The word citizen isn’t a word I use very often.

When I stumble on a word I don’t often use (like I have in Thin Difference’s current series), I look up its definition.

One dictionary I found defined a citizen as “a native or naturalized member of a state or nation who owes allegiance to its government and is entitled to its protection.” The second definition was equally interesting. “An inhabitant of a city or town, especially one entitled to its privileges or franchises.”

It’s All About Privileges

In each of the definitions, it appears the focus of citizenship is on what we get, not what we contribute. Citizens are literally entitled (so it’s not just Millennials!) to government protection, along with privileges and franchises.

According to the dictionary, all we owe is allegiance (and probably some taxes!)

As I reflected on these definitions, my mind drifted to a similar word — membership.

We don’t use the word member very often today either. When we do use it, our focus is almost entirely on privileges. We’re a member of the gym — so we get to use the facilities. We’re a member of Netflix – so we get to binge-watch TV shows (unless we’re cheating and using someone else’s membership). We’re a member of a country club – and that’s all about privileges!

In each of these, we only need to exchange money or “allegiance,” and abundant privileges come our way.

The Questions Citizenship Asks of Us

This seems to be a major problem, don’t you think? In a world where it seems like we have less and less common ground, where the tension between citizens is heightened each day, and competing visions of the future collide, don’t we need a kind of citizenship which is bigger than “what can I get out of it”?

do something greatIn one of his most famous speeches, President Kennedy called the citizens of his country to “ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.”

According to JFK, it’s not about what you take. It’s about what you give.

From this perspective, the most important question a citizen can ask is “What does this business, organization, city, state, or country need?”

Maybe that’s our problem. We’re not asking what someone else or something else needs; we’re looking to see what we can take for ourselves.

A Sickness in Our Citizenship

In his best-selling book, “Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success,” Wharton Business School professor Adam Grant writes, “Americans see independence as a symbol of strength, viewing interdependence as a sign of weakness.”

This is a sign of our own national sickness. We’re turning inward, caring for our preservation rather than turning outward in an attempt to nurture others.

Consider your own experience. When you’re unwell, you will likely take all the privileges you can and insist on your rights. But when you’re healthy, well, and whole, you don’t look to take for yourself; you have the capacity to give.

When I’m unhealthy (physically and in my soul), my focus becomes far more about my personal agenda than the needs of others. Especially when it comes to someone who I’m not sure can do me any good, I’m sad to admit I’ve often shown little concern.

Samuel Johnson, the English writer, noted, “the true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.” When we cease caring for those who cannot do anything for us and look primarily to what we can get for ourselves, we’re on shaky ground.

The state of citizenship in any venue, whether it’s a business, school, non-profit organization, neighborhood or church, depends on how we treat others. And I believe the national state of citizenship today is reflected in the lack of compassion, empathy, and understanding we offer those who are not part of our tribe.

While common ground exists, we avoid it, seeking more often to label and lambast those who threaten our privileges.

The Kind of Citizens We Need Today

The kind of citizens our current cultural moment demands are those who know how to give and take, in the words of Adam Grant. We need men and women who value common ground and prefer to spend time on such ground, not simply hunkered down with the walls of their tribe.

Sure, there are consequences to this kind of citizenship. It means we will likely get metaphorically shot (via 280 characters on Twitter) by both those who are part of other tribes, along with our own. Yet, isn’t citizenship about giving of ourselves for the good of something much bigger than any of us?

And as a citizen, our calling is not to pursue our privileges but to ensure the well-being of others.

Few men and women in American history embody this path more than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King once observed, “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.”

Citizenship at its best is creative altruism. Humanity at its worst is destructive selfishness.

It’s time for us to return to Kennedy’s calling. The _________ (country/organization/church/cause) isn’t here to meet our needs. We are the __________, and we are here to meet the needs of others.

Featured Photo by Lina Trochez on Unsplash
Additional Photo by Clark Tibbs on Unsplash
Is our idea of citizenship flawed? Scott Savage suggests that when it focuses only on privileges instead of service, we're all in trouble.