about 1754 BC, a Babylonian king by the name of Hammurabi had his opinion on the proper human order chiseled onto a large stone. The Code of Hammurabi argued that God had placed him in power to enforce a society where men were considered superior, women were subordinate to men and most people – slaves – were so inferior they could be considered property. For the next 3500 years, this was how most societies were organized.
In 1776 AD, Thomas Jefferson offered a new and controversial opinion about the proper order of humanity. In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson argued that “all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.” While this more enlightened opinion was certainly a departure from thousands of years of human political thought, we shouldn’t celebrate it as a triumph of human emancipation.
Unfortunately, Thomas Jefferson probably meant “all males” when he wrote his declaration. His words were a challenge to the privileges of kings and nobility, but did little to alter the remainder of the Code of Hammurabi. Women were still subordinate, unable to own property or vote. Jefferson continued to own slaves. Finally, he based his opinion on the same claim of divine authority. Why was his opinion superior to that of Hammurabi? God said so. However, while Jefferson’s arguments were flawed, the Declaration of Independence was the beginning of a clash between two very different understandings of human order, a struggle which continues today.
The Code of Hammurabi has been – and still is – the worldview of many in the United States. Since 1776, those committed to including more and more types of people in the term “all men” have fought for greater equality against those who believe some – by virtue of their gender or the color of their skin – are superior to others. Make no mistake; the Civil War was a violent clash of these two worldviews. The Civil Rights movement was another battle in this effort to defeat a white supremacy built on the Code of Hammurabi. What we are experiencing in the United States today is another skirmish in that conflict. When Trump and his supporters say they want to “make America great again,” it is not a call to a Jeffersonian world where all people are equal and have certain unalienable rights. Roy Moore and his like are calling for a return to a world where the Code of Hammurabi reigned.
As I’ve fought against the minions of Hammurabi over the past forty years, my opinions and arguments have shifted. For example, I once found solace and strength in the idea that the truth of equality was self-evident, ordained by a God who loved and valued every person equally. Gradually, it became apparent to me that the claim of divine blessing has sustained rather than solved this conflict. Both Hammurabi and Jefferson argued their worldview was ordained by God.
Sadly, in this clash of worldviews, God has been more of a team mascot than the arbiter of truth. History has shown that religions and sects have aligned on both sides of this conflict. Racism and sexism – as well as God’s equal regard for all – have often been trumpeted by holy men. The opinion of God seems largely irrelevant in this struggle. If we are ever to resolve this conflict over the proper order of humanity, I suspect we have to look beyond religion for aid.
I no longer believe people were created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. Equality and rights are not attributes that are bestowed. If women and people of color have taught us anything, they have demonstrated that equality and rights are the spoils of hard fought battles with the defenders of the Code of Hammurabi. Perhaps God – or the idea of God – has given the oppressed and marginalized comfort and courage, but it is their blood, sweat and tears that have changed the world.
I have also come to question the validity of the idea of the equality of all people. In this, ironically, I am in agreement with white supremacists. Not all people are equal. Some are inferior. While I believe every person has worth, I am absolutely convinced that many of the defenders of the Code of Hammurabi, of white supremacy and of white and male privilege are inferior human beings. They are not just. They are not good thinkers. They are not reflective. They are not well informed. Indeed, they are attracted to the Code of Hammurabi precisely because it offers them an unfair advantage in a world where they fear competing with brilliant women and people of color.
In recent years, I’ve realized why many conservatives hate the theory of evolution so much. It is not that it challenges their view of God as much as it is an affront to their opinion about themselves. Evolution does not care whether you are Christian, a white man or an American. It bestows its blessings without discrimination. All people are not born equal. Some are more intelligent, creative, innovative, reflective and compassionate than others and the distribution of these talents has nothing to do with gender or race. Creating a human order that denies or ignores this reality is detrimental to human society and progress.
This has become my primary objection to racism and sexism. Any understanding of the human order that suggests homogeneity is ordained or preferable is dangerous. A society, company, or organization dominated by white men will always be inferior. By excluding the brilliance and creativity of those who are other, it makes the same mistake of European royal families in the past. Human evolution has determined that inbreeding always results in deformity and inferiority. Diversity is a hallmark of evolution and the driver of human progress.
For this reason, I am not a proponent of equality for equality’s sake. I am a proponent of equal opportunity, for the leveling a very unleveled playing field. I am an opponent of racism and sexism because these systems – based on an archaic and non-scientific code – diminish the opportunities for large portions of the human race to flourish. White supremacy must be opposed, not merely because it is immoral, but because we now fully understand the importance of human diversity. This is not a political opinion, but a scientifically proven fact.
This is where I and the white supremacists radically disagree. They believe America would be great if we could restore the dominance of white men. They applaud pictures where all our political leaders are white men. I find this dangerous and harmful. A racially diverse nation is dynamic and vibrant. Systemic racism and sexism make America far less than we can be.
I think white supremacists – though they seldom admit it – do understand this. They realize at some deep level that – without inordinate power – they may struggle to compete. When the marchers in Charlottesville chanted, “You will not replace us,” they revealed their deepest fear. They did not say “you cannot replace us.” They are smart enough to see the writing on the wall. Without the Code of Hammurabi, they will be rightly replaced by women and people of color. This will happen not because their replacements are inferior, but precisely because they are superior.
I hold this truth to be self-evident. All people are not created equal. We are born into an incredibly diverse world. This reality is an opportunity and not a threat. Allowing the most talented and thoughtful to lead is good for all of us. If we are willing to give all people equal rights, then and only then will life, liberty and happiness flourish.
(Special thanks for Yuval Noah Harari, who juxtaposed and critiqued both the Code of Hammurabi and the Declaration of Independence in his fascinating book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. His thoughts provoked mine.)