It is widely recognized that President John F. Kennedy appropriated his most memorable line from his inaugural address from what he had learned from Harvard University. “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” was the sentiment of noblesse oblige that Harvard had sought to instill in its elite student body, and that same sentiment was one that Kennedy sought to encourage in the nation as a large. Although the principle of noblesse oblige has fallen into a great deal of disfavor within our contemporary cultural politics, that spirit allowed those who were conscious of their position as elites to gain a sense of legitimacy in their own eyes and within society at large by devoting their duties to high-minded service of those less privileged than themselves in various spheres of cultural and political leadership. The sort of exploitation that can easily result from the presence of privilege and structural inequality within a system is counteracted to some extent by the realization that one’s privilege is only legitimate to the extent that it is used to serve those less fortunate. Lamentably, in recent decades, the attack on privilege that we have seen has not in any way made our society more equal, but has rather reduced the tendency of our elites to devote themselves to serving anyone but themselves and their own cliques. We still have elites, but those elites are no longer high-minded and noble in the sense that Kennedy saw himself and his fellows.
Today I would like to turn the assumption of President Kennedy on its head. I do not wish to ask what duties and obligations we owe our nation or any other institutions which we may be a part of. To be sure, I do not deny that we owe obligations and responsibilities to others, and I am sure that there are many people who have no qualms about defining those obligations in the face of our contemporary lack of interest in fulfilling them. What I wish to discuss today is what obligations does our existence place on our institutions. What are we entitled to simply on the basis of being created in the image and likeness of God, apart from any fitness or any good deeds of our own? What are we owed through our existence? What demands can we rightfully place on our families, on our communities, on our churches, on our nation, and on our world simply because we exist? I do not propose to answer these questions definitively, or even provisionally. What I wish to do is modest enough–I wish to raise the questions of entitlement so that they may be debated and answered openly. A great deal of our contemporary malaise, in the words of another former president, results from the fact that we enter into discussions and debates about our place in the world and the legitimacy of our institutions and their behaviors with certain loaded assumptions and presuppositions that are never brought into the light. Because we enter into these discussions with assumptions and givens that are not shared by those we engage in discussion with, our conversations are often unprofitable and even deeply frightening to others. We all recognize the basis of entitlements in much of our current societal problems, but as we do not state our beliefs as to entitlements or the origin of such rights and privileges as we claim for ourselves or others, we talk past each other and not with each other as we ought to do.
Therefore, let us lay our cards on the table. If we have grave differences in what entitlements we believe ourselves and others to possess, and the grounding and origin of those entitlements, and I believe we do, we cannot hope to resolve such difficulties until we bring them out of the shadows and place them under explicit scrutiny in the harsh light of day. Before we can understand ourselves and the ramifications of our belief systems, we must make explicit and open what for too long has been closed and implicit. After all, that which is a right or an entitlement is something which we do not have to deserve, not something we have to earn through good conduct or acts of service to others, but rather something we possess as a result of who or what we are. Furthermore, that which we are entitled to receive is something that others around us owe us and are obligated to give us. That which we are free to do others are obligated to tolerate and accept. That which we are entitled to receive others are responsible for giving us, whatever their own feelings in the matter. If we are entitled to certain economic or social goods, then society at large has a debt to us that it must provide, and any government or institution that does not provide what it owes its members correspondingly loses legitimacy as a result of that failure. It is fairly natural to expect that there are going to be extreme difficulties where some people feel themselves to be entitled to something that society at large or that institutions do not feel themselves required to provide. If, for example, a religious institution wishes to defend its right to place boundaries around the sorts of romantic relationships it considers legitimate among its adult singles, it places upon itself an obligation to provide for the relationship longings of those people it wishes to regulate. If, for example, every person born in a country is entitled to a certain standard of living and education, then society at large is obligated to provide that through some sort of confiscatory taxation that takes from those who have in order to fulfill the frustrations and suffering and lack of those who do not have. Further examples could be multiplied indefinitely. We all believe we are owed something by those institutions which we are a part of, and those institutions often have no clue or no desire to fulfill those expectations despite their common grousing and carping about the lack of respect and honor in which institutions are held at this time.
This concern over entitlements comes up in surprising places. For example, occasionally I will hear commercials advertising the benefits of joining the NRA (National Rifle Association), one of our nation’s foremost lobbying organizations on behalf of the gun-owning rights of citizens. The commercials I hear point out that while people are disregarded individually, when they combine together in defense of their common rights and interests, they are vastly more powerful. Indeed, we are, which is the sort of motive that has led to all kinds of organizations like unions. Those who feel themselves to be vulnerable on their own seek to join together with others of like sensitivity and vulnerability for the common defense. If all of this sounds together, we may see in every institution’s history the same degree of concern and vulnerability. Those who are secure and confident have little problem being by themselves, but the minute there is trouble, people will come looking for some support from others in the face of what they fear. And so we have families struggling to stick together in the face of common threats, communities struggling with the obligations they have for the well-being of their citizens, and nations going under because of the debts that they have promised but have no hope to pay. The problem can be repeated wherever one goes–it is easier to promise than to fulfill, something that is as true on election day as wedding day or another day where it comes time for the promises made to be redeemed. We love what offices and institutions can do for us whether we seek offices or whether we seek institutions to serve our interests as commonfolk. The story is the same, or at least it rhymes, whatever key we transpose it to.
What are we to do about this though? We all come to institutions with needs. We come with our hand out, looking for something, whether we are male or female, single or married, rich or poor, of whatever religion or ethnicity or any other quality that divides us. We come with our own stories, with our own litany of abuses that we have suffered, with our own fears and longings that we look to institutions to do something about seeing as we lack the wisdom and power to solve our own problems, or else we would. We want things in contradiction to what other people want, and even at times we want things that are mutually contradictory to other things that we happen to want. We rail against the entitlements that other people claim even as we claim our own entitlements from the same sources. So, what is it that we are owed from others? What are we owed from our parents? What are we owed from our neighborhoods, from our churches and schools and workplaces, from our cities and other communities, from our states and nations, and from the world at large? Can what we are owed be paid by those who owe us? Do the institutions we wish to draw from have the resources or the competence to pay us what they owe us, what we are entitled to? Would they serve us if they could? Can we pay the debts we owe to others? Can we forgive what we cannot hope to receive, no matter how legitimate our claim? Can we be forgiven? Can we live at peace with those who disagree with what we owe and what we are owed? Can we live at peace with ourselves and with our Creator? Can we listen to what other people communicate to us, and can we communicate to others what is it that we lack? Can we patiently endure injustice or recognize justice when it appears? Can we be content with what have, cease to torment ourselves with what we cannot change, and yet still strive for what we can only see in our hopes and dreams and visions for a future that has yet to come?