Bishop Mark Hanson: Give Public Service Its Due


Give public service its due

While engaging in respectful policy debate, dissent

My earliest memories of the Fourth of July are delightful. Decorating my bike for the parade. Races at the neighborhood park with ribbons for the winner. Family and friends from out of town joining us for a picnic. The day capped off with an eager anticipation, but also with a hidden fear, of fireworks.

These celebrations were in the midst of the 1950s, when the Cold War was a reality experienced even by children, who practiced air raid drills in school. Those tensions, however, did not permeate the shared joy of the freedom that continues to be taken for granted by many of us.

When I was 12, our family moved to Norway. Among one of my discoveries was that Independence Day was celebrated not on July 4 but May 17! Perhaps only in reflecting back on that experience did I begin to appreciate theologian Joseph Sittler's comment that true patriotism is to allow another to love his or her country as much as one loves one's own country.

That has not always seemed easy for us to do. Too often patriotism is associated with only one particular political perspective rather than shared across a wide spectrum of political convictions. For example, bumper stickers that proclaim "America: Love it or leave it" convey the message that one cannot simultaneously hold one's country in great esteem and also be critical of its policies and actions.

The tragic irony is that exercising the very freedoms so many have fought and died to defend can be criticized as being unpatriotic. Equally tragic is that those who have been most critical of the government often have failed to support those who have given their lives in service to their country.

As I listen to the heated political rhetoric of our day, it seems we have much work to do to find ways to both engage in lively and respectful public debate and support those who - in so many varied vocations - serve the public good in this democracy.

Let us expand our vision to acknowledge that the belittling and demeaning of those whose vocations are in public service is not limited to any one political ideology. Those who serve in the military, in law enforcement, and in federal, state and local regulatory and administrative agencies, as well as schoolteachers and other public employees, receive little recognition and are, in fact, frequently discounted and criticized simply because they are public employees.

Much has been written about the deafening silence that too often greets members of the armed forces as they return from places of combat. I strongly encourage every ELCA congregation to take advantage of opportunities to participate, or even lead, community efforts to support the men and women who serve in the military and their families. (See "Caring for the military.") One helpful resource is Care for Returning Veterans, a DVD workshop suitable for groups or individuals in congregations.

Perhaps, like in the congregation where I belong, Sunday prayers can include by name elected leaders who serve in the military and others whose vocation includes daily work in government service.

Paul reminds the Romans and modern-day Christians that governing authorities are God's servants. They do God's work of preserving life, establishing order and providing safety. In Romans 13:7, he writes, "Pay to all what is due them ... respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due." In the following verse, Paul writes, "Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law." The clear connection is that respecting and honoring those who are God's servants in the public arena is a prime instance of the command to love their neighbor. 

We honor God when we honor God's servants in public life, especially those who make the greatest sacrifices for the common good in their daily vocations. We reflect confident trust in God when we respect those who serve, even while we freely engage in debate and dissent with public policy.

May such lively and respectful engagement be a mark of our patriotism and be reflected in our celebrations this Independence Day.

Bishop Mark Hanson

[Taken with permission from the website of theEvangelical Lutheran Church in America. Originally published in The Lutheran magazine, July 2010.]