Jesus and American Exceptionalism by Randy Woodley

Jesus and American Exceptionalism by Randy Woodley February 8, 2012

It seems the concept of American Exceptionalism has made a comeback. This is especially notable if you listen for even just a few minutes to the Republican Primary debates. The term is kind of new, but the concept began many years ago. Basically, it translates to mean God favors America more than God favors (at least most) other nations.

The early Puritans had a similar spiritual vision to build a “city upon a hill” as a sign for God’s will for all. They wanted to create a “New Jerusalem” and to be a “light to all nations.” By their obedience to what they saw as true religion the Puritans would be the example to the world of God’s blessing. They believed it so much that these well educated, dedicated Christians ended up killing many of those (often fellow Christians) who disagreed with them, and justifying attempted genocide on the Pequot Indians and theft of the surrounding native lands.

John Winthrop, Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony made a “legal” declaration annulling any native claims to the land. “The Indians,” he said, “had not ‘subdued’ the land, and therefore had only a ‘natural’ right to it, but not a ‘civil right.’ A ‘natural right’ did not have legal standing”[1]

Politicians, businessmen and others during the Jacksonian era sought to conquer the western frontier by forcibly removing the Indians, and opening those vacated lands to White settlement. Why? In their minds it was God’s will that the superior White race benefit civilization by ruling over all other races. African American Slavery and Native American genocide flourished in this era and beyond, where the concept of American Exceptionalism was coined to be the phrase, “Manifest Destiny.”

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, justification to support American expansionism was well embedded in the psyche of the American people. Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Hawaii, etc. would all need to roll over and submit to the divinely appointed sovereignty of American Expansionism, another way of saying, American Exceptionalism.

I have named only three eras in our history where the spirit of American Exceptionalism is evident. Truthfully, there is probably no era in American history when the zeitgeist of privilege for Americans, most often White male wealthier Americans, has out-weighed the attitude of service to others who are less fortunate.

I’m all for being an American. Sometimes, I’m even a proud American. Where do I place my patriotism? In the best of our American ideals and in the rare times when the actions we take as a nation exhibit the best of who we are. In spite of all the evil, this country has always been a place where marginalized and dissenting voices, even under seemingly impossible odds, can find a way to be heard. And that really gets Americans excited. We love to root for the underdog. We cherish the success of those who begin with little or nothing. In essence, what comes sewn into the fabric of being an American is an identity crisis that battles between American Exceptionalism and sacrificial concern for the disenfranchised.

Jesus faced a similar problem. His own people, the Jews, faced a dilemma not unlike the typical American identity problem. But unlike us, Jesus never confused nationalism and his faith. Jesus was clear about those who use their privilege and power to rule over others. His faith always landed him on the side of those who were being abused by the dominant system. Jesus read the Scriptures to understand blessing and privilege as an opportunity to serve those less fortunate.

Undue pride as children of Abraham you say?

“Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones.” Matthew 3:9.

God’s exclusive blessing of shalom on Israel you say?

“I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.” Luke 4:25-27

God favors one nation over another you say?

“Are you Israelites more important to me than the Ethiopians?” asks the LORD. “I brought Israel out of Egypt, but I also brought the Philistines from Crete and led the Arameans out of Kir.” Amos 9:7

American Exceptionalism should not be part of any Christian’s theology or thinking. If we have anything more than others or that which privileges us over others who have less, we should use that power as an opportunity to serve those who are less fortunate. Ready to take on American Exceptionalism? You might want to pack a parachute…

“All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him [Jesus] out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him down the cliff.” Luke 4:28


[1] Zinn, Howard, A People’s History of the United States, p. 14.


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