Rituals, No. 2 (Citizenship)

Last week the International Institute of Minnesota hosted two citizenship ceremonies at the Festival of Nations, and I helped as a volunteer.

The first time I attended a citizenship ceremony was just by chance a few months ago when I was at the International Institute, and I happened to wander in as the ceremony was starting. I saw the flag, and the people, and the judge, and my eyes immediately welled up, my heart was full, and it hurt.

It happened again last week. There is something very humbling about these ceremonies I think partly because I had to do nothing to become a citizen. I was born here. I get the benefits without having to do anything. I don’t even have to vote.

So here are 87 people from Bangladesh, Bolivia, Burma, Columbia, Guatemala, Guinea, Guyana, Iraq, Jordan, Kenya, Morocco, Poland, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Vietnam, Canada, India, Laos, Liberia, the Philippines, the UK, Mexico, Somalia, and Ethiopia, taking a pledge of citizenship. And they didn’t just show up to take a pledge on that day. They’ve been working toward that day for years. They’ve established themselves in the community. In some cases they had to learn English. They left their homes, sometimes leaving everything behind and fleeing for their lives.

As Senator Tina Smith said in her opening remarks “It’s been a difficult path for many, dangerous for some”.

This is the citizenship pledge:

“I solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution and Laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I give up and surrender any allegiance to any king, queen or prince, or to any state or country, which I have held, up until this day. That as a citizen of the United States, I will, when lawfully directed, bear arms, or perform non-combatant service, in the armed forces of the United States, or I will, when directed, perform non-military service on behalf of the United States. I take these obligations freely, without any purpose of evasion and declare today, that I am a citizen of the United States of America.”

When I was born I didn’t have to say that pledge, did you? No, of course you didn’t.

If I was required to take that oath, could I do it freely? It’s something to ponder.

The Judge who issued the oath then followed up with a few words. I can only paraphrase – –

He told the new citizens that we give our loyalty to a set of ideas or ideals, not to a person. We can criticize our government without fear of punishment. This allows us to live a safe and successful life for our families.

He told the new citizens that they are free to follow the call of their history and culture, and that they should respect their own origins and let others do the same. He told them “you are free”, and that the courts are designed to protect their freedoms. “You are free to express your opinions, and free to believe what your heart believes.” In America, there is no single way to think. In fact, having only one way to think is contrary to what we’re about.

He told them that they have a responsibility to participate. Democracy only works when we participate thoughtfully and we think about everyone. And we do not do this out of fear or hatred. We should be making choices for ourselves, yes, but also for our country. Use our schools to educate girls and boys alike. Be responsive to your community. Be tolerant, and live in peace. Care for your neighbors. Be kind to those around you, and to those who don’t have as much as you. Volunteer with those you know and those you don’t know.

And he wrapped up with a Thomas Jefferson quote: “People cannot expect to be both ignorant and free.”

And then he closed with “and God save America.”

I commented to a friend that my emotional reaction to these rituals is a little surprising, because I don’t think of myself as a flag-waving patriot. She replied “It’s about humanity and dreams, not patriotism.” I agree that it’s about humanity and dreams. And maybe, just maybe, it’s also a little bit about patriotism.

© Rebecca Larson 2018