Values to Build a Life On – Part III

Dedication to Citizenship in God’s World

 
In the 21st century, political campaigns appeal to American voters as taxpayers, as members of a party, religious or identity group, and sometimes as patriots. Citizenship and the obligations of public service that come with it are seldom mentioned. Success in the business or corporate world is admired because national prosperity is an important political goal. Self-interest that is at the heart of the Free Enterprise System and built into legal requirements for corporations is emphasized at the expense of non-profitable ideals of duty, honor, service.

The passing of Senator John McCain and President George H. W. Bush in the final months of 2018 focused media attention on values of public service that are mentioned too rarely in the halls of Congress and have, with rare exceptions, been excluded in a Trump administration dedicated to personal gain. Human rights had been a focus of American world leadership since the administration of President Jimmy Carter, but responsibilities of world citizenship are being renounced for purported amoral national interest. Amidst increasing moral disorder, religious groups that rejected Jimmy Carter’s moral leadership as too liberal admire an administration that supports their crusade against human and civil rights as violations of their religious liberty.

A political and religious value greatly needed today is dedication to citizenship in God’s world. As Americans of diverse ethnic and cultural origins, we must embrace the responsibility and duty of citizenship. Those of us who are Christian must recognize that the Rule of God that Jesus proclaimed extends to the world – even though his message was addressed to a Jewish audience, it encompassed the globe and all humanity. Jesus also said we can’t serve two masters, specifically “You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matthew 6:24) In short, dedication to wealth, or other forms of self-interest, and service to God are mutually exclusive because any competitor with God is an idol. Therefore, love of God and dedication to Christian citizenship must surpass national, corporate, social, economic, religious, and cultural boundaries to acknowledge God’s sovereignty over humanity, all of life, and all the planet.

A full discussion of citizenship must examine the present American situation, our global obligations, and the overall sovereignty of God.

In What Are We Doing Here? Marilynne Robinson bemoans our loss when the humanities and the religious matrix which gives them strength are downgraded as self-interest in politics and employability in education become leading national values. Her description of Americans guided by conscience is especially telling considering the attacks on public sector employees under the Trump administration.

We are all indebted to legions of strangers who show up to work every day and do what needs to be done. If they did not, presumably they would feel guilt or shame in some degree. They align their lives, more or less, with a standard internal to them, and are very worthy of respect in this regard. This fundamental respectability of people in the aggregate is the great resource of political democracy.

In a book review for The Christian Century, Charles Scriven echoed concerns of Robinson over the commonplace reference to taxpayers rather than citizens when politicians appeal to voters.

When I define myself as a citizen, I have a community—and children and grandchildren—to care about, and I may be pleased to share in the public expense of founding a land-grant college or building a public library. But when I define myself as a taxpayer, the aspirational aspect of community membership weakens. I fix attention on what government is costing me. The generosity and mutual regard that flourish when I savor and am supported by my connection with others lose their purchase on who I am.

Conservative political discourse since the Reagan Revolution of 1980 has increasingly appealed to citizens as if they were consumers shopping for bargains and demanding their money’s worth. Tax cuts, therefore, must be their highest priority. Privatizing services was supposed to improve government by skimming off profit-making opportunities for businesses and leaving public servants in the naturally less important work whose funding should be reduced and whose employees don’t deserve raises because they are drains rather than contributors to the economy.

No wonder voting has been considered less and less important as the very idea of duty to serve, and the sense of obligation and public responsibility associated with it, are dismissed as free enterprise and self-interest soar higher in general esteem. So, we elected an incredibly successful businessman – at least that was the bill of goods sold to his supporters – and are surprised to find the very foundations of our constitutional democracy endangered. Scriven described the dilemma well at the end of his book review.

Efforts to save democracy must presuppose success with a more basic task: the making of citizens, people generous enough and capable enough to care deeply about so­cial and political realities. Faithful Prot­estant communities embrace the legacy of the Hebrew prophets, much as Jesus did, and one function of such communities is the formation of citizens.

