Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.Philippians 4: 8-9
In the United States today it is the national holiday of Independence Day. It is a time to celebrate the founding of a nation “conceived in liberty,” as Abraham Lincoln said, but also “dedicated to the proposition that all are created equal.” We are today well aware, of course, that, complex and contradictory as all human beings, Thomas Jefferson had no trouble both declaring this equality in writing while enslaving other human beings. President Barack Obama frequently reminded us that the celebration of independence is really the commemoration of the beginning of an ongoing process, the commitment to continually work toward “a more perfect union.” In speaking of the purpose of the Constitution as the work of forming “a more perfect union,” the framers acknowledged that the survival of the republic required a constant working toward the espoused goal: “to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and ensure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity . . . .”
We live in a time and a political moment that seems to have lost the aspirational element in the Republic’s founding. At this moment certainly a majority of the citizenry, from every political perspective, would agree that the union is not becoming “more perfect.” but rather fraying dramatically. As a person who travels a fair amount outside of the country, I must say that I now present my U. S. passport with a degree of shame. We live in a climate dedicated not to establishing justice and promoting the general welfare but rather to an arrogant assertion of primacy, what we call “greatness,” pervaded by a blatant disregard for universal justice and welfare.
It is impossible, on this U.S Independence Day, not be thrown into reflection on this moment and the current state of this enormously wealthy and powerful country, a country because of its wealth and power that has the greatest potential to serve the world’s welfare or to greatly endanger it. This year’s “celebration” is, at least for me, one of anger, sadness, and grief.
In a published text, the daughter of our current President wrote:
Perception is more important than reality. If someone perceives something to be true, it is more important than if it is in fact true. This doesn’t mean you should be duplicitous or deceitful, but don’t go out of your way to correct a false assumption if it plays to your advantage.
She well describes the underpinnings of today’s celebration. While in Washington, DC American “greatness” is being extolled in the brandishing of military equipment and aircraft, on the southern border of the United States men, women, and children who have committed no crimes are being held in inhumane conditions. Immigrants are living under the threat of an impending round-up reminiscent of the 1940’s in Europe. We continue, as we have for generations, to attempt to manipulate the status of power in the Middle East through sanctions and militarily provocative actions. We continue to cut funding for domestic and international aid to the needy, while increasing our military budget and tax breaks and incentives to the wealthy. And we increase our carbon emissions while pronouncing that our air and water have never been cleaner. And with minor exceptions, there appears to be scant possibility for significant change in direction in the current possibilities for alternative political leadership. Yet, Ivanka Trump asserts that to stage events that extol our great country and military, if it feeds the perception of greatness, is more important than the reality. To insist that those seeking refuge are “bad people,” if it informs the perception of a critical mass of citizens is more important than the truth of their humanity and their desire for a better life. To relentlessly describe an international treaty that was, in fact, fostering denuclearization in Iran as “horrible” and flawed in service to personal grievance and in order to sway the perspective of an uninformed populace is more important than serving the cause of peace and justice in the world by fostering cooperation through mutual respect and trust.
It seems without hyperbole to say that as the United States celebrates today, we, its citizens, find ourselves in a moral and spiritual crisis. Where we find ourselves today is not merely a result of the last two and a half years. It has been a long time in coming. The great “experiment” that is constitutional democracy in the United States is dependent on its citizens’ accepting the responsibility of citizenship, that is to engage fully and responsibly in the process of forming an evermore perfect union, and doing so in correspondence with the demands and call of the truth and not of our imaginations. Calling oneself great does not make one great. As witness the Soviet Union’s grand military parades in its final years of existence, exhibiting excessive military hardware does not signify the strength and stability of the society.
The Constitution of the United States reminds us that the strength and greatness of the society lies in its citizens recognition that it is “We the People” who bear responsibility for our country. So, we must ask ourselves, individually and together, how we have failed that responsibility, for our country’s failure is our failure. In my parents’ young adulthood, a depression and then a “World War” presented their generation with a call to service and sacrifice. So, before their marriage, my father went to war in the South Pacific and my mother, already working full time, became a nurses’ aid in a hospital. This was not an unusual story; it was the typical one. There was a real threat to security and liberty in the world, and their generation understood that the necessary task this imposed on “the country” was their responsibility. The harshness of their life took its toll, to be sure. Lest we romanticize any generation, we must acknowledge that the results of so many men at war was an excess of addiction and alcoholism and an inability in many of them to communicate the darkness in themselves that was the result of the horror of their wartime experience. Yet, for whatever their struggles, they were determined and worked relentlessly so that we, their sons and daughters, would have an easier life than they did.
