Things I Don’t Understand: When America Was Righteous (Part 3 of 3)

Homeless Child

In Part One, I broke down how no era, no decade in American history could really be referred to as “righteous.”  In Part Two, I spoke about the information overload that destroys our ability to not know about the evil the world, and how it pushes us to yearn for a simpler, more sheltered time.

I really think that’s the main emotional and psychological driver behind the “return to a more righteous time” meme.  But I’m being charitable here.  If I were being cynical, I’d say it’s just that people are angry at cussing on TV, and at “the gays.”  Kids these days!  Get off my lawn!

The truth is, even yearning for a simpler time is callous an inhumane. I can’t condone yearning for a simpler time, when respectable white people could be sheltered from the suffering of the brown folk.  Suffering that was often caused by  the respectable white folk.  “Eat your food: there are children starving in Africa.”  And African-Americans like Emmett Till getting lynched in America.

If our national morality rests on Mayberry RFD and stopping gay marriage, then we’ve already failed.   If our hope rests on  turning back the clock to a time when we could pretend we weren’t living in a fallen, broken, needy world, we’ve really failed. There’s a world out there that’s crying out in need.

For the price of dinner for two at Olive Garden, you could provide mosquito netting or school supplies that could mean everything to a child in Sri Lanka or sub-Saharan Africa.

If you want to make America a moral nation again, think of someone other than yourself .  Go to Worldvision and donate – sponsor a child or give a one-time gift to buy seeds, mosquito netting, school supplies, medical help, whatever.  Then go to Kiva and make micro-loans to help build businesses in the poorest countries, to build up their wealth and infrastructure so (in time) they won’t need our donations.

Your vote won’t make America a righteous nation again.  It can’t.  America has never been a righteous nation.  We’ve never been the hope of the world, the city on the hill.  Jesus is the hope of the world.

At our best, America has been an example to the world.  Our constitution with its bill of rights, freedom of conscience, and representative government gave birth to the modern democracy.  Nations across the world have followed in our footsteps, and been much better for it.  But remember, when the revolution was won and the constitution written, it only applied to white men.

 

It’s true that America’s been the world’s police officer, stopping rogue states and defending weaker nations from aggression.  Stepping up to fight the Nazis during WW2 was not only necessary, it was virtuous.  But even then, our soldiers were segregated, and thousands of Japanese were imprisoned without trial or charges, just because of their race.  We may do righteous things as a nation, but we are not a righteous nation.

America is and has been a great nation, an exceptional nation, but we’ve never been a righteous nation.  No nation ever has.  Even ancient Israel wasn’t.  They failed God time and time again, turning to pagan gods that demanded terrible sacrifices.  Solomon, that great wise king, enslaved foreigners to built God’s temple [2 Chron 2:17-18].  He sank to the level of the Pharaohs who’d enslaved Israel just a few centuries earlier.

Our nation runs on money and power, like every other nation in history.  The kingdom of God runs on faith, hope, and active, self-sacrificing love.  The best we can hope for is – as Christians, individually, and together – to be instruments of God’s grace and mercy within our nation, and beyond.

We can use our unearned favor, the wealth and power we have as Americans, to help those who suffer in abject poverty every day.  Whole families’ lives could be radically changed for the price of our cable TV fees.  We can use our time to reach out to our neighbors – our literal neighbors, not the circle of friends we have because they’re just like us.  We can take risks and build relationships with people who think differently than we do, look different, vote for the other side, are different ages, religions, and races.  We can try to love the world as Jesus loves us.

Maybe, just maybe, if we do all that, the world will look at us and say, “Hey, those Americans, they’re not so bad.  They actually take care of each other.  They even help the poorest of the poor, people who can’t pay them back.  I guess those Starbucks-drinking, McDonalds-eating, Wal-Mart-shopping folks maybe they are onto something.”

If we’re really lucky, they’ll say that about us as Christians.  No matter who you vote for, your vote won’t glorify God.  But your actions can.  Where your treasure is, there your heart is also [Matthew 6:21].  Will you put your treasure in the ballot box?  Will you store it in an idealized and inaccurate view of the past? Or will you give it to those who need it most?