Citizenship is bolstered by a patriotism that unites the nation behind the values of constitutional democracy. Putting loyalty to such unifying values above the competing interests of partisan groups is necessary. Since the end of the Second World War, national security has depended on giving priority to patriotism over the logarithmic growth in the number of interests competing for loyalty, whether related to economic, ethnic, gender, religious, technological, or ideological commitments.

National security is also the basis for recognizing our responsibilities as global citizens. The vision of Franklin Roosevelt that emerged from world war established a complex set of international mechanisms for global participation in an increasingly democratic world government. Woodrow Wilson’s idealistic vision for world peace took shape under Roosevelt’s early guidance and then the wise leadership of Presidents Truman and Eisenhower.

European technological, economic, and military superiority extended colonial forms of ruthless exploitation over the globe for four hundred years. Frequent European wars began to turn into world wars, the first of which began in North America in 1756 as young George Washington’s Indian allies opened hostilities that spread to the Caribbean, India, and Europe. The emergence of nationalism in Europe led to civil wars within disintegrating ancient European empires and increasingly deadly international competition for empire. The Great War of 1914 undermined the social foundations of European governments as unimaginable slaughter took place in France. It was called a world war because troops from colonies died fighting in Europe and conflict in Europe was extended to the colonies as well. Revenge guided the behavior of the victors and losers, causing a far more horrific world war after a twenty-year hiatus.

World citizenship, not an international empire resulting from conquest, was the key to the participatory global system that followed the Second World War. Patterns of trade, migration, and cultural exchange had already turned our planet into a single entity before the First World War but accelerating international trade and interdependence after 1945 made globalization a dominant human phenomenon with few nations refusing to participate.

Loss of European dominance came with increasing international participation. American and European leadership are prominent within current structures, but it is increasingly clear that rising powers will succeed in diminishing Western preeminence.

The most prominent values supporting world peace were expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights formulated by the United Nations in 1948. Those rights were an ideal, not a reality, at that time. In the following seventy years, Europeans have confronted the racism and exploitation in empires that violated human rights. The United Sates, South Africa, and other countries have experienced painful reckonings with histories of human rights abuses. Women around the world have become especially vocal in demanding full equality. There are exceptions, of course. Vestiges of nationalism and religious cultures at odds with human rights are dangers to international peace and our own national security.

An increasing variety of natural and human-generated disasters in the 20th and 21st centuries make clear the necessity of world citizenship. Attitudes based on preeminence of self-interest are even more deadly when extended to a global context. Nearly every month our connection to international news brings earthquakes, fires, tsunamis, hurricanes, wars, and nuclear accidents into our homes as if they happened next door. The daily phenomenon of “once in a century” weather disasters, along with scientific reports calling attention to growing dangers of climate modifications, is shouting at us to notice human impact on planetary environment as a national security issue demanding concerted action from all nations. A plethora of charitable non-governmental organizations for problems without boundaries have made all of us aware that we are “our brother’s keeper,” wherever in the world human beings and the planet are in need.

A third aspect of citizenship is recognizing personal responsibility to God as sovereign over the earth and human affairs. Jews and Christians are familiar with Jesus’s teaching on the Kingdom of God and its roots in God’s role as creator and sustainer of the universe. The spread of early Christianity extended the audience for this belief beyond its Jewish beginnings. Adaptation of Christianity to the structure and political dominance of the Roman Empire from the Council of Nicaea forward brought limitations on God’s kingdom as the Church Catholic became the indispensable point of entry to the kingdom on earth and after death.

During the Reformation, John Calvin made two important contributions to liberating the Rule of God from Roman and medieval authoritarianism. The first was in church government. Local and non-ministerial participation in church governance replaced hierarchical structures dominated by priestly authorities, preparing the way for evolution of democratic procedures over the following centuries. The second change was to describe the power and authority of God in terms of sovereignty, a concept that would become increasingly important with the evolution of nation states in the century after Calvin. This updating of Jesus’s concept of the Kingdom of God was not an immediate step away from authoritarian values. In fact, Calvin took the irresistibility of God’s will to the extent of seeming to eliminate free will through a doctrine of predestination. However, E. Harris Harbison argues that Calvin’s position was not as extreme as one might think, because “the emphasis on God’s inscrutability and unaccountability is never pushed so far as to be an argument for ‘absolute and arbitrary power’ contrary to all law.”

