When I lived in Emporia, Kansas, the week of Veterans Day was always one of the highlights of the year. During the week-long celebrations, all of us would be reminded that we owed our veterans three basic things:
1) To care for the veterans we already have.
2) To create as few additional veterans of war and conflict as possible.
3) To take the nation they protected and continue to make it something special.
The first point continues to fuel many a speech and editorial, often with a nod to the needs of the aging VA hospital system. The second remains a common desire for those in and out of uniform, especially after this country spent so many years fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But with Election Day now falling into the rear-view mirror, maybe the final item is worth looking at once more. What kind of America are we building?
I know, we’re all sick to death of campaign speeches. And campaign mailers. And television ads. And telephone surveys that ask for “just a few moments of our time.” (As my old math teachers might have said, “a few” times several calls per day equals “a LOT.”) This isn’t meant to join that particular chorus, and I think all of you might run me out of town if I tried, after dipping me in tar, feathers, and a burning copy of the film from the last Oakland Raiders game.
But the fact is, there’s still a job ahead of us.
True, the most basic job is done. And many of us tend to think of voting as the greatest duty we owe our country, to fill in the bubbles, drop off our ballots, and then either cheer or curse at the results before getting on with our lives.
But it doesn’t stop there. It never did. It’s a necessary first step, but there’s a lot of staircase left to climb.
Yes, we’ve chosen our leaders. Yes, they can make choices that help or hurt a lot of us. But most of what this nation can be is on us.
Do we lift up the weak or chase them from our doorstep?
Do we greet our neighbors with love and acceptance or with jeers and mockery? Do we even know our neighbors when we see them?
Do we carefully watch the steps of those we’ve elected and call them to task when they need reminding? Or do we just hand them the keys and go back to sleep?
Do we look for ways to build, to welcome, to aid, to defend? Or are we more interested in tearing down, in separating, in spurning the unworthy and attacking the strange?
Our answers will do more to define America than any war or legislation ever could.
The Christian songwriter Don Francisco once wrote that God didn’t care about the height of church steeples or the loudness of hymns, but whether the people inside cared for their family, their neighbors, and the rest of the world:
Are you living as a servant to your sisters and your brothers?
Do you make the poor man beg you for a bone?
Do the widow and the orphan cry alone?
I have heard from many people who are afraid of what might happen next, who find their future uncertain. So much of that is in our hands. What we say. What we do. What we’ll tolerate and what we’ll rise up to oppose.
What answer will we give?
The words of the African-American poet Langston Hughes, written more than 80 years ago, still echo:
I say it plain,
American never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath —
America will be!
Today and always, we must build the America our veterans swore to defend.
What America will it be?