I’ve been wondering about what constitutes citizenship, and I posed the question to the group at “Let’s Talk About it,” a couple of weeks ago. To what or to whom do we pledge allegiance? Are faith and citizenship at odds? What are the rights of a citizen and what are his/her responsibilities?
Aristotle defined the citizen as a member of the ecclesia, the assembly, who shares in the administration of justice. Jefferson spoke of “citizen farmers” who gain their dignity from the land and have a civic duty to aid the state and resist corruption. De Tocqueville in Democracy in America saw jury duty as the best context for learning citizenship and marveled at the new country’s deep respect for the law. American citizens, he wrote, brand law breakers as outcasts and have the ultimate power to change any law they dislike. The 14th Amendment to the Constitution asserts that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” Citizens are given the right to vote in this country, based on a deep belief in representative democracy, but what is the engaged voter to do with the fact that so few people exercise this right and responsibility?
And as people of faith, is our primary allegiance to the state or to our creeds? Are we citizens of a country not of this earth, and if so, what are the implications for creating community here and now?
We had a lively discussion, and when I talked about it later at home, my wife Sarah recommended an article by Eric Booth, “The Citizen Artist: A Revolution of Heart with the Arts.” Booth is a celebrated arts educator (Juillard, Stanford University, Kennedy Center), an author, and actor who has written about El Sistema, a global movement for social change through music. Booth redefines art as any work created with heart and raised to its highest level of expression (a symphony or concerto, sure, but also “the art of bricklaying,” “medical arts,” or the art of setting a beautiful table or creating something extraordinary in a work setting or lifting a conversation to a higher, creative place); artists as anyone engaged in this heart-work, and the work of real citizenship as fostering transformative relationships. You can’t do art as outreach, Booth says, and expect any lasting change to occur; rather, artists and community members together define goals, chart a path to achieve them, and describe what success looks like when you get there. A new commonwealth is created in the process, characterized by habits of citizenship: humility, empathy, honesty, and a commitment to forge authentic connections.
Booth is writing primarily to musicians, but I think his work can guide our thinking as people of faith, who find their identity in service. We are called to serve the people of Baltimore as fellow citizens of God’s commonwealth, and community will begin through listening to each other to define goals and the path to reach them.