The choice is yours.

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Things I Don’t Understand – When America Was Righteous (Part 2 of 3)

Howdy Doody display.  Photo by Volkan Yuksel, Creative Commons

Howdy Doody display. Photo by Volkan Yuksel, Creative Commons

In Part 1 I deconstructed American history, briefly giving reasons why no decade could really be considered a time when America was “righteous.”  Today, I want to know why the “recapturing our more righteous past” and “moral decline” memes persist.  Why are they so powerful?  Do we really think there was a time of real goodness and Christlikeness in our nation’s past?

I think I can answer that.  When I was a child, when the Internet was just a tool for scientists and military techs, the world really was simpler.  I was a white, upper-middle class, heterosexual, boy from the dominant religion (Protestant).

I had the great outdoors, my toys, my friends, a lot of books, and three TV channels (ABC, PBS, and a  UHF station that later picked up the FOX programming, but mostly showed Star Trek, The Three Stooges, and black and white westerns).  If the weather was perfect, we might get CBS or even NBC, but generally not long enough to watch an entire show.  And on those five channels, the rules were strict.  MASH was about as risqué as it got.  I hardly even knew any swear words until elementary school.

I never thought of it as that idyllic – I was an only child with a high IQ and mediocre social skills.  On the first day of first grade I asked the teacher why Great Britain was apologizing to the Falkland Islands when they’d started the whole thing.  Not a question she was expecting, and not one that endeared me to my classmates.

I remember childhood as fighting bullies (almost constantly) and worrying about inflation, terrorism, and the waning Soviet Union.  I knew far too early that Mommy and Daddy couldn’t stop the bad guys.

But I was the exception.  Most of my friends and acquaintances weren’t only children.  They had brothers and nearby cousins to socialize them early.  Likewise, they didn’t notice world events, didn’t feel the Sword of Damocles that was the Cold War.  They were sheltered.

My parents’ generation?  While they were playing with their dolls in 1955, Emmett Till, a black child not much older than they were, was being lynched for talking to a white woman.  But they were sheltered.  They were children.  Their world was innocent, and they didn’t know.

And today?  Today the Internet brings massive amounts of information, both good and bad.  I still remember a man telling me that his grandson had been looking at Internet porn, and how shocked he was at the content (he found out because his computer got a bad virus, and the computer repairman told him.  I guess computers get STDs, too).

He said that boys of a certain age will want to know about the opposite sex, to find out what they don’t know, so to speak.  But that in his day they might find a Playboy with some nudity, but not full video of graphic (and sometimes really rough, demeaning) sex acts.  So in the past, even in adolescent transgressing, we were sheltered.

That shelter is gone.  And the danger, especially from pornography, has multiplied tenfold.  I won’t argue against that at all.  Kids can easily find ways to get into much more damaging trouble that they could even twenty years ago.

Information overload has made it hard for us to believe in the things that are going well.  Sure, here in America we have our lowest violent crime rate in 40 years and our lowest abortion rate in 20 years.  But we hear about everything, every crime that’s flashy enough to be newsworthy is played and replayed endlessly.  And it feeds our fear, creates a moral crisis.  Something has to be done!  But crime rates have been falling for 20 years, why don’t we keep doing what we’re doing, and watch them keep falling?

Another thing the flood of information has done has made it much harder to pretend that just because things are going well for you, that they’re going well for everyone.  Now we know, thanks to the Internet and media, about all the suffering in Africa, in Asia, in the Middle East.  We know about eleven year old girls facing execution for “blasphemy,” and nine year old brides.  We know about brutal crackdowns on peaceful demonstrations in Syria and Iran.  We know about “vanishings” and torture and terrible things even our own government has done.

We know, if we bother to look, that the factories preparing our food torture the animals mercilessly, confining pigs in cages they can’t even turn around in, and leaving them there all their lives, cramming chickens in, stacked on top of each other, fed a constant diet of antibiotics to keep them alive.

A half dozen huge corporations get over 80% of all farm subsidies, and they treat their livestock horribly.  The proof is not for the faint of heart.   This includes a video that is definitely not for the faint of heart.

