It’s noisy at our place on the lake in northern Wisconsin. It’s Fourth of July weekend and everybody and their cousins have come to the lake. Speed boat wakes set our swim raft bouncing. A small plane climbs over the water from the airfield a mile up the road. Children laugh and squeal as they splash. (I LOVE the sound of children laughing! Boomboxes not so much.)
It’s a time when we eat hotdogs, watch fireworks, and consider what this country means to us. For some it is freedom to choose, to control their own destinies. For others that promise of freedom has yet to be realized. We struggle politically, socially and economically, yet we all love this land and long to see her live up to the greatness of her ideals.
Having lived overseas much of my adult life (much of that in less than fully democratic countries) what I value most about America is that we are still shocked by corruption. We expect things to be fair, and when we fail as a nation (as in allegations of election fraud or police killing unarmed citizens) we shout, “Not in America!” And yet things do happen in America. But if it doesn’t happen TO ME, I don’t see it, and I assume it can’t possibly be true. It is hard for me to see my fellow-citizens whose experiences have been different from mine.
In a recent NYT opinion piece Jonathan Holloway, president of Rutgers University, espouses a program he believes could help. It is one I have longed for for decades—mandatory universal national service: everyone, men and women, no matter who you are or how rich your parents are, should give one year to serving your country. (I would have said two years like Mormon missionaries or Israeli soldiers, but one year is better than what we have now.) That could be one year of military service. It could be one year of repairing environmental damage or rebuilding infrastructure in a national park like the old Civilian Conservation Corps. It could be one year of teaching school in a remote rural community or working in an overwhelmed public hospital.
One year. Serving your country.
It has to be mandatory to be effective or those who most need to be pushed out of their bubble will opt out. Jonathan Holloway, the author of the article, suggests this should be completed by age 25. That would allow some young people to take a gap year after high school to figure out where they are going in life and what skills they need to get there. It would also allow those who are already headed for careers in medicine or teaching or engineering to get training that will make them even more useful in their national service. What it won’t allow is for the rich to go straight to college and then launch lucrative careers without ever giving back to the greater America.
Holloway sees the value of national service not just as job creation or what young people can contribute to this country, but also what that service will contribute to them—relationships with people who come from different racial or economic backgrounds, the understanding that comes from seeing how others live, a vision for the role they have to play in strengthening this great country and the world community. He says it is a call for citizenship. I see it as a call for Christians to love their neighbors. Jesus died for the world, not just people like me. He came to serve, not to be served, and calls his followers to the same.
“A sensible system of compulsory national service would build bridges between people and turn them into citizens,” Holloway writes. “It would shore up our fragile communities and strengthen us as individuals and as a nation. Compulsory national service would make us more self-reliant and at the same time more interdependent. It would help us to realize our remarkable individual strengths and would reveal the enormous collective possibilities when we pull together instead of rip apart.”
One reason America is so torn these days is that we have hunkered down in little communities of people just like us. All we know of other communities is the name-calling we have seen on social media. We don’t actually know and care about anyone on the other side of the fence. If each person invested one year—ONE!—how might that help to heal the divide that is tearing us apart as a nation?
LeAnne Hardy has lived in six countries on four continents. Her books come out of her cross-cultural experiences and her passion to use story to convey spiritual truths in a form that will permeate lives.
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