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Posts Tagged ‘American Community’

Pluribus and Unum

The United States of America has somewhat of a schizophrenic community identity.  On the one hand, we relish in the idea that we are a “melting pot” of cultures; a country where people from any culture are welcome to legally come and establish a new home.  However, on the other hand, we worship the idea or myth of the rugged individual who comes to this country or who pioneers a new horizon; a country where an individual can realize the potential of all that he or she can become with enough hard work and luck.

For some time now, I have been pondering the sources of these attitudes within our American culture.  More specifically, I have wondered about our idea of the rugged individual who makes it on his or her own and how that shapes our relationships, politics and religion.  We love our pioneer stories.  We almost worship the entrepreneur who starts out with nothing and produces something out of a garage or shop that not only attains success but also produces wealth.  Our movies make heroes of the rebellious individual who beats the system or the status quo accepted by the larger majority.

This heightened sense of the individual over the community gives rise to many tensions in our society. Loyalty is no longer given to any one group but to the self.  So, individuals move from church to church, job to job, and even community to community for personal advantage.  Loyalty is passe’, whether it is to a marriage union or workers union.  Most Americans are looking for the “best deal” and “for the right price.”  We have taken the American Founders ideal of an individual’s freedom to pursue “life, liberty and happiness” to individualistic twisted ends.

Individualism fractures society more than it unifies it.  It seems to be the human tendency to move toward separateness until there is something that unites us – a common enemy, a common problem, or a common experience in the midst of disaster.  Once the threat has passed, however, jockeying begins all over for the selfishly personal “best seat at the table.”  Jesus’ disciples exhibited this same behavior despite the fact that it was Jesus who brought them all together and was the unifying factor.  Perhaps church bodies could learn something from their example and Jesus’ instructions to them.

Of course, the fracture of civilization and its relationships is nothing new to human existence. It is as old as the Garden of Eden where the break in community with other humans and with their Creator began.  However you tell the story and understand it, it perfectly illustrates the human condition.  From Genesis chapter three through history up to today, we witness the effects of the rips and tears in our social fabric.  The story of the Tower of Babel, when God caused confusion through language and culture, is only the pinnacle of this story.  Humanity has been on a steady descent ever since despite the attempts of world rulers and empires to bring a return to a one-world order according to their terms.  This has only led to resistance and further fractures in the global human community.

Washington D.C. Capital Buildings, Spring 2009

Washington D.C. Capital Buildings, Spring 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Of course, conveyors of conspiracy theories like to point to one of the Latin phrases on the reverse side of the United States’ Great Seal to show that the U.S. is involved in the same scheme. The Latin words

Reverse of the Great Seal of the United States.

Image via Wikipedia

Novus ordo seclorum” are taken by them to mean “New World Order” when, in fact, they truly mean “New Order of the Ages;” signifying the beginning of a new era with the birth of the United States of America.  The other Latin phrase appearing with it is “Annuit coeptis,” which means “God favored our undertakings.”  So, there is a bit of irony in the theories of conspiratists in that it would seem that they believe the U.S. is involved in some diabolical plan to take over the world with God’s blessings.

At any rate, the Latin phrase on the U.S. Great Seal which most Americans are more familiar with is “E Pluribus Unum.” This is roughly translated “out of many, one” or “one from many.”  In recent American history, it has been embraced to refer to the great cultural “melting pot” of this country.  However, at the beginning of American independence from Great Britain, it was an attempt to directly reflect the unity of the diverse thirteen colonies.

Modern Americans tend to forget just how fractious those early colonies were based upon their religious preferences, politics, loyalties to England, economies and ideals of the ruling classes. The contentions were never really settled until after the Civil War – and some would argue, especially from the southern United States, that it is still not settled.  Early on, the threat of secession from the federal union was always present; first from the northern states and then from the south.  Politics became divided very early over the preeminence of individual and state rights versus federal rights.  We still wage political battle over those ideas today.  This conflict may always be in flux and never really settled in our American democracy.

