On Thanksgiving, American Power, & Neighbor Love

Editor’s note: This reflection originally appeared in the Providence Newsletter, a weekly round up of top essays and a bit a of something extra from the editors. If you’re sufficiently captivated and aren’t already signed up, do so here.

I write this thirty-six thousand feet over what, I think, is the fast approaching coast of Newfoundland, Canada. Something extraordinary happened on the island, perhaps you know, on September 11, 2001. In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks, US airspace was shut down, all flights already over the continental US were immediately grounded, and 42 inbound flights from over the Atlantic were diverted to the town of Gander, whose airport was the first to receive transatlantic flights during WWII and therefore had long enough runways to safely land long haul jets.

In an instant, the town’s population increased by 66% as more than 6,500 passengers were stranded. Fears now familiar to us abounded—chief among them was that no one could know whether additional terrorists were hiding among the stranded passengers, the Global War on Terror’s first, if temporary refugees. The threat collided with the need to deplane the passengers and to provide them with shelter and food. Measures were quickly assembled, remarkable in the circumstances, to accommodate the need for both security and compassion. Over the six days before US airspace would be reopened, the townspeople rallied, coming together to house the passengers in school gymnasiums, hotels, and other locations. They set up laundry services, provided hot meals, shared news, entertained and offered company, helped with phone calls home, and even took in families and others into their own homes. There’s at least one terrific book about it. Entitled The Day the World Came to Town, the books gets it right. The world really did come, and it came together.

Such a need still exists. My time in England ended any question whether election shock has reached beyond the US. Most folks I talked with readily understood the deeply dissatisfying qualities of both candidates. Even still, they are concerned that Trump’s victory might signal a troubling disinterest for the conditions of life in those places in which vital US interests are not at stake, and that the new administration might follow some of the patterns of the old by drawing down on our forward presence or down-grading alliance obligations. Having seen some positive signs, they recognize some cause for hope, even as other signs continue to elicit concern. In particular, they watch, like the rest of us, for the new president’s cabinet to come together—our English friends are rightly eager for it to be a serious assembly of seasoned and capable advisors.

One thing stood out particularly. At Oxford, where I presented a short paper on the ethical realism of Reinhold Niebuhr as part of a colloquium that included veterans of England’s academic, government, media, and military communities, there was a wide agreement with Trump’s claim that America’s alliance partners have not, in fact, been pulling their own weight in certain areas—including both in military spending as well as ownership of and responsibility for addressing regional conflicts. At the same time, they are anxious that American leadership and capacity not recede too much, even as others rightly shoulder a greater bit of the burden. It was striking, in a time when many Americans are sorely, and somewhat understandably, tempted to turn inward, our English friends believe in American purpose, power, and leadership more than many of us do.

As Gander passes below, I am grateful, and in this week gratitude is especially appropriate, that I and those I love most in the world live in a powerful nation that is, by disposition, moved, however imperfectly, to concern for the common good. Power, in too many circles of American life—most shamefully in the church—has come to be regarded with cynicism and disdain. Both are qualities very different than caution, which has always and rightfully marked the American relationship to power. However concerned about power, particularly its centralization, America has long understood that power is not an evil, nor is it a neutral thing. Power is a good—it is an attribute of God. Like all goods, morally entrepreneurial human beings have discovered ways to pervert it, to deprive it of its essential goodness. But that only means that power must be redeemed, not disregarded.

The American experiment began when those seeking religious liberties left behind those governing powers that refused to give them—no, to acknowledge—those liberties. From the beginning, religious liberty has had to be backed by power and secured by strength. Christian wisdom ought not to like that fact, but it had better accept it.

Blessed with this power, cognizant of its purpose, American greatness must be chiefly characterized by goodness. And so I am also grateful for those occasions when our great and good nation has been willing, within the limits of prudence and charity, to spend this power in support of the religious liberties of our international neighbors—Christian and otherwise—and their desires to live in communities marked by basic degrees of justice and order sufficient to allow for at least enough peace to secure their families and get on with living.

These are great goods, which must be attended by great responsibility. And so I will be grateful if we look that responsibility full in the face—or at least take a gander at it.

Marc LiVecche is the managing editor of Providence. He is grateful for the blessings in his life, an abundance beyond count.

Image: Robert W. Weir, Embarkation of the Pilgrims, 1837. U.S. Capital rotunda. A group of Protestant pilgrims are on the deck of the Speedwell before their 1620 voyage from Delfs Haven, Holland, to the “New World” of North America, where they sought religious freedom. They would sail first to Southampton, England, to join the Mayflower. William Brewster, holding the Bible, and pastor John Robinson lead prayer. The pilgrims include Governor Carver, William Bradford, Miles Standish, and their families. At the left side of the painting, a rainbow is visible in the sky behind the ship. In the foreground, armor and weapons are piled. To the side, a soldier kneels. Reliance on divine providence does not mean human beings abandon their responsibilities to should dominion. Five months after beginning their crossing, the pilgrims would settle the Plymouth Colony in present-day Massachusetts. The American experiment had begun.

 

 
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  • Matt Gobush

    Marc – Thank you for your moving Thanksgiving homily, but is not the lesson of Gander that American power is allied power, that our great nation is not an island? The North Altantic alliance has invoked Article 5 of its founding treaty calling for collectove defense but once in its storied history – to aid the United States when we were attacked on September 11. That is a stark reminder of the value of multilateralism for America’s interests that I fear our president-elect is neither cognizant of nor thankful for.

    • Marc LiVecche

      I completely agree Matt. I only mean to press the point that American strength must be sufficient to go it alone should our allies not join us in what we believe to be a necessary fight. Also, the post-9/11 coalition, for which we should be grateful, wouldn’t have come off very well if not for US power. Both these points are reminders to maintain military strength. I was also struck by how much our allies appear to want not only US strength but also US leadership–marked by humility, prudence, collaboration, and a sense of concern about, and perhaps responsibility for, the conditions of life throughout the world. So yes, friends as we venture abroad–by all means. But sufficient alone if we must.