Dissent and criticism of leaders and the status quo is not un-American. In fact, one could make a case for the fact that they are very American values, since the United States was forged out of dissent and criticism. We were birthed in dissent and criticism of the status quo of being an English colony…and it was not an easy birth. Harsh words were thrown at those who did not agree with a particular viewpoint…and some were literally forced from their homes because they did not agree with actions that were being taken.
We tend to forget that. Our history in some ways has whitewashed the whole process, making it seem inevitable. But it wasn’t. And the founding fathers of the United States were not always nice or polite with each other. In fact, if you read some of the letters and newspapers, they were downright brutal!
And dissent and criticism of the status quo have been a significant part of who we are ever since. Opposition to slavery…those who fought for religious freedom…individuals who fought against the treatment of Native Americans…those who supported the rights of individuals to come to the United States to find freedom and new hope…pacifists…women who fought for the right to vote (and to control their own bodies)… The list could go on and on.
Dissent and criticism of leaders and the status quo are woven into the very fabric of who we are.
And for those who claim to be inheritors and followers of the Judeo-Christian heritage, dissent and criticism are also part of that heritage. The Hebrew scriptures are full of sermons and challenges from prophets who challenged the status quo…who called both the leadership and individuals to be better than they were…to live up to what they said they believed.
Jesus himself challenged the status quo. We have often tended to forget just how radical his teachings and actions were. He challenged not only the leadership of Rome but also the religious (and political) leaders of his own people. He didn’t hold back either:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! (Matthew 23:23-24)
Scribes knew the law and could draw up legal documents. Pharisees were religious leaders (and were also legal experts). Jesus didn’t seem to have much use for their focusing on the letter of the law while ignoring the things that mattered more.
So when we accuse critics of the status quo as somehow being un-American or un-Christian, we’re just plain wrong. We need to hear those voices that challenge us to be our better selves…to live up to what we claim to believe.
We can disagree with how to get there–but we need to be reminded that at one point in our history, people in other countries saw the United States as a place of hope…a place of new beginnings. We took pride in what Emma Lazarus wrote in 1883–and what is mounted on the Statue of Liberty. Those who dissent and offer criticism of what we have become do so because they want us to live up to these words of hope:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”