From Citizens to Ambassadors: Pondering Community in a Global Age

Heidi Hadsell

Within and beyond Christianity in the United States today, the meaning of citizenship is deeply contested territory. Christians do not agree about what citizenship means, and the argument is essentially a moral one. For a significant number of American Christians, to be a citizen is to be a loyal patriot, along the lines of “my country, right or wrong.”

This stance is viewed as a Christian duty in a country in which God is uniquely present. Other American Christians, confronted by what they perceive to be an imperial and unilateral nation, wonder how to be, or whether it is possible to be, coherently Christian and a proud citizen of the United States at the same time.

It’s not surprising that people react by falling back on alternative identities, not only as citizens of nation-states but as members of people or tribes.

Meanwhile, the wider context of citizenship has changed dramatically, and it continues to change. Our world is now inexorably global. This global reality, this global belonging, inevitably and sometimes helpfully reshapes our identities as citizens.

To these factors, add immigration in unprecedented numbers, the growing ranks of dual citizens, the fight against terrorism and its impact on definitions of “them” and “us,” the growing economic disparities within the citizenry of this country—all these trends give us a rich mix to think about when we turn our attention to citizenship.

Once Again, Who is My Neighbor?

Many if not most of the pressing ethical questions of the day—immigration, environmental crisis, hunger, nuclear arms, terrorism—are questions closely connected to global integration. They cannot be adequately addressed within national boundaries. Although often experienced as national questions, they cannot be reasoned about morally within the geographical boundaries of nation-states only. Our conversation partners are also inevitably international, and they come to the conversation with their own assumptions, interests, religions, and cultures. Globalization, the unprecedented international integration and interdependence that we see everywhere, is helping reshape our understanding of citizenship.

Globalization involves all corners of the globe— never equally, of course, but rather according to differences in political and military power and economic prowess, both within countries and between them. Globalization does not mean an end to the international pecking order. Rather, the ability to take advantage of the dynamics of globalization still depend largely on where one’s nation is in the pecking order, and where one is within the nation. Practically speaking, it means that even while wealthy and many middle-income people from the North may denounce the unjust and dehumanizing effects of globalization on others around the world, most of them are enjoying much of the best that it has to offer.

With these rapidly changing global realities, we are required to ask the question again: Who is my neighbor? Does this global reality, this dawning consciousness of belonging to a “global village,” radically challenge my understanding of neighbor—so that I now understand my neighbor to be not just the person across the street but across the world? Do these people around the world have claims on me that are the claims of a neighbor? Must I care about his welfare, her hunger, the life possibilities for their children in a sustained and significant way, and thus care too for our common stewardship of the neighborhood in which we live?1

If I live my citizenship, as I must, in the light of the larger world, my national belonging still persists. But it is inevitably relativized. I now begin to think about public policy, for example, not just in terms of its impact on me, or on varieties of groups and regions within the United States, but also its impact on people across the globe whom I will never encounter, and about the globe itself, which sustains and connects us all.

In a radically unequal and suffering world, in a country as rich and powerful as the United States, this means understanding and critiquing the actions of one’s own nation, not simply according to national well-being, or national self-interest, but according to their impact on others around the globe. Recognizing this reality, friends from places as disparate as Lebanon and Indonesia observe, half in jest, that they too should have a vote in American elections.

At the end of the day, of course, few can truly live as global citizens, and they usually belong to the tribe we know as the international jet set. For the rest of us, a global sense of responsibility is possible but hard to live in a daily way, hard to feel comfortable and at home in.

So it’s not surprising that people react by falling back on alternative identities, not only as citizens of nation-states but as members of peoples or tribes, which mark belonging through language, history, culture, ethnicity, and so forth. These are identities rooted not in civic citizenship but rather in a sense of belonging to an in-group, the kind that keeps itself together by keeping everyone else out. It is as if people say to themselves, I am exhausted and overwhelmed with thinking about global realities, so I am withdrawing into a world I understand and over which I have some control, where I know who I am and where I belong. This is my tribe.

In this movement toward such identities (and the identity politics that go with them), the result is the opposite of national citizenship. Rather, national citizenship is checked by the claims of belonging to a smaller collectivity. The answer to “Who is my neighbor?” differs also. In fact the answer is very much like that of folks whom Jesus challenged a long time ago: my neighbor is the one who looks and thinks as much as possible like me, and does so in a language I speak and in symbols and rituals I understand. My neighbor is he or she who stands with me against those who are not like us.