Interestingly, E Pluribus Unum was the motto of the United States of America until 1956, when it replaced with In God We Trust.” Until then, it appears on most U.S. coinage since it was mandated by law in 1873.  It first appeared on U.S. coinage in 1795 even though it was first proposed for the Great Seal of the U.S. in August of 1776 and finally formally adopted in 1782.  In the 1776 proposal, which Benjamin Franklin had a hand in, the seal had a shield with six symbols; each symbol representing the six main countries that provided immigrants to the colonies: the rose (England), thistle (Scotland), harp (Ireland), fleur-de-lis (France), lion (Holland), and an imperial two-headed eagle (Germany).  Those six symbols were surrounded by thirteen smaller shields, which were to represent “the thirteen independent States of America.”  Of course, the “independence” of those states and the others to follow would greatly change with the new constitution of 1883.

The idea that a country not formed by, from or for any one ethnic group can exist without fracturing into hundreds of splintering self-interest groups is still being tested.  The United States and its people are still very much a democratic experiment in the making.  The strength of our union requires every citizen and local and state government to bow to higher ideals than self-interest.  This, in part, was the empowering force behind Abraham Lincoln’s administration and other leaders to seek to preserve the union with southern states who attempted to go their own way.

Even in many American churches, the unity of the church fellowship takes pre-eminence over selfish desires and goals. There is a desire on the part of the individual to be a part of something larger than just the small cosmic consciousness that the individual inhabits.  Becoming and being a part of a community of faith enlarges one’s life and capacity for living in and through the lives of others as believers pray, worship and serve together.  The essence of the Gospel and the Church’s theology is that the Creator, through His incarnation in His Son, Jesus, has come to bring true unity in human and divine relationships.  As the apostle Paul would have it, the enmity or hostilities created by cultures, languages, skin colors and offenses to God have been removed by the peace offering made by Jesus the Messiah on the cross.

So, we are not merely “pluribus” – many independent individuals or states of being seeking to find out own way. We are also “unum” – formed as Americans in our democracy to unite around those ideals that make us a unique light to the rest of the world.  We are a cosmic declaration that people from different parts of the world, with different skin colors, abiding by different religious convictions can not just merely co-exist but also become unified for the common good of each individual in its society to pursue life, liberty and happiness.  It was this very audacious and precarious idea that caused most of the America’s Founders and the truly wise and understanding today to constantly invoke the help and aid of Providence.  And so, it seems, as long as the help of heaven preserves our union and democracy, we will continue to be E Pluribus Unum.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Even before the founding of the United States of America, the question that bright minds have struggled with concerns the role of government in the life of the individual and the community. It is something that we are still trying to define today.  The answer really rests on one’s experiences in life and the attitudes that have been handed down.

Much of American life and culture is made up of the rugged settlers and individual entrepreneurs who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and earned their own success.  They left community, friends, and families behind to make it on their own.  As a result, their identity with a community is loosely based upon their individual fit in it.  If they come to a place where they do not feel they fit any more, they have no problem pulling up roots and moving – to a different job, a different community, a different church, etc.

These individuals came from families who left mother country and fatherland to start a new life in America. Then, they left comfortable lifestyles on the eastern seaboard of America to pioneer and settle the mid-west or start over in the gold rushes of the far west.  Later, their families left the family farms of the mid-west to find careers in the expanding industries and start-up companies on the west coast of the U.S.  There is a history of settlers, pioneers, adventurers, and entrepreneurs in this group.

Those that grew up in this cultural ethos tend to believe that government should leave the individual alone to do his or her best (or worst).  The role of government is largely relegated to ensuring the safety of the nation, the economic concerns of the nation on the international stage, and to provide, as much as is fairly possible, a level playing field for each individual or corporation to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. Individual rights are more important than governmental interests.  Big business and their CEO’s tend to be suspect only when they are perceived as being in cahoots with the government.  Otherwise, they are content to leave well enough alone.

These tend to be what has come to be referred to as “conservatives”. They are conservative about cultural and governmental changes.  As such, they tend to believe that less government is better government.  The settler, farmer, rancher, entrepreneur, business owner and anyone else who attained the American dream by their own hard work tend to be in this mix.  America has a long history of such individuals: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson (despite, among others, being a philosophical and social liberal), Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, Rutherford B. Hayes, Booker T. Washington, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Gerald R. Ford, and Ronald Reagan among others.  Of course, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt are also included in the conservative camp, but they also did much to expand the role and authority of the federal government.

