The title of this inspirational reflection is not a word I particularly like or use very often. Basically, I like words and I understand the word, citizenship. Not particularly liking the word does not make me anti-American. In fact, I am very cognizant and appreciative of what it means to be an American. I think anyone who lives abroad, as I have on multiple occasions, comes to appreciate this country and what it does for us.
I gladly participate in all the things expected of being an American. I always vote, always pay taxes, support school levies in order to help the young ones in the way I feel like I was privileged. I support fire and police levies and more money for the library. In this age of the internet, I don’t go to libraries like I used to, but I watch my grandkids make immense use of the library. They love to go there, to find age-appropriate opportunities for learning and to have librarians care about their growth. How much money is that worth? Quite a bit, I say.
I had not thought much about citizenship, except occasionally when my colleague at my university mentions it when she talks about the course she is teaching. She actually teaches a course on citizenship. I certainly don’t oppose that, but I am glad she is the one teaching it.
My benign neglect of citizenship was brought up short by a recent article by David Brooks, whom I often use because of his insight. Brooks wrote an incisive essay on paying taxes and citizenship. In a rather artful way he uses these two ideas to portray two approaches to being an American. Brooks says, “You can be a taxpayer or you can be a citizen.”
Brooks goes on to define how he sees the taxpayer. He claims, “If you’re a taxpayer your role in the country is defined by your economic and legal status. Your primary identity is individual. You’re perfectly within your rights to do everything you legally can to look after your self-interest.” I know many Americans who look at it exactly this way. No doubt, I have taken this approach in the past. It is difficult not to operate first from self-interest. If Brooks had not introduced the other model, it would be tempting to say, “Yep, that’s the way it is.”
Brooks contrasts the taxpayer model with the citizenship model. I was fascinated how he characterized it. “The older citizenship mentality is a different mentality. It starts with the warm glow of love of country. It continues with a sense of sweet gratitude that the founders of the country, for all their flaws, were able to craft a structure of government that is suppler and more lasting than anything we seem to be able to craft today.”
I think Brooks is on to something. In a sense he is positing what I would call a “community model” to contrast the “individual model” of the taxpayer. I suddenly realize I actually prefer the language of “community” to citizenship. But maybe it is merely semantics. The community model actually puts the community ahead of the individual. We trump me. In this community model self-interest is surely present. To deny it would be illusory. But self-interest starts with community and then works back to what’s best for me.
When we put it this way, it is easy to understand why the taxpayer models appeals to so many of us. In routine ways we generally are not ready to start with self-sacrifice. Instead, we tacitly proclaim: let’s start with me! The individual model begins with “me” and works toward the “we.” It’s not illegal and, in that sense, wrong. But it tends not to build up the community. Brooks is blunt when he says operating with the individual model “shuts down a piece of your heart, and most of your moral sentiments.”
I know that I prefer the community model. I know it asks me not to put myself first and I know that is not easy. If I put it in old theological language, to put the community first goes against my sinful nature. Psychologically, we often are fearful if we proceed with the community model, I won’t get what is mine---or I’ll pay a bigger price than others. If we are driven by fear, community won’t work.
I have seen the community model work well in three instances: churches, teams and in a crisis. Whether we can take it to the national and global level remains to be seen. I hope so. And finally, I don’t care whether we call it citizenship or community. Labeling it is easy; living it is hard. And we will do it together or we won’t do it at all.
In the end I do believe it is a spiritual issue. It is an issue of faith, justice and love. Again those are easy words to use, but difficult virtues from which to live and act. But if we don’t, it is a sadder and poorer world.