When I was a child and told to shut up or not do something, I would often argue, "It's a free country!" It never ended in my favor. Hence was forged a stubborn rebel, and it's no wonder I gravitated toward political philosophies that seemed committed to personal social and economic freedom. Like most people, I grafted my own notions of Liberty onto what we were taught in school about the Founding Fathers and what we were told were uniquely American ideals.
I did the same for Masonry, of course, not just because many of those Fathers were Masons, but the respect for personal conscience and judgment filled the need of my inner child getting to make his own choices. I found a place where I could always act of my own free will and accord. I found a place of personal development with completely individualistic interpretations and self-accountability. Only honest self-reflection and whispered wise counsel save me from such overindulgence, though perhaps not enough often enough
There's always the other side of the coin. When I learned one of our charges for the Second Degree, I was confronted with words that placed strong emphasis on the collective good — socially, economically, and politically. The needs of neighbor and nation could not be ignored, or perhaps had even to take precedence. My iciness toward collectivism felt a bit of challenging heat. My dominant individualism was called out, and it put into question the moral supremacy of personal conscience. There's so much for me to ramble on the couch while you take notes, but let's bring it forward to further Light.
One of the core values of the Scottish Rite is "Devotion to Country". In Eastern Star, a lesson of the office of Color Bearer (one that I've held many years) is that Patriotism is essential to good citizenship. Patriotism is most commonly defined as love of one's country. Simple enough. However, the words and actions of so many people this last year have seen my own conflict between personal freedom and the common good play out on a massive scale.
The question hit me the other day: How can we say we "love" our country if we have so little regard for our fellow citizens? Is Liberty really just the ability to do whatever we want without concern as to consequence or what freedom it takes away from other people? We suffer a million little laws – and I have argued time and again it's a million too many – and yet some people chose to die on a hill of so little consequence and inconvenience while wholesale injustices are ignored or even ridiculed. It's actually easy to see once you figure it out — people define Liberty purely in terms of what THEY can or cannot do. If it doesn't affect them, they don't care, and if it does, even a reasonable request feels like their God-given freedom has been taken away. Others who don't get their way should pipe down and not dare to object in any way that affects us. Law and Order is always for the other guy. We don't need it except to protect us from others and never the other way around. In other words, we use words and symbols of patriotism as a do-what-we-want-card. "It's a free country", after all. And we feel darn patriotic about that.
We "love" our freedom to worship how we want, say what we want, and go and do what we want. Many of us especially love the privilege of doing so without, all other things being equal, being hindered on the count of the color of our skin. But our "love" ends there, with our OWN religion, language, political affiliation. We claim to be "patriotic" but hate so many of our own countrymen, and the only way we can justify it is to consider them in one way or another not "true Americans".
It seems that "love" of country can be nothing more than a feeling, a pride we insist of ourselves and others, while ignoring or avoiding the trappings of social or civic obligations. But what of Devotion? That implies action. That means service. And it's more than service, but selfless service. Wearing one uniform or another, do we protect and serve only to preserve our particular way of life for those we know and love? Or do we fight – sometimes ironically with civil disobedience – to protect or win the rights and privileges of everyone, even those not like ourselves or those whose existence does not benefit our slice of society?
If we were taught Civics, we would know that Liberty without responsibility is license and such a free man is in actuality a libertine, Masonry has taught me that even Love or Devotion to Country cannot be a solitary virtue. It must meet and act with tolerance and justice, which by their very natures, cannot be a pursuit with aims limited to ourselves. Justice is a collective virtue and any injustice done to one of us is done to all of us, even if we do not directly feel the sting of it. Can there truly be any Love or Devotion without exercising Charity, that greatest of graces, that Compassion where we actively care for and about the welfare of all? Do our words and deeds reflect that, or the selfish, narrow yet comfortable groove of Individualism? How can we be willing to die for our Country but not live for the betterment of all its citizens?
I still don't care much for laws and rules and authority. But my Love of my Countrymen – all of them – has not turned me away from the symbols of Patriotism so shallowly or duplicitly used by others. The contradictions and conflicts of this past year have sharpened and tempered my appreciation for the difficult balance of American and Masonic values of individualism and collective good. We don't always deserve it, but God Bless America!