Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Oath

On May 19th I went down to the Federal Court House and became a US citizen. Instead of God Bless America the Spirit of Syracuse women crooners should have been hitting Subterranean Homesick Blues, Dylan's caustic rap on being American and young in the sixties. That song, and others like it, shaped how I felt about the US back in the day, and would have made a much better soundtrack to the occasion. I always imagined myself right there with Dylan ducking between some crooked Cold War spy and a frontier-scout dealing who-knows-what, all the while hounded by a guilty sense of fate. Coming now to America for real, was I still dodging destiny or was it truly an offer of something new?

Johnny’s in the basement
Mixing up the medicine
I’m on the pavement
Thinking about the government
The man in the trench coat
Badge out, laid off
Says he’s got a bad cough
Wants to get it paid off
Look out kid
It’s somethin’ you did
God knows when
But you’re doin’ it again
You better duck down the alley way
Lookin’ for a new friend
The man in the coon-skin cap
By the big pen
Wants eleven dollar bills
You only got ten

I stood there with all the other immigrants (thirty odd from twenty one nations, places as diverse and distant as Uzbekistan and Argentina) pledging my allegiance to the flag and the United States which it signifies. I had done my best to condition my oath to an intentional lifestyle of nonviolence and, fair enough, the federal officer at the interview had accepted, without skipping a beat, the conscientious refusal to bear arms. But the oath continued... "to perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law," and I had agreed to that. At the time I felt "noncombatant" was the key word which allowed me to go along in conscience. But this morning it struck me, there in front of the judge and the flag, that I was pledging myself to a nation that saw itself for ever and always on the brink of war. Nothing about pledging yourself to peace or the welfare of your fellow human being.....

Through my twenties the US was in Vietnam. It seemed that war went on for ever. I identified with the students at the time who saw the far eastern engagement as a piece of brutal militarism in the cause of capitalism, waged against Vietnamese peasants who wished simply to live and work in a country governed by themselves. Plus it seemed that many young Americans felt they had no stake in the fight and wanted out. It always seemed the young people were the good guys on both sides of the big pond.

But then we were all getting older and the Cold War shifted focus from the far east to Afghanistan and the build up of nuclear weapons in Europe. Even though it seemed anti-war had been victorious in response to Vietnam the battlefield had simply morphed and moved location, and the dangers had become more acute and terrible. Thatcher and Reagan were remaking the world economically and politically and the voice of protest seemed effectively neutered. It was more or less at that time that my own life changed dramatically and, as I concentrated on survival, "Power to the People" sounded like nothing so much as on old hippie rant....

I would dream about far away places. I would go constantly on these dream trips up through the mountains, or on a long train journey, but I never thought it would be the USA. Essentially I was trying to get away from a previous life, and any place would have done. Yet it was the USA it turned out to be.

And, of course, that makes sense. The USA is the single most evident place in the world where people who wish to start over have sought to come. America is the place where the whole Western world started over back in the sixteenth century and it's been rebooting the universe every since. I really am grateful to get to be a part of this country and its immense sense of possibility. But pledging allegiance, especially with all those references to arms, well it doesn't sit easy, and, in point of fact, what private personal sense can it have?

So I have to say for the sake of self, and any integrity I might claim, that when I made the pledge I did so in a way that went deeper than militarism, far deeper. As a kind of apologia to the past and promise to the future here then is what I do mean.

I do not pledge loyalty to the US in the Enlightenment sense that supposedly moved the framers of the constitution, the belief in effortless rationality, in self evident truths. Neither do I do so in the popularly believed frontier sense, the manifest destiny to conquer all that stands in the way, leaving no stone unturned.or enemy unconquered. Nor at all did I do it in the Holywood movie sense, of the belief that anyone with half a brain and willingness to work hard can become as rich as Bill Gates..

I take the oath of loyalty to the USA in a sense which I believe underpins all these expressions of human self-projection. I am committing myself to something which in fact gives life and breath to the whole exceptionalist and expansionist mood even as it is almost completely unrecognized and constantly distorted and disfigured by it. What is at work in America is the spirit of deep freedom and boundless possibility communicated by the Christian gospel and instilled in the veins of Western culture. There are two things that can push men and women out into the unknown. One is greed for conquest and the other is faith and hope. And the third is a profoundly muddied mixture of the two.

This last state is what characterizes the US and its history but that should not blind us to the authentic presence of the gospel in the mix. Pledging myself to the US is really pledging myself to the work of the gospel in human culture. It means promising myself (with apologies to Dylan) to a "subterranean life-quick news" that knows no ultimate boundaries of state or race, of politics or party, of pride or past. For me the US is the land of Holywood in the core sense of imagination, the land of fluid and constantly re-envisioned self-image. It is the place where a dynamic idea can take hold and sweep all before it, and that is so because the most dynamic idea of all---of God-made-flesh--is at the root of its borderless self- meaning. The US is a long difficult work of human transformation. Ranged against its positive outcome are all the risks of wealth and war, of paranoia and anger, and now in addition climate change and environmental breakdown. But the boundless horizons of the US are encompassed finally in one world because they are radically shaped by the hope and love of the gospel.

I am o.k. to take this oath, therefore, because it is a spiritual error waiting to correct itself (which is par for the course for just about any other oath I have taken). All our words, just like the whole earth, are under the long slow arc of divine possibility and one day that one great Word will make all those other, lesser ones true. "Look out kid. It’s somethin’ you did. God knows when, but you’re doin’ it again!"

Tony Bartlett

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