One Citizen's Shining Light

On Feb. 9, 2003, Orion magazine took out a full-page advertisement on page five of The New York Times. The aim of "A Citizen's Response to the National Security Strategy of the United States of America," written by farmer, essayist, and patriot Wendell Berry, was to stir the national soul in the tradition of Thomas Paine's great revolutionary booklet Common Sense.

"A Citizen's Response," opening with lines from Katherine Lee Bates' 1913 version of "America the Beautiful," is a counter-volley to the National Security Strategy published by the White House in September 2002. "If carried out," wrote Berry, [the National Security Strategy] would amount to a radical revision of the political character of our nation."

Berry's four-part manifesto probes the definitions of terrorism and security; the role of a government in combating evil; national security based on charity, civility, independence, true patriotism, and rule of law; and the failure of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam to reject war as a vehicle to peace.

One small example of the explosiveness of Berry's insights is his comment on secrecy. "The responsibilities of the president are not mine, and so I hesitate to doubt absolutely the necessity of government secrecy," writes Berry. "But I feel no hesitation in saying that, to the extent that a government is secret, it cannot be democratic or its people free."

This critique is sharpest when heard alongside the news from the U.S. "terrorist detainee camp" at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. As the U.S. began transferring suspects to other countries for interrogation, attempts by prisoners to hang themselves shot up. When citizens' groups petitioned for information on prisoner transfers to ensure that detainees were not sent to countries where they would be tortured, Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Cmdr. Barbara Burfeind was succinct in her response. "From time to time the transfer and release of detainees will occur without notice or mention."

In Germany in 1941 this tactic was called "Nacht Und Nebel Erlass" (the "Night and Fog Decree"). In Chile and Argentina it was called "making people disappear." The purpose is intimidation and the pacification of the populace.

In the best tradition of the citizen-patriot, Berry provides America with a grand opportunity at a critical juncture in our history. He hands us the framework for reinvigorating the civitas in our society.

HERE'S AN IDEA. I propose that Paine's Common Sense, George W. Bush's "National Security Strategy," and Berry's "A Citizen's Response" form the basic curriculum for every civics and citizenship class in America. Libraries, town halls, schools, universities, bookstores, churches, coffee houses, and shopping malls could launch read-along gatherings with this material.

In the four parts of Paine's Common Sense, he examines the roots of government, the values of a republic vs. a monarchy, the inalienable rights of independence, and the uniqueness of the time for establishing a new nation of united states in America. Paine examines the biblical text that led to the formation of monarchies and why they were considered a "sin."

The National Security Strategy lays out a framework for a new world order. In 11 parts it examines our country's commitment to protect human dignity, defeat global terrorism, defuse regional conflicts, prevent threats from weapons of mass destruction, globalize economic growth, use international development to promote democracy, build alliances with centers of power, and transform America's national security institutions. The White House lays out, in a relatively concise document, its understanding of its mandate as the world's remaining superpower. It examines the nature of "enemy" and assumes a theological standpoint about evil.

Berry's full-length article—along with In the Presence of Fear and Patriotism and the American Land, also part of Orion's New Patriotism series—will help America create a viable post-Sept. 11 lexicon. "The substitution of rhetoric for thought, always a temptation in a national crisis, must be resisted by officials and citizens alike," states Berry. Thomas Paine put forth a similar sentiment when he wrote, "In the following pages I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense...."

Orion is to be commended for the fine work it has done in developing a "new patriotism." The Orion Network is itself an experiment in participatory democracy. Network member organizations are recognized in their communities as leaders in the fields of conservation, restoration, education, justice, health, and economics. They range from large to small, urban to suburban to rural, and they represent nearly every state in the U.S.

In 1776, Paine's freedom manifesto reached an audience equivalent to what we get nowadays on a Super Bowl advertisement—maximum exposure—and influenced the course of American history. The Sunday New York Times reaches about 1.7 million people through circulation and three times that many in readership. Whether a Times ad can influence America's future is still an open question. But Wendell Berry and Orion have provided us with a way to refresh the "tree of liberty" without shedding the blood of patriots or tyrants.

Rose Marie Berger is an associate editor of Sojourners.

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