Every few years around patriotic holidays I dig up a commencement speech given by Bono back in 2004. I love to re-read it because it is a major dose of perspective from an unlikely source. The fact that this speech was given by an Irish rock star (and international celebrity) makes it just amazing. The part that keeps bringing me back is this:
Me, I'm in love with this country called America. I'm a huge fan of America, I'm one of those annoying fans, you know the ones that read the CD notes and follow you into bathrooms and ask you all kinds of annoying questions about why you didn't live up to thatŠ.
I'm that kind of fan. I read the Declaration of Independence and I've read the Constitution of the United States, and they are some liner notes, dude. As I said yesterday I made my pilgrimage to Independence Hall, and I love America because America is not just a country, it's an idea. You see my country, Ireland, is a great country, but it's not an idea. America is an idea, but it's an idea that brings with it some baggage, like power brings responsibility. It's an idea that brings with it equality, but equality even though it's the highest calling, is the hardest to reach. The idea that anything is possible, that's one of the reasons why I'm a fan of America. It's like hey, look there's the moon up there, lets take a walk on it, bring back a piece of it. That's the kind of America that I'm a fan of.
The first time I read that it made me really excited to be an American in America. It is a broader perspective of our country than a shallow look at our current policies can portray. You see, we act as if the U.S.A is a given. We seem to feel that the country we have was a foregone conclusion and the most likely outcome of history. We think, "Of course society would progress to the point of forming a government based on equality and democracy. We are the product of evolution and nature and we have become civilized."
But here's the deal, it is not natural at all. There have been advanced societies before but no America. There have been revolutions before but no U.S. Constitution. There have been global powers before, but nothing like us. The more I learn about the situation and the founding of our country the more unlikely I find it to be.
We also seem to think that now that the idea of America has been established it will never fade away. We think that because the world has seen our way of life it is only a matter of time before everyone buys in to the idea and, if they could just get their stuff together, form free constitutional democracies. We are shocked and frustrated to see that even when we go in and do all the hard work for them (Iraq and Afghanistan) they can't seem to hold a free society together. Maybe we're the problem, perhaps if it starts with the people themselves it will work. Nope (Egypt, Libya, Tunisia). Why is freedom so hard?
All this reminds me that none of what we have is to be taken for granted. From a historical perspective this American Idea is still an anomaly. 238 years is a brief little blip on a timeline and American influence hasn't always been what it is today. Also, let's not forget that for a large part of that 238 years America endorsed a brutal form of slavery that was the exact opposite of liberty. For another large part of that time racism was as patriotic as a Lee Greenwood song. I would say that the American Idea is really more of an ideal. It is a vision that many high-minded men and women have committed their lives to over the last 238 years. It has been hard fought and there have always been setbacks. The enemy of America is not some foreign power. The real enemy of America is our own tendency to forget what we are about. We repeat cliches about liberty and freedom, but we forget that those things require sacrifice. I'm not talking about paying young men and women to go fight in wars so we don't have to, I'm talking about tolerating your neighbor. I'm talking about enduring the expression the opinions of others that you adamantly disagree with and finding a way to respect others for being human even if you can find no other reason.
But it isn't really self-evident is it? The evidence doesn't show that "all men are created equal..." and our so-called rights certainly seem alienable to me. Men aren't born equal. Some are strong; some are weak; some are missing arms; some have extra; some are really smart; some are good looking--people are not intrinsically equal. What the writers of the Declaration are saying is, "We have decided to pretend and act as if these ideals are true because we think it will make our world a better place." Rather than striving with each other for power over each other we are going to work and sacrifice to try to honor everyone and encourage them to work and sacrifice alongside us.
It is a breathtaking vision, but the founding fathers didn't come up with it.
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Love one another.
Greater love has no man than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.
But many who are the first will be last and the last will be first.
Sound familiar? Jesus said these things and many more that suggest that being a true human means we find a way to treat others with love and respect even at our own expense. There aren't many important people in history who said such things. And there is only one person who said it and then did it perfectly.
So America is an experiment. The outcome is still very uncertain. The goal of the experiment is to see how long can humans (by nature, inhuman) hold on to the idea of humanity. How long can a society strive toward the ideal of "all men created equal" before the tide turns and our inhumanity takes over again? History teaches us that it cannot be long. But you know what? History never knew about America. History has never seen anything like us. We get pretty down in the dumps because of setbacks, disappointments, and complete failures. But for 238 years Americans have been facing these same toils in the face of even greater odds. They sacrificed comfort, money and sometimes blood so that another generation could have hope of becoming more human.
For what it's worth, I intend on doing the same.