Monday, May 26, 2014

Civilized People

"Liberty and Justice for All"

A few years back I gave a sermon at a wedding, suggesting that the success and longevity of any marriage is marked by the degree to which the couple are willing to "make sacrifices" for one another's welfare. Marriages are most successful when couples focus on what they can give to and not what they can get out of the relationship. 

I actually thought that what I was saying about marriages was "common sense." That's why I was so surprised and even shocked by some of the comments and questions raised at the reception after the ceremony. A number of people (especially younger people)  came up to me and told me that they never thought about marriage like that before. In fact the very use of the word "sacrifice" was pretty foreign-rarely used in everyday conversations. 

I suppose that shouldn't have surprised me all that much. After all, much of today's popular culture is fairly self-centered. Personal gratification and self satisfaction are very highly prized in today's society. At best, everyday life becomes somewhat of a negotiation process -relationships with others (even marriage) are a "50/50 proposition" in which "I'll do good for you in exchange for you doing the same (or better) good for me."  We live in a culture where happiness is promised to those who have the most; and those who have the most often show very little concern for those who have the least.

The idea of making sacrifices for others, focusing on the welfare of another without negotiating how it will benefit my own personal gratification is a rather foreign idea for lots of people today. 

Today is Memorial Day in America- a day on which we remember the "sacrifices" made by those who have fought in the nation's wars.  Today also affords me an opportunity to reflect on the "sacrifices"  all civilized people everywhere are called to make. 

Several years ago Yale Law Professor, Stephen Carter, wrote a book in which he raised a question about what it is that makes any nation "civilized." He concluded that "civilization" is characterized by:

The sum of sacrifices for the common good.

In a civilized nation, the flow of life is not inward with the goal of self-interest and self-satisfaction in mind. In a civilized nation, the flow of life is "outward" with the welfare of the common good in mind, and individual citizens sacrifice their own personal needs in order to achieve that goal. 

To the degree that citizens live sacrificially, the nation is civilized. To the degree that citizens are unwilling to be concerned for the welfare of others, the nation is little more than a collection of barbarians.

On this day, many American citizens will look to a flag and pledge allegiance to a nation of "Liberty and justice for ALL." I think this is a noble pledge for any civilized people anywhere. And yet I am also reminded of something Martin Luther King Jr. once said:

Human progress is neither automatic or inevitable.
Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice.

Memorial Day is a good day for Americans and for citizens of all nations to reflect on how civilized  they are. The lesson of history is that "barbarians" never survive the test of time.  

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