“I am a citizen, not of Athens or Greece, but of the world.”
Socrates wrote those words more than 2,400 years ago. Today more than ever these are words which we would need to appropriate because, more and more, our world and we ourselves are sinking into some unhealthy forms of tribalism where we are concerned primarily with taking care of our own.
We see this everywhere today. We tend to think that this lives only in circles of extremism, but it is being advocated with an ever-intensifying moral fervor in virtually every place in the world. It sounds like this: “America first! England first! My country first! My state first! My church first! My family first! Me first!”
More and more, we are making ourselves the priority and defining ourselves in ways that are not just against the Gospel, but are also making us meaner in spirit and more miserly of heart. What’s to be said about this?
First of all, it’s against the Gospel, against most everything Jesus taught. If the Gospels are clear on anything, they are clear that all persons in this word are equal in the sight of God, that all persons in this world are our brothers and sisters, that we are asked to share the goods of this world fairly with everyone, especially the poor, and, most importantly, that we are not to put ourselves first, but are always to consider the needs of others before our own.
All slogans that somehow put “me,” “us” “my own,” “my group,” “my country” first, deny this. Moreover, this doesn’t just apply at the micro-level, where we graciously step back in politeness to let someone else enter the room before us, it applies, and especially so, to us as whole nations. For us, as nations, there is a certain immorality and immaturity in thinking first of all, and primarily, of our own interests, as opposed to thinking as citizens of the world, concerned for everyone’s good.
And the truth of this is found not just in Jesus and the Gospels, but also in what’s highest and best in us. The very definition of being big-hearted is predicated on precisely rising above self-interest and being willing to sacrifice our own interests for the good of others and the good of the larger community.
The same is true for being big-minded. We are big-minded exactly to the extent that we are sensitive to the wider picture and can integrate into our thinking the needs, wounds and ideologies of everyone, not just those of their own kind. That’s what it means to understand rather than simply be intelligent. When we are petty we cannot understand beyond our own needs, our own wounds and our own ideologies.
We know this too from experience. On our best days our hearts and minds are more open, more willing to embrace widely, more willing to accept differences and more willing to sacrifice self-interest for the good of others. On our best days we are gracious, big-hearted and understanding, and, on those days, it’s unthinkable for us to say: “Me first!”
We only put ourselves first and let our concerns trump our own goodness of heart on days when our frustrations, wounds, tiredness and ideological infections overwhelm us. And even when we do revert to pettiness, part of us knows that this isn’t us at our best, but that we are more than what our actions betray at that moment. Below our wounds and ideological sicknesses, we remain riveted to the truth that we are, first, citizens of the world. A healthy heart still beats below our wounded, infected one.
Sadly almost everything in our world today tempts us away for this. We are adult children of Rene Descartes, who helped shape the modern mind with his famous dictum: “I think, therefore, I am!” Our own headaches and heartaches are what’s most real to us and we accord reality and value to others primarily in relationship to our own subjectivity. That’s why we can so easily say: “Me first! My country first! My heartaches first!”
But there can be no peace, no world community, no real brother and sisterhood, and no real church community as long as we do not define ourselves as, first, citizens of the world and only second as members of our own tribe.
Admittedly, we need to take care of our own families, our own countries and our own selves. Justice asks that we also treat ourselves fairly. But, ultimately, the tension here is a false one, that is, the needs of others and our own needs are not in competition.
Athens and the world are of one piece. We best serve our own when we serve others. We are most fair to ourselves when we are fair to others. Only by being good citizens of the world are we good citizens in our own countries.
Putting ourselves first goes against the Gospel. It’s also poor strategy: Jesus tells us that, in the end, the first will be last.
Oblate of Mary Immaculate Father Ronald Rolheiser is a specialist in the field of spirituality and systematic theology. His website is www.ronrolheiser.com.