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Saturday, October 13, 2012

Does being 'American' really matter?

Most of my blog entries here are faithful to the title - and the spirit - of my blog: Stream of Consciousness.  What does that mean? It means that normally, I will see something, or hear something that causes me to stop and think; it means whatever that something is it impacts me enough so that I feel compelled to write about it - whatever it is.

But life being what it is, there are times when I just can't cast aside whatever I'm doing at the moment to compose a blog entry worthy of putting out there. These instances result in a number of draft blog posts saved for later. Most of these drafts will never see the light of day for one reason or another. I suspect mostly because they would be dated. However, I think the draft I pulled tonight is still topical - perhaps more so than it was when I first made notes on the twenty-ninth of August, 2012.

That morning, NPR's Morning Edition aired a story highlighting why President Obama can't speak freely about race; the story was based on Ta-Nehisi Coates' article "Fear of a Black President" in the (at the time) latest issue of The Atlantic magazine. The article talks about, among other things, the President's response to the Trayvon Martin tragedy and about how Mr. Obama has studiously avoided the subject of race in America - which is odd when you think about it, considering the fact that as the first black president of the United States, Mr. Obama had the most bully pulpit imaginable from which to launch that discussion.

Obama on a hoodie, not in one...

But my idea for a blog after hearing this story back in August, and later reading Mr. Coates' article in the Atlantic, did not involve Trayvon Martin or the state of American race relations. No, the first thing I thought of, as Mr. Coates described how his views and feelings regarding race relations in America have evolved over time, was how I don't even view myself as an American anymore. America is just somewhere I live. The more I learn about God and what, as a believer, my role should be in His Kingdom, the less I am concerned about my role as a citizen of the United States.

It's not that I necessarily want to live anywhere else...although I have done so for large chunks of my's just that all of the issues we seem to wrestle with in the public square don't really attain any sort of stature compared to what Scripture represents - and presents - regarding the way we should be living our lives.

I don't think this happens any more...

What is being American? What does that mean? Is it different than what it meant when I was growing up?

The answer to the first and second question is, "I don't know."

The answer to the third, somewhat counter-intuitively, is, "Yes."

The image above was a daily occurrence when I was attending elementary school in Tampa, FL in the late sixties. Every morning we placed hands over hearts and said the Pledge of Allegiance. The message from that and every other conversation concerning America I can remember from those long-ago days? Being American means something. It's not that we were better than anyone else, just that we had it better than anyone else. America was a great place to live - none better - and we should be proud that we lived here.

I haven't read the book pictured above but the image and especially the title fits my next thought to a T. How has my outlook on being American changed over the years? From childhood, through junior high school in England, being in the armed forces, living in the Middle East? I've been back in the States for almost thirteen years now. Funnily enough, while I lived overseas, I heard more than one person say, "America is a great place to be from," with the emphasis meaning that being an American overseas had its advantages but it was better to from America than in America.

Did America really start going downhill after the Kennedy's and Martin Luther King were assassinated? Vietnam grew into a terrible conflict; students were gunned down at Kent State University; racial struggles tore sections of the country apart. At the same time, we were landing men on the moon, leading the world in technology and so many other areas. Yes, we had problems but America was bigger than that; the very idea of citizenship was enough to quash arguments about the value and prestige of living in this country.

In the Bible, Jesus is constantly fending off the Pharisees who are seeking to back Him into a corner and generate evidence with which to condemn Him. In Luke chapter twenty, they figure they can get Jesus to bad mouth Rome and thus provide an excuse to hand Him over to the occupying authorities. But when asked whether Jewish citizens should pay taxes to Rome, Jesus replies, "Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." [Luke 20:25 (ESV)]

Even more pointed, is Paul's reminder to Christians, "...But our citizenship is in heaven..." [Philippians 3:20 (ESV)]

As Christians, we have a lot to be looking after that has nothing whatsoever to do with America. As we get into discussions and arguments about the social changes in America, arguments about how God's way should be honored, how the Christian way should be the way this country is run, what are we actually saying?

What stands in the way of us serving God when we focus on our American citizenship? Politics, Fox News, American Idol, the Voice, X-Factor, sports, the Internet?

The day after I made my initial notes for this blog, I watched a few of the speeches at the Republican National Convention. Those speeches brought into focus what I'm talking about - America is no longer the United States or, if we are, it is in name only. This country is fragmenting into thousands of special-interest groups. We've moved away from a united ideal, away from a united direction and toward the premise that (instead of) all individuals being equal, everyone is special. I don't say that to denigrate anyone; the problem with reaching a point where we are rewarding people just for breathing is the slippery slope that leads to the disintegration of the American idea. Every one of us has the opportunity to do great things; but we have shifted that idea to a place where our children are lauded for completing kindergarten. We're creating celebrations for children 'graduating' from elementary school. I'm not saying that we shouldn't encourage our children and praise them in special moments, but moving from 5th grade to 6th grade is just that - a special moment. It's not an achievement that need be so celebrated as to shape the thinking of a ten-year-old to the point where they believe merely doing what they are supposed to do is worthy of extraordinary reward.

moving up to big boy and girl school...

How then do we create the desire to achieve in our young people when they have been conditioned to expect plenary praise for merely being adequate? Yes, every human being is special - in the Declaration of Independence some very wise men wrote, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Individuals are not special because they simply are; they are special because they were endowed by their creator to be so. America, I fear, has turned into a Me First society. The life, liberty and pursuit of happiness that are our inalienable rights were not to be obtained at the expense of everyone else. The American Ideal is that we can all achieve those cherished things by working together. Yes, we can be individuals but no one is above another.

What happens if enough people start worrying less about personal hegemony and more about being American and beginning to live life as servants of others? In closing, I need to think long and hard about what I have done to help a fellow American achieve life, liberty and happiness lately.

What about you?


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