On Being American

I believe this is my fifth Independence Day outside the United States. I always miss the fireworks when I’m away. And even though I haven’t lived at home in years and years, I still remember fondly the 4th of July breakfast my church always hosted early on Independence Day morning. We would raise the flag, sing the National Anthem, listen to some inspirational speeches (they seemed kind of long when you were a kid and hadn’t had breakfast yet), and then eat pancakes! One year I came home from college for the summer and was asked to give one of those speeches. I can’t remember what I said, and I’m sure the hungry kids weren’t listening anyway. But here’s what I might say if they asked me to speak today:

Living outside the U.S. gives extra depth to my perception of being an American. Things always look different from the outside. Somehow, both the beauties and the flaws seem magnified when seen from afar. And the United States of America is a beautiful country. The hymn and the pictures say it best. I’ve lived abroad in comparatively small countries. When I remember home, I remember the vastness of everything: those long empty miles between California and Utah, the towering redwoods, the endless fields of ripening corn, and the cities that go on forever. Even the sea seems somehow larger there.

The shadow we cast over the world is equally vast. Both our mistakes and our successes have a major impact not only on our domestic life, but on the lives of billions of people worldwide. As the most powerful country in the world, we have the potential to be an amazing force for good. Our diplomatic and military capabilities lend us great influence even in distant corners of the world. Our economic success provides us with extensive resources to ease disasters and crises in less fortunate countries. And our cultural tradition of individual initiative empowers us to reach out on a grassroots level to touch our brothers and sisters in far-flung lands.

As a nation of immigrants, we have roots in every nation on earth. On this Independence Day the greatness and power of our nation should inspire in us not only pride, but gratitude; and recognition of the extraordinary responsibility that comes with it. Our very power makes us accountable to the whole world, and not just to ourselves. As we vote, make choices, and lead our lives, we must be concerned for the welfare not only of American citizens, but for all citizens of planet earth. We can no longer tend to our national garden while leaving the rest of the world unwatered. Ordinary people all over the world look to our country in fear, in longing, or in hope. How can we ensure that the power and plenty we have been given blesses not only us, but the rest of the human race? What can we do as a nation and as individuals to make the future brighter not only for our children, but for the children of the world?

History tells us that world powers come and go. What will we do with our time in the sun?

May God bless us with the wisdom to bear well the burden of our power. May he give us the understanding to embrace the humanity we share with people everywhere. And may he grant us the compassion to use the abundance we have to better the world, and leave a legacy of hope and healing that will last forever.

In the words of the hymn,

America! America!
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness,
And ev’ry gain divine.

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