Homeland (noun) 1. One’s native land. --Random House Dictionary
That’s what the United States Customs officer at Logan Airport said after she returned my passport to me, when I recently came back home from a two week trip overseas. Her words were startling because it’s rare for me, I think in fact for most Americans, to consider the implications of what it means to call the United States home, our home. To claim the title “American”. This July 4th we’ll fire up the grill and watch the fireworks light up the sky on a hot summer evening. We’ll crack a beer and go for a swim and maybe even remember all the words to the “Star Spangled Banner” as we sing away, all good I suppose.
Yet do we ever really consider just what each of us contributes as citizens, members all to this amazing and diverse and fragile experiment in democracy, born on a sultry and humid Philadelphia day 236 summers ago? Then the signers of our Declaration of Independence actually put their lives on the line for human freedom. They risked it all: reputations, the safety of their families, their businesses and vocations, their land, everything, for the chance to govern themselves and to be free. By just signing that radical document all of them instantly became traitors. As Benjamin Franklin noted at the time, “We must all hang together or assuredly we will all hang separately.”
So here’s a 4th of July question. What have you, what have I, what have we done lately for this our home in 2012, America? Because the thing about claiming a home like America, our country, this national community, any community, is that it finally only works and works well when all of its citizens, us, do our civic work, our duty even. Democracy, more than any other form of government demands active participation: vigorous, committed, vital, and ongoing.
We have no King or Queen to rule us from a throne, no dictator to threaten us at the end of a gun, no despot who can throw us in prison for speaking our minds or worshipping our God as we see fit. That’s a miracle. Ask folks in China or Russia or Syria or in so many other places around the globe if they’d like to be as radically free as Americans and no doubt we’d hear a resounding “Yes!”
We are free. Not perfect. Democracy is always messy. I heard one commentator opine that America is now more split along ideological lines than at any time since the Civil War. The gulf between the rich and the poor grows and is the widest it has been since the Great Depression. Our per capita government debt is at record levels and the folks in Washington act more like toddlers in a sandbox than serious leaders. Collectively we face huge challenges and yet: I do not want to call any place else on earth home. How about you? But to quote the cliché, freedom is not free. It always carries a price. Rights are forever accompanied by responsibilities. Generations before us did their part. Now what about us?
My hope on this national anniversary is that as citizens we can recommit to citizenship, be good stewards of the gift of this our home. To vote always and never ever miss the chance to cast a ballot. To volunteer in our town or city for the work of government. To be a good neighbor and care about the folks with whom we share our street or avenue. To pay our fair share of taxes and do so not grudgingly but instead with a sense of responsibility towards the common good. To care very well for our soldiers and veterans and their families, recognizing that they serve and make sacrifices on our behalf. To be engaged in politics: stay attuned to current events, attend a protest, write a letter to the editor, sign a petition, do something to make sure there’s still a heartbeat within when it comes to living in a democracy. To see government at all levels not as the enemy but as finally “us”: if we are unhappy about it then do something beyond complaining. To live life not for ourselves alone but for the other, especially, in the words of Emma Lazarus, carved at the base of the Statue of Liberty, for the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Democracy is not a spectator sport. It needs you. It needs me. Happy Birthday America! This is our home: thank God. Now let’s get to work.