In the France of Louis XIII and XIV, national sovereignty would be promoted as raison d’état, an early version of national security holding that states must pursue their interests without regard to ordinary moral standards. German intellectuals extended the authoritarian and amoral aspects of state sovereignty in defending the Prussian unification of Germany through a series of wars that successfully implemented Realpolitik, a political philosophy based on so-called realism as opposed to moral idealism. Nevertheless, England, the United States of America, and post-revolutionary France demonstrated how to build sovereignty on constitutions that limited governmental powers and provided for citizen rights and participation. Calvin’s emphasis on ethics as proof of salvation – the fruits Jesus called for as evidence of the kingdom – would never have endorsed the amoral use of sovereignty by absolutist and later totalitarian powers. It should surprise no one that constitutional government has flourished in countries where the Calvinist work ethic is most prevalent.

The Judeo-Christian tradition had always affirmed God as sovereign by virtue of the role of creator and sustainer of the universe. But Jesus’s message of a loving God overruled the wrathful picture of some of the Old Testament writings, to the extent of suggesting God would go overboard with mercy and forgiveness in response to the most disrespectful behavior when there is repentance. The constitutional approach to sovereignty makes room for accepting the human drive for independence demonstrated in the disobedience in Eden rather than branding it as inherently sinful and deserving God’s wrath. The audacity to actually talk back to God is found in the Old Testament in numerous Psalms of lamentation and complaint as well as in Job. Even in the ancient authoritarian context there was evidence of acceptable democratic habits of free speech and independence directed at God.

Therefore, there is a sound theological basis for updating the Judeo-Christian tradition based on democratic ideals and governmental behaviors. Ultimate human responsibility to God for treatment of others and the planet on which we live has not changed. Unfortunately, increasing dominance of industrial-capitalism boosted by technological application of scientific discoveries has become the instrument for affirming human self-interest over God’s Rule. Sovereign nations even permit corporations to follow legal obligations to pursue only narrow financial interests of investors, even to the exclusion of national security or moral limitations. Responsibility for the welfare of a nation or the planet have been cast aside, along with recognition of overall accountability to God as the preeminent duty of human enterprises. Only respect for human accountability to a sovereign God through world citizenship can begin to redress accelerating global crises.

Building a life on dedication to citizenship in God’s world is incompatible with the pursuit of wealth and recognition as the measure of a successful life. Jesus said we can’t serve two masters, speaking directly against dedication to wealth as a life goal. It is possible to combine citizenship, patriotism, national security, stewardship of the planet with preeminent recognition of God’s sovereignty over the universe. The paths to a life of serving God, others, and the earth at the same time are many. Civic duty in a democratic society is one of the roads to a satisfying, beneficial life.
 
References
Charles Scriven, “Democracy is Always Fragile,” The Christian Century, Vol. 135, Number 16, August 1, 2018, https://www.christiancentury.org/review/books/democracy-always-fragile?reload=1543265209871.

  1. Harris Harbison, The Christian Scholar in the Age of the Reformation (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1956), 157.

Marilynne Robinson, What Are We Doing Here? Essays (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018), 9-10.

About the Author
Dr. Edward G. Simmons was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1943. A graduate of Mercer University, he earned both an M.A. and Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University. He is retired as an expert in the field of organizational management through thirty-four years of service for the Georgia Department of Human Resources. He returned to his original career by teaching history part-time at Georgia Gwinnett College and Brenau University. An energetic speaker and presenter of sermons and educational programs, he is the author of Talking Back to the Bible: A Historian’s Approach to Bible Study.

Review & Commentary