As they face 2002, Americans may want to stop for a moment to reflect on who they are and what their nation is like. All the other countries of the Western Hemisphere were entitled to call themselves America if they chose. But since they have not done so, the term Americans is usually taken to designate the people inhabiting the 3.7 million-square-mile expanse, including Alaska and Hawaii, known as the United States of America.
These people, now numbering nearly 300 million, are one of the two essential components of the United States. The American land is the other. That land was here for unimaginable eons before the first small cities began to appear along its eastern seacoast and before its great grass plains began to be turned into farms. And it must be presumed that the land will be here long after the Republic is a faint memory.
So far as the great European civilizations were aware 400 years ago, the Americas were the outermost edge of the known world. A few of today’s citizens can describe themselves as Native Americans; the overwhelming majority, however, have either come from other countries or are descended from people who freely or under constraint migrated from Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America. Over the course of four centuries, these people have built a vigorous and vastly complicated civilizationclearing fields, organizing roads and waterways, constructing towns and cities and eventually constituting an international superpower.
Americans have been pleased to think of themselves as a new people in a new world. They would be naïve and arrogant, however, to imagine that either their virtues or their vices are unique. Within the divine perspective, the differences between the most sophisticated Americans and the famished children of Sudan weeping in the dust are far less significant than the common nature they share as members of the human family.
All the same, Americans, like the populations of every country, do have distinctive traits. To pick a quality that has often been noticed, it is fair to say that Americans have always been a people of notable energy, with an optimistic confidence that their industry and high technology can make life better for everyone. Barbara Ward (1914-81), a British economist who had a profound Christian vision, was a sympathetic observer of this characteristic. For many people, she wrote in The New York Times Magazine in 1954, the American way of life appears to have come down, in some vast cornucopia, from heaven. What is not measured is the steadiness and the intensiveness of the work which sustains it all.... If work, disciplined, steady work, is materialism,’ then certainly the Americans are materialistic, but it is the oldest wisdom of Europe that to work is to pray.’
That disciplined spirit abides and has found generous expression during the past four months. The terrorist attacks manifested sheer destructiveness. The response that followedfrom firefighters, police officers and service personnel, from rescue workers, including volunteers from around the country, from relief agencies and a multitude of gift-giversmanifested a far greater constructive power.
That constructive response must be sustained, for the tasks confronting the nation in 2002 may require years to complete. It is not just a matter of rebuilding shattered acres and perking up a weakened economy. A helping hand must also be extended to the hundreds of thousands laid off since Sept. 11, as well as to the 31.1 million Americans who were already living in poverty that day.
There are, besides, quite new demands not on the national mind two years ago. There is, for instance, the Islamic world that was hardly noticed before, although it has been present for centuries. It must now be addressed with understandingnot the tiny minority of suicidal fanatics, but the hundreds of millions of ordinary, devout people, including, by a conservative estimate, some 2.1 million Muslims in the United States. Between 1994 and 2000 the number of mosques in this country rose to more than 1,200, an increase of 25 percent.
As they face these challenges, Americans might energize themselves by considering a sentence that Pope John XXIII said gave him great comfort: We are not on earth as museum-keepers, but to cultivate a flourishing garden of life and to prepare for a glorious future.