--preamble, the United States Constitution, 1789
What does it mean to be an American in 2016, one of the approximately 324 million men, women and children who call the United States of America home?
Is it all about geography, living within the borders of the third largest country in the world by population, the third biggest by land mass? America: a beautiful place that stretches from the rainy forests of the upper northwest to the balmy Florida Keys in the southeast; from the red hot deserts of Baja, California to the sparsely peopled towns of upper Maine. Throw in Hawaii, Alaska and Puerto Rico too, and we’re talking about a huge, sprawling union, unlike any other on the earth.
Is living in a certain place in the United States of America what makes us American?
Maybe to be American is about statistics, figuring out who the “average” American is, when we sift through and sort out our census numbers. Who is that “American”? She’s a 38 year old married woman, with no children, who works in a white collar salaried job, lives in a home she owns in or near a city. She went to college but didn’t finish her degree. She’s Christian, but didn’t go to church last Sunday, nor did she vote in the last Presidential election.
Is that the definition of an American? May work for some, but certainly not for every one.
What does it mean to call one’s self “American”? To claim that title, with all its privileges and with all its responsibilities?
That’s a hard question, not easily answered in a 700 word essay. But maybe like me you’ve been thinking about, praying about this question of America. Worrying about the huge challenges we face as a people, in these hellacious days for our nation. These hot and scary and sometimes bloody summer days and nights, when it can feel as if America is coming apart at the seams, descending into social chaos. Has the American dream become the American nightmare? Do any of us still dare to listen for the ancient hope of “we the people” forming a “more perfect union”?
After San Bernardino. After Orlando. After Saint Paul. After Baton Rouge. After Dallas.
Before a November election already marked by fiery rhetoric and ugly politics. What do we owe one another, we who call the United States our home? What connects us? What knits us as one civic body? What binds us together in community?
Yes, we know all too well that which continually separate us into warring camps. Class and race. Sexual orientation and family structure, who we love and how we love. Religion, the God we choose to worship, or no God. Civilians and police officers. Gun owners and gun opponents. Republicans and Democrats. But if the only things which mark us as America and Americans are the walls of fear that keep us apart, what can bring us together? Get us talking with each other and not just at each other? Give us the faith to reach out to each other in love and trust, not just with anger and accusations?
What does it mean to be an American? This is what I believe.
To be an American, heck to just be a human, I must have the courage to see in “the other” a neighbor, not a stranger. I must have the perspective to remember that the overwhelming number of people in my world are folks of goodwill, not bad intent. Folks who desire what I want. A safe place to call home. The freedom to care for me and my loved ones. The opportunity to pursue happiness.
Most important, I must have the spiritual commitment to imagine what life is like for that “other” fellow child of God with whom I live in this United States of America. What is it really like to be a police officer trying her best to keep the peace and be a guardian of the neighborhood? What is it like to be an African-American male and live under constant stress at the mistrustful attitudes of so many of the white folks in his life? What is it like to be the parents of a young transgender man who went out to a dance party and never came back home? What is it like to be a Muslim woman who wears a traditional headdress and is stared at by the folks who approach her on a city street? What is it like to be a laid off blue collar worker, feeling left behind and forgotten, living in the Rust belt, wondering if anyone cares about you and your one life?
Because finally, they are all Americans. Like me. Like you. We are all in this together. And somehow, by God, by faith, by working towards a more perfect union, we the people, we must ask…
What does it mean to be an American?