One of the common refrains I heard from progressive people in Pakistan and India during my month there this summer was, “We love the American people -- it’s the policies of your government we don’t like.”
That sentiment is not unusual in the developing world, and such statements can reduce the tension with some Americans when people criticize U.S. policy, which is more common than ever after the illegal invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.
I used to smile and nod when I heard it, but this summer I stopped agreeing.
“You shouldn’t love the American people,” I started saying. “You should hate us -- we’re the enemy.”
By that I don’t mean that most Americans are trying to come up with new ways to attack people in the Global South. Instead, I want to challenge the notion that in a relatively open society such as the United States -- where most people can claim extensive guarantees of freedom of expression and political association -- that the problem is leaders and not ordinary citizens. Whatever the reason people in other countries repeat this statement, the stakes today are too high for those of us in the United States to accept these kinds of reassuring platitudes about hating-the-policy but loving-the-people of an imperial state. It is long past time that we the people of the United States started holding ourselves responsible for the crimes our government perpetrates around the world.
This is our prophetic challenge, in the tradition of the best of the prophets of the past, who had the courage to name the injustice in a society and demand a reckoning.
In the Christian and Jewish traditions, the Old Testament offers us many models -- Amos and Hosea, Jeremiah and Isaiah. The prophets condemned corrupt leaders but also called out all those privileged people in society who had turned from the demands of justice that the faith makes central to human life. In his study of The Prophets, the scholar and activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel concluded:
Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible. If we admit that the individual is in some measure conditioned or affected by the spirit of society, an individual’s crime discloses society’s corruption. In a community not indifferent to suffering, uncompromisingly impatient with cruelty and falsehood, continually concerned for God and every man, crime would be infrequent rather than common.