Wednesday, December 28, 2011

American Exceptionalism: An Idol Worth Discarding

Apparently if you want to run for president in America you must proclaim that America is the most superior nation on earth. (And apparently if you want to comment on sporting events you must wear an American flag lapel pin; oh nationalism!) As Jerome Karabel notes in his Huffington Post article, the language of "American exceptionalism" has increased exponentially since 2005 and it stems from both Republicans and Democrats.

In a country where the majority of people (60-76%) self-identify as Christian, this is a big problem. Not just because it produces horrendous Christmas music. And not just because the claim that America is the apple of God's eye is polarizing and unattractive. It is a big problem because it is totally contrary to the will of God revealed in their own sacred Scriptures. The entire trend of "American Exceptionalism" is proof not of God's blessing America but rather the dire biblical illiteracy among American Christians. To keep this brief, I will cite only a few examples.

First and foremost, the heart of Christian (and Jewish) Scripture is the claim that God is One. This is found explicitly in Deuteronomy 6:4: "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one." (This is often referred to as "The Shema," as "shema" is the first word of the verse in Hebrew). The significance of this is captured well by Yale theologian, Juroslav Pelikan:

"The God of Israel was not a tribal deity but the God of all the nations, the One and Only True God, which implied that there was a will of God for all the nations, not only the people of Israel" - or, in this case, America.

A second example is found in Amos 9:7. "The Lord says, 'Israel, you are no different to me than the people of Cush. I brought Israel out of the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Crete, and the Arameans from Kir.'" Once again, the biblical prophet Amos reminds us that God is the God of the world, not just "one nation under God." This concept resonates with the Psalmist's words: "The earth is the Lord's and everything in it, the world and all who live in it," (Ps. 24:1).

A fourth and last example comes from the mouth of Jesus, the Christ who ought to rule the life and behavior of so-called Christians. Jesus' most intense condemnation of his people came during a visit to the Jerusalem Temple. In the 11th chapter of Mark's Gospel Jesus is quoted as reciting two passages from the Hebrew Prophets. Jesus first declares, "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations," (Isaiah 56:7). This is not only a condemnation of "Israeli Exceptionalism," but also a revelation of God's true will for the world:

"This passage belongs, clearly enough, with those that predict, as one aspect of Israel's eventual blessing, the ingathering of the Gentiles into the one people of YHWH. ...Gentiles are to be welcomed in, but the present people of Israel, especially their supposed leaders and guardians (56:10f.) are under judgment." [N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 418]

Jesus' condemnation of the Temple is not simply an economic concern but a national one. It has to do with Israel's self-proclaimed exceptionalism. In effect, Jesus' condemnation says, "God does not play favorites; God is radically inclusive."

Allow me to conclude by stating that American society has many wonderful features: freedom of speech/press, many civil liberties, socialized water, plumbing, and transportation systems, and many more. But I must also warn of the dangers of viewing America "the nation" as superior to and more important than any part of the rest of the world in the eyes of God. After all, a nation is simply a conglomerate of people and people are made in the image of God no matter their global locale.

To be Christian - to follow the One in whom the nations put their hope (Matt. 12:21), this Jesus who so loved the world (John 3:16) - then American Christians must discard the idol of "American Exceptionalism" and catch the vision of the God Who is Lord of All.

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