Over the last few weeks as the “Occupy [Something]” protests have continued, I’ve read and listened to a lot of commentary. Some have tried to explain to us simpletons what these protesters really want, which sounds suspiciously like those commentators’ own political wish lists. Some have condemned the protesters as being immature mobs of young people and old 1960s wannabes, who are enjoying the time away from school or work (or boredom), and who are being manipulated by angry liberal organizations.
Regardless of whether any of this commentary accurately describes what is going on, I have to believe that somewhere out there today are some young people who really are distraught over the prospects for their future, and for our country’s future. It is for and with those young people that I want to start a conversation with this post—my letter to them.
No matter what you may have been told or been taught to this point about your country and your role as a citizen of America, you need to understand that you are the heirs to the most exceptional experiment in human history. Although people from different cultures had ventured to North America for centuries (and some stayed and developed what is now referred to as pre-Colombian cultures, and Viking settlements), about four hundred years ago Europeans—primarily, at that time, from England and the Netherlands—began sailing to this continent in groups and staying to form settlements. Their purpose was to extend a civilization, but their approach was so unique that it would create a wholly new society and culture. It is that unique society and culture—not the older societies and cultures of the peoples who had ventured to North America before that time (or some new, amorphous “global” culture)—that you are inheriting.
Before we go further, I want you to think about the enormity of the story I just summarized, because in today’s world it is hard to appreciate what crossing the ocean and starting over really meant to these settlers. Although there had been a handful of other examples of people leaving one place to settle and colonize a wholly new place, like the Phoenicians who settled ancient Carthage, what those early settlers did was more akin to sending people to the moon or to Mars today with the intent that they stay and never come back (though, through the marvel of communication satellites, even this analogy does not reflect the near-total isolation of the settlers). Yes, we would send future ships with more settlers and supplies, and yes they would take with them all the ideas and lessons they had learned from human history, but it would be left to them to create and nourish their own society.
And that’s precisely what those settlers from Europe did. From the early 1600s through 1789 (and thereafter), these settlers and their descendants took the language and ideas that had developed over a few thousand years of Western Civilization down through the great English and Scottish thinkers of the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries, and tried, in a real, sometimes brutal landscape, to start something new. They developed settlements and farms, then towns, and then cities with neighborhoods, based on the challenge articulated by St. Paul to accept the gift of liberty while balancing that liberty with the admonition to love your neighbor. It was the acceptance of liberty that made the new society a perfect place to apply the ideas of Richard Hooker, John Locke and Adam Smith to the real world, but with the appreciation that such ideas would only work if people conducted themselves in accordance with the Golden Rule while actively participating in the life of their communities. On those premises, congregations, civic organizations, schools and governments were formed; and declarations, laws and constitutions were written. It is the product of what these settlers and descendants created that attracted future waves of immigrants to want to be Americans.
My guess is that you have spent a lot of your time in school learning about the darker pages of the American story—about slavery and segregation, about the forced migration and re-settlement of Native Americans, about the struggle of women to obtain equal legal rights, and about the impact of our military engagements outside the U.S., just to name a few of those pages. Today, I think we can see that we are living during another dark page, because certain values had been abandoned and certain conduct was promoted, which were not consistent with either liberty or the Golden Rule.
But what I think you haven’t been taught is that it was through the struggle to meet the challenge articulated by St. Paul that each generation of Americans not only made profound mistakes, but then tried to correct them; and it is still upon those first principles that we must continue to face our demons as they emerge. It is in a re-commitment to that struggle, not in an abandonment of it for something “old” or something “new,” that we will fix our present problems. It is the struggle to face St. Paul’s challenge that forms the core of the experiment you are inheriting, and it’s your obligation to continue that experiment, improve upon it, and pass it on to future generations—not to destroy it.
And some ideas and approaches, if adopted, would destroy this experiment. There is a strong tendency among all societies that have ever existed to defer the organization and management of society to those who profess or pretend to have all the answers. It is in acquiescence to the dreams of these elites that men and women have chosen not to accept liberty with all of its difficult choices, rights and obligations; and instead, have chosen to be left alone to enjoy their passions and their pleasures. No society has long survived that has made this trade-off—whether it has been a deferral to pharaohs or Pharisees, monarchs or Mandarins, Nazis or Communists, this trade-off never ends well for the citizen. The experiment you are inheriting was designed specifically to create the antithesis of this age-old tendency toward elite control, and to preserve the struggle to meet St. Paul’s challenge—to accept liberty, but live by the Golden Rule—as the birthright of each citizen to pursue throughout life.
Don’t follow the easy temptation of the age-old tendency (in what ever form it emerges) to abandon the experiment you are being given. If all you do is protest and parrot the slogans of today’s Mandarin’s, you may pave the way to destroying this experiment—“the last, best hope of earth.” Instead, accept your birthright, and join the struggle to accept liberty while actively living by the Golden Rule—and demand that your fellow citizens re-commit to the experiment, too. Participate in life, don’t just go off by yourself and play with your iPad. Participate by getting a job or creating a business that creates jobs for others; by starting a family and raising children; by joining a civic organization or congregation to build your community; by volunteering to mentor or tutor a child in your neighborhood; and/or by joining a political party and working for candidates who agree with you desires for a better future.
In the end, if all you do is protest, you will allow yourself to be used as a pawn in someone else’s effort to control your future and this country’s future. But, if you participate in the life of your community and your country, you will continue the experiment by which you and your neighbors control the future—and preserve what is exceptional about America.