Monday, May 30, 2016


"Memorial Day 2016"

Today is “Memorial Day” in America - a day to honor and remember those men and women who sacrificed their lives for the sake of the nation. Today I am reminded of something Law Professor, Stephen Carter said a while back in his book, Civility, in which he defined “civilization” as:

The sum of sacrifices made by citizens for the common good.

Professor Carter suggested that, if a nation is characterized by its “sacrificial” behavior, the willingness of individuals to give up or share something of their own good for the sake of the common good, the nation is civilized. If a society is characterized by an “every man for himself” mentality, the society is little more than an aggregate of barbarians” – a collection of individuals whose primary life-agenda is personal gain at the expense of everyone else.

The question I raise on this Memorial Day is, “Are we a civilized nation or have we slipped into barbarianism?”

As I think about it I rarely hear the word sacrifice used nowadays nor do I see an awful lot of sacrificial behavior. More and more people have become enamored with the idea of building walls to keep people out (especially people who are foreign or different) rather than building bridges to bring people in. Individual citizens have come to believe that “as long as “I” and my  circle of like-minded friends are happy and fulfilled that’s all that matters - and lets keep it that way.” The rich are getting rich, the poor are getting poorer, the strong are getting stronger as the weak are pushed more and more to the fringes, and respectful dialogue with others who may think differently than “me” is almost non-existent. It all sounds pretty “barbaric” to me.

A few months ago an editorial in the New York Times observed:

In many respects our nation has ruptured with civility.
The advent of digital communications has allowed us to engage
in consequence-free hostility,
hostile messages, abrupt emails and caustic online posts
have normalized an uglier and less empathic side of human behavior
and colored our politics and entertainment as well.

Last week I got in my car and traveled on a few of the many highways that lead up to Los Angeles.  While I like Los Angeles very much, driving up there is one of my least favorite things to do.

As I sit inside the isolation of my own individual automobile protected and surrounded by steel and glass, I find myself speeding along on a highway that is sometimes 8-lanes deep. Everyone in all the other cars are rather single-minded in their desire to get to their destination, often oblivious of any one else on the road. As we speed along at 70 or 80 miles an hour it is sometimes impossible to change lanes since many people speed up and beep their horns refusing to show the courtesy of letting you into their lane.  And even when the traffic is almost at a standstill (which happens often) other drivers cut in front of me so that they can be one car ahead on the mad rush to get to their destinations no matter what the cost.

As I drove along on the highways a few days ago, I wondered if this was perhaps the “icon” of life in 21st century America? When I ask if we are a civilized nation, a people willing to make sacrifices for the common good, I fear I may have an answer to my question and it isn’t the answer I was hoping for.

On this Memorial Day I do indeed honor those men and women who have made the sacrifice of their lives for the welfare of this country. I also hope and pray that we might all follow in their example of sacrificial living. Otherwise we are surely doomed as a civilization - barbarians never survive.

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said:

Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable.
Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice and struggle,
the tireless exertions and passionate concerns of dedicated individuals
who offer themselves for the good of others.

Such important wisdom to ponder on this Memorial Day!

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