The Common Good

COMMENTARY: On the Fourth, Setting Aside the 'I' for 'Us'

The New York Knicks have a dilemma: Hold on to high-scoring star Carmelo Anthony, the consummate me-first ball hog, or build their future on team players.

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant, and Episcopal priest based in New York. Photo courtesy of Tom Ehrich/RNS

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I am hoping new coach Phil Jackson gives Anthony his walking papers. The Knicks have been a poor basketball team with Melo’s I-am-the-man selfishness. They will be better with players who know how to work as a unit.

As the coaching cliche puts it, “There is no ‘I’ in ‘team.’” There is, however, an “I” in “big bucks,” and in “I am the star,” and in “watch my magic.”

It’s the very “I” with which Satan tested Jesus in the wilderness. It’s the “I” that builds empires on the suffering of many and destroys them just as quickly. It’s the “I” that cripples families and ruins enterprises.

In July 1776, 56 brave men signed a Declaration of Independence and pledged everything — their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” — to freedom and democracy. They set aside “I” and paid dearly for it.

At the Battle of Yorktown, colonial troops were aiming cannon fire away from signer Thomas Nelson’s house out of respect for him. British commanders, however, were using his house for their headquarters. In an action that someone like Carmelo Anthony would never understand, Nelson personally re-aimed the cannons directly at his house. He lost everything, but the “team” prevailed.

Today’s gentry take exactly the opposite course. They are all about “I.” They demand favors from the government, grab everything they can, pay themselves extravagant salaries, move their assets offshore to avoid taxes and think themselves superior beings.

American democracy, however, isn’t a sluice diverting wealth into a few hands, though the wealthy never stop trying to treat it that way. Democracy is an idea, a passion, a conviction grounded in the value of all citizens and affirming the right of every man and woman to speak freely, live freely, believe or not believe freely, and hold their head high in a world where the few never cease trying to oppress.

American democracy isn’t owned by any class, or shaped by any religion, or reserved for those who accept a certain moral code or fit a certain pattern of sexuality, gender, race or origin.

When the signers acted, there were two glaring exceptions to their vision, namely, African slaves and women. Less than a century later, the new nation fought a civil war to remove the moral stain of slavery, though it would take another century to legislate equal rights.

Women’s full participation is still unfolding, but the movement to equal rights and opportunity is inexorable.

Democracy cannot survive an obsession with “I,” whether that self-interest is enlightened or otherwise. In a me-first world, wealth and power cannot abide freedom for others. They push inexorably toward a Russian-style kleptocracy.

Each wave of immigrants must fight its way through nativist thugs, now armed with assault rifles.

Christianity continues to block democracy’s full flowering. Delusions of absolute certainty lead to mounting harassment of anyone who has a different moral code, harassment now dressing up as “religious freedom.”

Even so, democracy chugs along. People have an instinct for freedom. The team — people striving toward a common goal — will eventually tire of the ball hog. No amount of government favors will prop up those who seek only “I.”

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the president of Morning Walk Media and publisher of Fresh Day online magazine. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich. Via RNS.

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