(My column for July…)
Readers might be aware that I volunteer with the Wayne County Creative Arts Council, which sponsors a series of concerts in Honesdale’s Central Park every summer. (You can get more information about this year’s series at www.honesdaleparkevents.org, or by checking us out on Facebook.) One of the most popular events every year is the appearance by our community chorus, the Wayne Choralaires, and this year’s performance on June 25 was no exception. The varied and well-executed program, which brought the crowd to a standing ovation at the end, featured a number of time-honored tunes celebrating America and summertime. There were also quite a few classic hymns and religious songs, reflecting new director Betsy Black’s background in church music.
The first act closer, a contemporary religious/patriotic song called “Under God,” written by Sue C. Smith and Phil Johnson, caught my attention in particular – not because of the performance, which was as technically excellent as the rest of the program, but because of the lyrics, which I found quite challenging to contemplate. (You can find the lyrics at http://christiansongoftheday.blogspot.com/2010/05/under-god.html, by the way.)
The song’s title refers to the introduction of the phrase “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance back in 1954. (The original wording, written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister and a socialist, makes no mention of the Divine.) The lyrics reflect a idea common among many contemporary American Christians, that our place in the world, including our material prosperity, is a mark of Divine favor, given in return for our national devotion.
I start to feel a little fidgety when religion and nationalism get too closely conflated – but exploring that relationship would yield fodder for a year of columns. Let me rather focus for the moment on the specific lyric that brought me up short:
America’s been blessed
Brought through every trial and test
We are sheltered by the mercy He chose to give
In privilege and abundance this nation lives
I think I know what the songwriters intended when they wrote “in privilege and abundance,” but I don’t think they thought those words, or their implications, through nearly far enough.
“Privilege and abundance”? Really?
My immediate reaction was to think of how many citizens of this country have neither privilege nor abundance – whether they’re believers or not – but labor within a system that is, shall we say, not always designed to function in their best interests. I also couldn’t help but consider how much of our “abundance” has been the result, not of Divine largesse, but of some pretty un-Christian behavior on the part of our forebears towards both the indigenous and the imported peoples whose land and labors were so inappropriately appropriated.
The word “privilege” itself is a two-edged sword. While the songwriters might have intended to stress how fortunate America as a whole has been compared to the rest of the world, the word (which means “private law,” after all) can also imply a certain sense of entitlement, even a smug kind of pride, tempting us to entertain an overly inflated image of ourselves.
I have heard it said that to have a healthy self-image is “to see yourself as God sees you – neither more nor less.” National humility may not seem like a quality to cultivate during this patriotic time of year, but I would think that it would be a hallmark of a nation that was striving to present itself as “under God.”