The Sins of the Children

I have been thinking lately about the three sons of Noah.

Some people have had monsters for parents, and they should tell their admonitory stories, as dispassionately but as accurately as they can, lest others fall into the same patterns of wickedness. Yet most people have for parents just the ordinary stuff of human sinners that they themselves are. Piety demands that we be grateful to them for what they gave us, even if it was their duty in piety to give it. We should honor their virtues and be gentle with their shortcomings. We should take no delight in uncovering the nakedness of our Noah to the world.

What we say about parents applies by analogy to the land of our birth. So does our catechism instruct us. That same virtue of piety requires us to honor our native land, and to serve it, and sometimes, good men and true, to lay down our lives for it. But what if that same land has been guilty of great evil? What then?

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I scan the nations of the world and find no heavenly Jerusalem, no nation-saints. Every government has been steeped in blood. Devils and darkness meet us at every step. Cross the Rio Grande, and you are in a country that persecuted priests and made martyrs of them, martyrs to a secular desert. Cross the forty-ninth parallel, and you are in a country that treated the aboriginals of the far north with a strange combination of paternalism, negligence, and bullying. Cross the sea, and listen to the Welsh anthem Men of Harlech, memorializing bloody resistance against the “Saxons,” that is, the English. Go to Dublin and praise Cromwell, and see what reaction you get. Go to Milan and listen to the people talk about the filth of the southern Italians. Look not for pleasant reading when you open a history book.

Yet we should honor our native land.

It is the easiest thing in the world to sneer at Noah, the drunken and naked old man. It is easy to see the sins of the fathers. They are seldom the sins of the children. What is hard to see, in a world where we are encouraged to scorn the past, because we are all rolling like a juggernaut toward universal love and harmony and tolerance and daisies in everyone’s hair, are the virtues of the fathers.

Does anyone seriously worry that the time will return when—for example—we will compel thousands of Cherokees to leave their native hills and troop out far to the dry and dusty west? Or that stadiums will fill with thousands of people to watch baseball segregated by race? It is not going to happen. But we are also not going to brave the forbiddingly hot summers and brutal winters of the Dakotas to farm a land that never felt the iron cut of the plow before. We are not going to lay the ties and the rails to connect, for the first time, the Atlantic and the Pacific. 

Meanwhile, were our fathers to return among us, what might they say about the shambles we have made of public morals and family life? What might they say about liberties lost and a national government stealing by fiat from hundreds of millions of citizens yet unborn?

The people who built the United States possessed great and dynamic virtues. Go to any old city and look around. You will see many a handsome old building still in use, erected not by the machines of an impersonal and distant government but by public-spirited men and women, who gave freely of what they had: libraries, schools, churches, hospitals, music houses, museums. By no means were these built by the wealthiest few alone. And we may add that human hands—those belonging to many a man lying in the nearby cemetery—maneuvered those stones into place, or hewed and planed and fitted the wood siding, or toted sacks of slate tiles to the roof and nailed them in.

Our distant parents had harder lives than we have now, by far; and they complained less about them, by far. In their day, a warm winter posed a threat to the next summer because the ice might run out for the local hospital. In their day, a cold summer posed a threat to the next winter because the hay for the cattle might run out. One hard winter Charles Ingalls, father of the children’s novelist Laura Ingalls Wilder, had to twist slough-grass into firm wreaths and knots to burn slowly and do the work of firewood. I am not sure if that was the same winter when he was caught in a blizzard and saved his life by staying deep in the well of a snowbank for a couple of days, eating the oyster crackers he had meant to bring home from town.

My father’s father was not a “nice” man, but he had greatness in him. You had to, to sail thousands of miles to a far country where you could not speak one word of the language. He went down the coal mines with the other men of our locality. His neck was fractured in a mine explosion, for which the coal company compensated him with a grand total of zero. He drank ever afterwards to dull the pain.

But he still worked, at any and every odd job, though the doctor had told him that the next time he fell, his neck would snap and he would die on the spot. He was unstoppable. If I do not know anyone quite like him in the worst things I can say, I also do not know anyone like him in the best. And I choose rather to look upon the best. The worst poses no threat to me now. The best poses a challenge and always will.

What I say about that old man I say also about my country. She has often been her own most severe critic. What person who has bothered to read what Americans wrote about themselves will dare to say that it was always self-congratulating? Did Hawthorne strew the Puritan graves with roses? Did Melville smile upon that quintessentially American figure, the Confidence-Man? Did Mark Twain say that the slave Jim was a mere runaway and the Duke and the Dauphin intelligent entrepreneurs? And yet, and yet—they loved their country still.

For there is much to love, much to admire. How seldom do nations go to war in someone else’s just cause, to defend or to win back someone else’s liberty? We may blame Wilson for American blood spilled in that senseless First World War, but the men themselves were heroic, and we should admire their willingness to sacrifice themselves for others, without an aim of profit. What other nation sets its conquered territories free, intending to do so from the outset? The thing to explain is not why the United States held territory in Cuba and the Philippines. That is a commonplace. The thing to explain is why the United States gave it up, without military pressure.

When natural disasters strike anywhere in the world, who comes first with energy and good cheer? It is the boisterous American, freckled from the sun of Kansas, believing with a disarming naivete that there is no reason why the people of one land must hate the people of another. This, too, is part of the American character. It may still be with us, though we have lost so much else.

People say that you cannot help your country to improve unless you subject it to relentless critique. I wonder if they apply that same technique to persons. Is it not rather that you must love the person or the nation first, in order to see things right and to wish the best? Imagine being an Italian who despises Italy and wants to make it more like Switzerland or Germany. Such a man persuades none of his countrymen. Italy should not be Switzerland. Italy will not be Germany.

To take a hint from somewhere else, or to make a foreign institution your own—that is a good and healthy thing, and Americans have done so. Look at Winslow Homer, the impressionist painter, and tell me that he would have done better merely to copy the lush and sweltering colors of Monet. He is American to the root, to the last bit of salt in his sweat. But to wish that your nation were some other, or to despise it for its sins and to stop right there, is to make yourself no reformer at all.

I weep for my nation not because its culture is evil, but because it stands on the verge of losing the very thing we call culture. I weep because our sins—those that would make our fathers shake their heads in sadness—cry out to heaven. Still there is much to love, and I thank God that he has placed me here. God has blessed this land abundantly. May we turn back to Him before it is too late.

[Photo Credit: Shutterstock]


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