What of we, their children, as we come into the late years of our own lives? Perhaps a somewhat paradigmatic exemplification of our generation is former President George W. Bush. One of his most memorable lines for me was his saying at the beginning of his candidacy for President that it was time for our generation “to grow up before we grow old.” Every individual and every generation has its own unique struggles with growing up, but perhaps one of those for my generation is the pervasive disposition we have of entitlement and self-actualization. The result of this is reflected in our political discourse. From the 80’s on, we have heard very little in our political campaigns about the “common good,” or about the need for self-sacrifice for the sake of the whole. We hear much about a power that dominates, but little about a power that responsibly serves. We hear much about what will be given to us but nothing of what will be asked of us.
The other day I was listening to a podcast in which an obviously very good person who was also highly involved in environment issues at the local level was asked about climate change. He was pretty much dismissive of it, despite his work locally to save endangered species. He was quick to suggest that these shifts in climate have occurred throughout the planet’s existence. When asked more pointedly about the larger effects of this change in climate on humanity, given the small ones he could already recognize, his response was “If that happens it will be long after I’m dead.” This example is striking because this is actually an involved person in many ways. And yet, he expresses the great affliction of our time, and certainly of my generation: self-absorption.
This obsession with one’s self and one’s position seems to rule the political world as well. We have people who have been in politics for their whole lives who, even in old age, are moved solely by the desire to remain in power. It is not to do something for the people and for their posterity, but only to keep alive in themselves their illusions of their own power and significance. All of the great spiritual and wisdom traditions tell us that our sense of separateness is an illusion. What the framers of the Constitution rightly understood is that there is only a “We the People.” What they didn’t understand is that this “we” included all “every nation, from all tribes, and peoples and languages” (Rev. 7: 9).
It has been a struggle for my generation, in large part, to understand fully the truth that we are “one.” There is no “self” as cut off from others for whom we are to be responsible. The welfare, as the Constitution says, is truly “general.” So, what is the call of this moment of moral and spiritual crisis? What are we to do if law enforcement is ordered to begin to round up people from our citizenry? Do we allow this because it is not happening to us? Or do we realize the very thin boundary that separates us as groups and individuals from each other?
The Prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures were called to remind the people of the God they had forgotten. In our country and in our day, the descendants of those prophets are very seldom religious figures. The self-interest of recent decades has succeeded in making religion merely a matter of personal morality, individual salvation, and arrogant self-justification. There are those voices in our wilderness, often in the most unexpected places, that are summoning us to change our social consciousness and political discourse. They call us to remember the God, whose children all of us are, and so our responsibility for our brothers and sisters.
Our society is fraying because we have forgotten that our first task is not our own comfort, gratification, and affluence, but rather our responsibility in ways large and small to forge “a more perfect union.” Thus, every word and deed that would foster separation and hatred should be loudly denounced. There should be no place in public life for those who would divide us, who would prey on our ever-present tendencies to prejudice and discrimination.
It is we the people who have the power to change the ways we act and the ways we speak. But first we must change the way we think. At the moment, every public expression, in word and deed, of who we most deeply are is one of power. As every child knows, however, the bully is one who, at his or her core, feels impotent. As the Hebrew Prophets might have told us, we’d best wake up to our own feelings of impotence, lest reality wreak its effects on us. To grow up, as we were all taught and as every parent knows, is to put others before ourselves; it is to “ensure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity” by promoting “the general welfare” ahead of our own.
So I have begun to wonder if the new task of the first half of the twenty-first century should be a commitment to civil obligations as a balance to the focus on civil rights.Sr. Simone Campbell, SSS, “Civil Rights and Obligations,” in Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, July 4, 2019
Civil obligations call each of us to participate out of a concern and commitment for the whole. Civil obligations call us to vote, to inform ourselves about the issues of the day, to engage in serious conversation about our nation’s future and learn to listen to various perspectives. To live our civil obligations means that everyone needs to be involved and that there needs to be room for everyone to exercise this involvement. This is the other side of civil rights. We all need our civil rights so that we can all exercise our civil obligations.
The mandate to exercise our civil obligations means that we can’t be bystanders who scoff at the process of politics while taking no responsibility. We all need to be involved. Civil obligations mean that we must hold our elected officials accountable for their actions, and we must advocate for those who are struggling to exercise their obligations. The 100 percent needs the efforts of all of us to create a true community.