Along with this sort of tribalism often goes a simultaneous increase in moral certainty and a shrinking of the moral imagination, the scope or sense of obligation and responsibility. What is left is a far cry from Paul’s ideal description of Christian belonging that says there is no Greek, no Jew, no slave, nor free. From the tribal perspective, all we have are Greeks and Jews and slaves and free. The connections between us evaporate, and with them goes any notion of the common good. Citizenship, which is built precisely on the notion that fellow citizens may be radically different in every way yet equal before the law, disappears altogether.2

Citizenship and Safety

One can’t talk about citizenship in the United States today without noting the contested redefinition of the meaning of citizenship since 9/11. I mean both the shifting rights and roles of citizenship codified in measures like the Patriot Act, and the more elusive internalization of a shifting sense of what it means to be a citizen. The citizens in the United States are surrendering rights that represent the results of hard-fought battles won over many, many decades, and that form part of the building blocks of democracy. We are agreeing to trade in some of these rights and responsibilities (the right to privacy, for example) in exchange for security and safety against an ill-defined and ever-changing threat of terrorism.

The boundaries of U.S. citizenship and non-citizenship are shifting accordingly. Non-citizen “enemy combatants” are currently denied the rights of due process, protected by the American Constitution, which heretofore were extended to all within the geographical boundaries of the United States. In this and other less dramatic ways, divisions between citizens and non-citizens in the United States are growing. The change hits home. A small example: Recently, two American citizens related to Hartford Seminary were entering the United States after a trip to a meeting abroad. One, whose name is Jane, went quickly through immigration; the other, Saleem, was held for several hours of questioning.

There are many moral questions here to think about: Can citizens sit by and enjoy our rights while others within the country and in legal never-never lands like Guantanamo Bay are denied their rights? Does not the fact that others are being denied their rights diminish the rights of all of us? Does not the very meaning of citizenship change when the democracy to which it is related is diminished? Is not this nation by definition the country of the stranger?3

There is nothing new about our drive for safety. It is part of the human condition, as old as humanity itself. Though we want to be as safe as possible, the long history of Christian thought teaches us that, alas, safety and permanence are always illusory, no matter how we long for them and how hard we work for them, how much we give up for them. Precisely because the human drive for safety is so strong, we do well to be suspicious of the lengths to which we are willing to go in order to feel secure and attend carefully to the ways in which the drive for security shapes and misshapes human community. History teaches us the often terrible price we pay when we rush to surrender the rights of others and even our own rights in order to ensure our security.4

An old Brazilian joke comes to mind—about the military dictator in the 1960s who, referring to the military’s fight for internal security against dissidents, declared in his inaugural address, “When I became president we were on the edge of the abyss, and then we took a giant step forward.”

So I worry about the changing meaning of citizenship in this “age of terrorism”— what it does to our sense of the common good and what abyss we are stepping into. And frankly I often worry as much about our rush to security as I do about terrorism itself.

Citizen As Consumer

Almost as alarming, and perhaps more insidious as a challenge to citizenship in our era, is our individual and collective inclination to trade the identity of citizen for the identity of consumer. In the United States today, consumerism is a primary way of belonging. I would venture to say that often the major way an individual participates in the society today is by buying things. This fact is echoed and reinforced by our political leadership. The act of consumption is often the only act asked of us as citizens. Witness the number of times since 9/11 that Americans have been urged by our leaders to show our patriotism through consuming. Our politicians begin to look like commodities themselves in a political process swamped by seemingly unlimited supplies of money from lobbyists representing private interests.

Even the idea of “freedom,” so often invoked with stirring effect, is laden with consumer connotations. The “freedom” to pursue the “American way of life” has come to mean almost exclusively a material way of life—green lawns, big cars, strip malls, and the like, and the freedom to pursue one’s own individual (economic) interests. Seldom are appeals made to our political rights when the concept of freedom is invoked. Implicitly, we accept the tradeoff, where one basically opts out of exercising one’s political duties and rights as citizen, in return for occasional and symbolic political participation and the right to consume material goods.

We all participate as consumers, but of course we consume very differently. This is one of the most unequal countries in the world in terms of the distribution of income, a fact Americans have not internalized at all.5 At least 30 million people—a whole country within a country, people with the title of citizen—live below the poverty line in this nation. They have little to consume, little in terms of basic preparation—education, for instance, or a sense of belonging—for exercising rights of citizenship. They appear out of the equation altogether—excluded, “excluidos” as they are called in Latin America. The simple title of citizen means little until people know how to exercise their citizenship, and have the means to do so, and can look to the government for protection.