On the other side of the discussion are those who have thrived and succeeded in the American dream not so much on their own rugged individualism as much as in cooperation with others. Many of these have been immigrants who came to America and settled in immigrant communities.  They survived the transition into a new life through the safety and cooperative spirit of that community.  Others of these have witnessed the success of cooperatives to better their lives, such as labor unions or social justice organizations.  They tended to gather in large cities and depended upon their smaller community within the context of the large metropolitan area to maintain identity and gain a measure of success and stability.

These tend to be what has become referred to as “liberals”. They are liberal about social and governmental changes.  As such, they tend to see that government is the promoter and prompter for social change on the individual and corporate level.  Whatever change is necessary to better the whole community is welcome.  They believe that government exists not only to guarantee a level playing field but also to guarantee, as much as is possible, that every individual succeeds and attains life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  America has a long history of such individuals:  John Adams (despite, among others, being a philosophical and social conservative), James Madison, Calvin Coolidge, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson,  and Jimmy Carter among others.

These are two distinct visions of America. For one group, government is the extension of the individual with representatives to carry out the interests of the individual.  For the other group, government is the extension of the whole community with representatives to carry out the interests of the whole community.  One sees a lone pioneer struggling to make it on his or her own.  Another sees a village working together for the survival and fulfillment of all of its members.  On one side of the aisle you have a group yelling, “Stay out of my way.  I can do it!”  Then, on the other side of the aisle you have a group screaming, “Together we can!”

Yellow Flowers in Seattle, Full Color, July 2003

Yellow Flowers in Seattle, Full Color, July 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

Which one is correct? This is part of the struggle surrounding the current health care reform debate.  Do we need government intervention and control?  Or, do we need to let the individuals and corporations of our society work it out in the market place?  Until then, who pays the price?  Is it better to have a government bureaucrat or committee deciding who and what is covered by insurance or to have a corporate lawyer and committee decide?  Both may hold power over the individual and make decisions that are life changing.   Are we better off allowing the abuses and responsibilities of  insurance and medical corporations to continue or should we entrust the government to do a better job?  Is the track record of government bureaucracies better than the track record of public or private corporations?  And this is only one issue our nation is struggling with among many.

The question that must be answered, and perhaps never will be answered in our current American cultural climate, is simply this:  What kind of community do we want to make as a nation?  Is community made up of  individuals in cooperation with one another based upon contractual agreements?  Or, is community made up of  individuals in responsibility for one another based upon larger responsibilities to the whole nation?

The question that must be answered in our religious communities is this: What does the gospel say concerning the care of the last, least, and lost among us?  What are the commands and injunctions given to us in the Old and New Testament concerning how we treat the oppressed, foreigner, and poor among us?  If we deny the government the responsibility to care for them then where are we in actively caring for them?  While we have built multi-million dollar campuses and facilities, what impact have they had upon caring for the poor and disenfranchised in our communities?  What portion of our church budgets go to help the poor, unemployed, disabled, hungry, sick and homeless in our own congregation or neighborhoods?  How much do the community churches support the local food bank, homeless shelter, free medical and counseling clinics, and pregnancy centers?

If the government is only a representative of the independent individuals of our society, then perhaps it is time for these individuals to own up to their moral responsibility and put up or shut up when it comes to donating time and money to help the less fortunate around them.   We are all our brother’s or sister’s keeper.  It is in our best interest to care for those in need around us.  For the religious, it is the essence of the gospel and our true identity with Christ.

On the other hand, if the government is an extension of community and community care to our whole society, then it is in everyone’s best interest that the government by the people, for the people, and of the people hears from the people.  For a community is more than just one, whether that one be the president, a senator or representative, a bureaucrat or corporate lawyer.  Likewise, “we” is more than just “me”.  Perhaps now would be good time to hear everyone say, “We can do this together!”  And for all the individuals to answer, “Count me in!”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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