Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Still Beautiful?

Last Sunday, in honor of Independence Day, we concluded our church service by singing the old patriotic hymn "America." You know the words:
O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

O beautiful for heroes proved In liberating strife.
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!
I'm a sentimental guy and I admit that even under normal circumstances I have always found it hard to sing this song without being moved. Now, unfortunately, I can barely get through it. In today's America, the tone of wistful idealism in the lyrics has become tragic.

"Crown thy good with brotherhood": The idea is that, of the many blessings we as Americans might enjoy, the greatest--the crown of all--would be brotherhood. Not wealth, not might, not fame, but brotherhood. How many Americans today feel this way? Judging by our actions, not many.

"Heroes proved in liberating strife/Who more than self their country loved/And mercy more than life": Imagine, we once revered heroes who loved mercy more than life itself. Whereas today we elect to the highest offices swaggering cowards who tell us that, to protect our lives, we must treat anyone we deem an enemy with utter mercilessness.

"Thine alabaster cities gleam/Undimmed by human tears": Our cities gleam, all right. But who still dreams the dream of a civilization free of human suffering? The dream today is of cities where the toughest thrive and rest survive, if at all, merely to serve them.

In a country where flags and eagles and the rhetoric of patriotism are more dominant than ever, how sad that Katharine Lee Bates's vision of a humane America hangs in tatters.

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