The Christian gospel speaks loudly and clearly on the subject of wealth and distribution. Excessive materialism is an insidious form of idolatry to which we sacrifice not only our right relationship with God, but also human community, even our own humanity. As I understand the Jubilee, it is an idea required not only for social justice or charity, but precisely because the Hebrew people realized that, beyond a certain limit, material inequality renders human community and relationships untenable.

What many of the most privileged and powerful among us ignore is how the common core of national values has been hollowed out, emptied, perverted. Patriotism becomes blind support of whatever the government does, individualism becomes the right to make as much money as possible and to do with it whatever one wants, and “we” the citizens come to fear and hate the non-citizen.

So here we are—in a global context, torn between a somewhat amorphous global sense of responsibility and the more narrowly constructed identities that subvert an imaginative calling to citizenship. At the same time we fear for our safety and are addicted to consumerism, both of which make us almost eager to trade in the rights of citizenship for their sake.

Theologically our struggle is with our own deepest human tendencies, which scripture pointedly reflects upon: idolatry, insecurity, hubris, the drive to dominate and even annihilate the other. Many of the dynamics that undermine the meaning of citizenship are of our own making.

And by now we are asking: what can we do?

Some Christians, in fact many, have already decided what to do. They choose moral certitude, national supremacy, and patriotism as shields against uncertainty. They lay the blame for insecurity on our internal national diversity, or on our external enemies, real and imagined. What might be the road ahead for the rest of us?

Not long ago I spent a week in Syria with a group from Hartford Seminary. Our group was composed of Muslims and Christians, and we were hosted by Muslims and Christians in Syria. It was a remarkable visit. The final evening I was there, it being Ramadan, we were invited to an Iftar—a breaking of the fast —in our honor at the home of a Muslim leader in Damascus, who had gathered on his rooftop for the occasion a talented, articulate, and experienced group of Muslim religious and intellectual leaders. After dinner, interspersed with wonderful Sufi music, came the inevitable round of speeches. Finally, a well-respected elder intellectual of Islamic history stood and spoke in English. Appropriately enough, he evoked our common memory of the apostle Paul and, using Pauline language, encouraged us all to be ambassadors for peace.

As he spoke I realized I had found the civic image that I have been looking for. Ambassadors—those citizens who, grounded in one civic community, find the common ground between it and others. Ambassadors—who stand in one place, one religious or civic tradition, yet build bridges, summoning the best that their own tradition has to offer to the other in order to straddle the divide, and discerning the best that the other has to offer. Ambassadors—who help to imagine, to articulate, to bring into existence the common good, and who serve that common good.

My hope is that as Christians and as citizens we will muster the capacity to exercise this ancient art.


1. For an excellent argument for the kind of
global perspective I have described, see
Martha Nussbaum’s essay “Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism” in For Love of Country? edited by Martha Nussbaum (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996).

2. Jean Bethke Elshtain puts it this way: “To the extent that citizens begin to re-tribalize into ethnic or other ‘fixed identity’ groups, democracy falters. Any possibility for human dialogue, for democratic communication and commonality, vanishes as so much froth on the polluted sea of phony equality. Difference becomes more and more exclusivist. If you are black and I am white, by definition I do not and cannot ‘get it.’ There is no way that we can negotiate the space between our differences.” Jean Bethke Elshtain, Democracy on Trial (New York: BasicBooks, 1995), p. 74.

3. I have written about some of these questions in my chapter “Internal Security and Civil Liberties: Moral Dilemmas and Debates” in September 11: Religious Perspectives on the Causes and Consequences, edited by Ian Markham and Ibrahim Abu-Rabi’ (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2002).

4. Theologians who experienced World War II, such
as Paul Tillich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Reinhold Niebuhr, continue to have very relevant perspectives and experience on this question of our human drive for safety and the price human communities pay for it.

5. See, for example, “US Led a Resurgence Last Year Among Millionaires World-Wide,” Robert Frank,
Wall Street Journal, June 15, 2004. In this article Frank reports, that “the wealthiest 1% in the U.S. control more than a third of the nation’s wealth—the starkest such concentration among industrialized countries.” Citing the work of the NYU economist Edward H. Wolff, Frank also reports, “The wealthiest 5% controlled 59.2% of the nation’s wealth in 2001, little changed from the 60.3% in 1995.”

Heidi Hadsell is president of Hartford Seminary, where she is also professor of social ethics. She was director of the Ecumenical Institute of the World Council of Churches, Bossey, Switzerland, from 1997-2000.