A Fourth of July Reflection: Taking Exception to American Exceptionalism

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Today we who are Americans celebrate the founding of our great nation—a wondrous experiment in the pursuit of democratic ideals. There is much to celebrate for sure: freedom from tyrannical regimes where people have no freedom in the areas of speech and religion, among other human longings and values. Of course, we have had more than our fair or unfair share of overwhelming challenges along the way, such as with the struggles for civil rights for various groups of people, such as ethnic minorities and women. Even so, our democracy continues to move forward in pursuit of its values set forth in its founding documents.

In the midst of the fanfare, I can’t help but ask: why must many Americans consider our nation to be the best for it to be great? Certainly, it is a great nation. But who are we Americans to say that it is the best nation on the earth? What criterion do we use? The largest economy? The greatest military? Universal health care? The absence of poverty? Nations in our time and nations to follow will no doubt debate where such superlatives and relatives go on the ladder of greatness.

I take exception to America’s or any nation’s sense of exceptionalism in light of another nation’s founding documents. In the Bible, the nation of Israel under Joshua was on its way to conquer the Promised Land. As Joshua and the people were about to march on Jericho, Joshua came face to face with an imposing figure with a drawn sword in his hand. Let’s take a look at Joshua 5:13-15:

Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”

“Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my Lord have for his servant?”

The commander of the Lord’s army replied, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so.

Joshua asks the “man” looming before him whose side is he on, to which the figure responds: “Neither,…but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come.” Joshua falls flat before the heavenly commander in homage and then takes off his sandals in response to the commander’s command.

How about the rest of us, especially those who claim to be Christian Americans? Do we presume that God is on our side, just like soldiers of various militaries who have gone into battle throughout history with “Gott mit uns” belt buckles and their English “God with us” and other language equivalents on their bellies, on their tongues, and in their hearts? I honor the bravery of our soldiers throughout the generations, who have put themselves in harm’s way for our democratic ideals and our society at large. Still, the presumption that we might find lurking in our souls that God is on our side does not pay honor to the commander of the Lord’s army. The question is not to be posed to God: “What side are you on?” but “Lord, what side are we on?”

Patriotism is a very good thing—maintaining loyalty to one’s nation. However, blind nationalism that claims that one’s country can do no wrong, or that one’s country is synonymous with the kingdom of God is by no means exceptional from the vantage point of the Bible. Even God’s chosen people—Israel—had to guard against such presumption or face God’s stinging rebuke or worse, including abandonment of its empire and exile. If such is the case with God’s chosen people in the Bible, do we think God would excuse us from a similar fate?

This piece is cross-posted at The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and at The Christian Post.

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