Being a Citizen

Last night I did something that I have done on a Tuesday evening in January every year since fourth grade. I watched the State of the Union address. Back in fourth grade, my teacher Mrs. Harmon encouraged me to watch C-SPAN. Maybe she sensed that I cared about government and politics? Or maybe she had the foresight to see that I liked being engaged in the world? Whatever the case may be, I owe Mrs. Harmon a debt of gratitude for that encouragement early on.

The State of the Union Address
The State of the Union Address

I was struck by a few things in President Obama’s final State of the Union address, but what is sitting with me most now is his discussion about being a citizen and what it means to be a citizen. I agree with his focus on being engaged and to participate. I also agree with Governor Haley’s response in that we need to stop always talking and do more listening to one another. I think these are both crucial elements of citizenship. They are also elements of collaboration.

“Going it alone” in leadership hardly ever works, and it’s certainly not sustainable. I appreciate President Obama’s honesty and regret also that partisanship and divisiveness have only seemingly increased during his presidency. I don’t think this is his fault, and I also, interestingly enough don’t think this is necessarily Congress’ fault either. For whatever reason, we as a society have seemingly moved more to the extremes and lost sight of how to make our way across the proverbial aisle and meet someone we may not always agree with and work for the common good.

I have great hope in this country, and its people, my fellow citizens. My hope is that as we move forward, we’ll remember how to listen, cooperate, and collaborate with one another, those we agree with on much, and those we agree with on very little. I still believe that civil discourse can be just that, civil. And I also believe that it is well within our ability to talk and work as equals with different perspectives but a desire to make every one better and to increase opportunity. This is what leadership looks like, and what stewardship and responsibility look like. It’s also what I believe is at the heart of citizenship.

By calling oneself a citizen, one recognizes that they are not alone. It’s not all about the individual, though each individual matters. There is a sense of duty and responsibility. That’s what makes our society work, and our representative democracy function. When we lose sight of this, that’s when we really run into problems I think.

For me, being a citizen and being a neighbor are about working for the common good. The trick is being able to define what is meant by the common good. In terms of the United States, I would suggest a good starting place is ensuring the rights of the Bill of Rights for all people. From there, to flush that out further it would be wise to remember Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

For me being a citizen does not depend on one’s beliefs (or lack of belief) or particular faith (or absence of it).

My understanding of citizenship though is naturally shaped by my particular beliefs and faith understandings, however, and I admit that. I have hope in humanity. I know we’ll screw up, and sometimes make things worse. That’s a result of sin. But I also know, when we don’t try, engage, and work together towards the common good, that enables poverty, brokenness, fear, hate, and sin to fester and grow. I believe in both a now and not-yet sense of God’s kingdom, and believe that there are two kingdoms that we are a part of, the earthly one and the one that breaks-into the world and we see glimpses of. I believe we’re called to be engaged and live in both, and that is what guides me in my understanding of what the vocation of citizen looks like.

What does it mean to you to be a citizen? How do you see citizenship in action? 

Image Credit: State of the Union


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