On this Independence Day Weekend, I’m pondering the necessary tension between independence and interdependence. It’s a tension which the Apostle Paul described, as I mentioned yesterday, in Galatians 6: “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ . . . All must carry their own loads.”
Both things are true: There are time when all of us need help; we are, even the strongest among us, inescapably interdependent. It's also the case that we may and we must take responsibility for ourselves; there are ways in which we are irreducibly independent.
In the April 2009 issue of Harper’s Magazine, essayist Garret Keizer said that Paul’s “dual admonition to bear one another's burdens and to bear one's own burden” points toward both “self-reliance and social responsibility”—“the Republican heart and the Democratic heart in their purest forms.” Getting the balance between them right is, as he said, “the crux of any sustainable community. Neither value makes sense without the other, nor can it be fulfilled without the other. The trick is to get them to kiss. The trick is to create a society in which the privilege of disposable income is not contingent on the existence of disposable people.” This, he said, is “the primary task of any mature politics.” It depends, to a great extent, on leaders who will actually listen to “the people they supposedly represent.”
Part of discerning which burdens people can carry for themselves and which they need our help to carry is knowing them well enough to see them compassionately and realistically.
So, social and political leaders should know about the real-world challenges which the owners and managers of companies, corporations and family firms face: global competition, skittish and demanding investors, and a complex regulatory environment.
But it’s not enough for leaders to listen to those who are in charge. They also must take the time and care time to understand the struggles of the poor, the dreams of the dispossessed, and the hopes of the marginalized.
If our leaders don’t listen to those on the bottom and the edges of our society, they will make a mess of things, because they will have failed to do what love demands we all do: get involved in the hard and perplexing details of other people’s lives, including the lives of the poor, before making rules, policies, and statements which affect them.
We’ll hear a lot over the next few days about patriotism, and it is right that we will. At its roots, the word means love “for the homeland,” or “for the place.” Real love is never merely abstract and conceptual; it is concrete and particular.
So, to be a genuine patriot is to love the land itself—to care for it as a steward, to use its resources in a sustainable way, and to pass along a healthy and beautiful “place” to succeeding generations.
Patriotism also means wisely and graciously to love one’s fellow citizens. I wonder what our nation would be like if our leaders had love for its people as their deepest motivation. Not power over them. Not ambition to be acclaimed by them. Not greed to profit from them. Love for them: the kind of love which challenges people to be as independent as each can be, but which also provides consistent help when people can’t stand alone and on their own.
And what if, in addition to grilling hot dogs, churning ice cream and enjoying fireworks, all of us celebrated America by resolving to love our neighbors—all of them, including those who are strangers to us?