And we know that children whose parents live on $2,500 a year (less than I make in a month – not our household income, just my paycheck) struggle to find fresh water, die of malaria or dengue fever because of mosquitoes that merely annoy us here, and, if they live, end up as child brides, prostitutes, or slaves working to gather the cocoa that feeds our sweet tooth.

Meanwhile, we live in unearned wealth, granted by the good fortune of being born in the industrialized world instead of the developing world.

So, yeah, the fallen-ness of our world hits us like a jackhammer now.  We can’t sit, shielded by our white, wealthy, American privilege, immune to the pain of a suffering world.  Well, we can, but we have to actively tune it out, harden our hearts like Pharaoh, and lash out in anger at anyone who breaks the illusion.  It’s a defense mechanism, true, but it’s not one that our faith allows us.  Matthew 25 tells the story.  Are we Christ’s lambs, or the world’s goats?

On the other hand, it could just be that people are angry at cussing on TV and the gays.

Things I Don’t Understand: When America Was Righteous (Part 1 of 3)

Signers of the Constitution by Howard Chandler Christy

Signers of the Constitution by Howard Chandler Christy, 1940

I hear a lot of people talk about America’s moral decline.  There’s a real sense of lost innocence and yearning for a (morally) better time.  I even hear that America was once a Christian nation.  As a student of history, I’m wondering when? 

When Was America Righteous?

(Bear with me.  This next part may sound harsh, but I promise, I’m going to be kind again soon)

At its founding, when chattel slavery was written into the Constitution?

During its expansion, when American armies slaughtered thousands of indigenous people in the name of Manifest Destiny?

After the Civil War, when the Ku Klux Klan rode across the south, terrorizing and freed men who tried to vote or learn to read?  When the sharecropper system substituted economic slavery for legal?

During the Gilded Age, when monopolies like Carnegie Steel and Rockefeller’s Standard Oil and massive political machines bought and sold laws?  When immigrants and workers in unsafe factories, when children worked twelve hour days in mines?  When the U.S. Navy was sent to Latin America to defend the interests of American corporations?

During World War I, when a generation of young men was sent to die for England in a war we had no share in?  When those who opposed the war openly were jailed?  When we let England and France force Germany into a peace treaty so odious it set the stage for Nazi rule and World War II?

During the “Roaring Twenties,” the time of the flappers and speakeasies, when organized crime rose to heights never seen before, setting the stage for fifty years of American mafia?

During the Depression, when national relief efforts openly discriminated against minorities, when the Ku Klux Klan resurfaced, when Jim Crow ruled the South?

During World War II, when Italian-, German-, and Japanese-Americans were imprisoned for the crime of their ethnicity?

During the fifties, the age of Ozzie and Harriett, Emmett Till, and the bombing of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s home?  When Governor Orval Faubus uses the National Guard to block the integration of Little Rock High School?

Maybe the sixties, with the Viet Nam war, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy, and John F. Kennedy?

Or the seventies?  Watergate, Viet Nam, the drug war?  The days of disco and tearoom trades?

Was it the eighties?  “Greed is good?”  “Cocaine parties?” Iran-Contra?  “Just Say No” and the crack epidemic?  Well, we did have Republican Presidents, so maybe that was it?

The nineties?  Surely not.  Gangsta Rap.  Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinski.  The birth of Internet pornography…

Well, that brings us to the 21st century.

The point here is not to be sarcastic, or to be unpatriotic.  I truly believe America is a great nation, even an exceptional nation.  But we have never been a righteous nation.  Nations run on power and money, and we all know that nobody can serve two masters [Matthew 6:24].  Maybe that’s why God was so reluctant to give Israel a king [1 Samuel ch. 8].

As Americans, we can be righteous and merciful.  We can steer our nation to be more godly, to sow peace and life, rather than greed and death.  But we should never forget that we are a nation of power and wealth, like all other nations (including Israel, ancient and modern).  We should never forget that America is not the hope of the world.  Jesus is.

 

 

(In part two, I’ll give my theories as to why the “America’s righteous past” meme is so persistent and powerful.)