Mimetic Theory and American Exceptionalism

Mimetic Theory and American Exceptionalism September 17, 2013

By Suzanne Ross and Adam Ericksen
The Raven Foundation

So out of the entire op-ed piece published by President Putin in the New York Times on September 12, his challenge to American exceptionalism is what has everyone up in arms. At the very end of the piece, he takes exception to Obama’s assertion of our exceptional commitment to the defense of the defenseless. Here’s the paragraph from Obama’s speech that Putin was referring to – read it carefully:

America is not the world’s policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth.

What is Obama really saying here? Perhaps he didn’t intend to call us out on our own cowardice and the exceptional American pursuit of the easy way out, but this is a pretty accurate paraphrase of what he says: “As long as it requires only modest effort on our part and no American life is actually threatened, we will violate international law and drop some bombs to save some Syrian kids but mostly to keep our own children safer over the long run.” Despite this obvious failure to edit, most commentators are assuming Obama meant to offer more strenuous praise of his fellow Americans than he actually did. Yet, there was much to take exception to nonetheless. Fellow Patheos blogger, Dr. James Wellman, in his article Deconstructing American Exceptionalism is absolutely right to characterize Obama’s speech as an attempt to shame and bully the American people into bombing Syria. Dr. Wellman asserts:

Well, I won’t be shamed into this bombing, and I don’t buy the argument that the U.S. is somehow exceptional in our virtue and that we, among all nations, should bear the moral conscience of the globe. Think about that, the President mentioned “humility,” how is this project a project of humility?

Humility is indeed the opposite of exceptionalism. It is important to realize, however, that these are not character traits but descriptions of two different types of relationships. As we learn from mimetic theory, humility and exceptionalism do not exist inside us but between us, in the space created by international interactions. So American exceptionalism implies what exactly about the nations we interact with? Whether enemy or friend, if we are exceptional then those other states are ordinary, un-noteworthy. And if we are exceptional at caring for the safety of children, then other nation states obviously care less for children, they even care less for their own children than we do. I think it’s easy to see why anyone, Putin included, might be the teeniest bit offended by that accusation. For that’s what the claim of American exceptionalism is – an accusation that you, my poor, paltry fellow nation-state, are not in the least bit as wonderful as we are.

Is that any way to win friends and influence people? Would an attitude of humility work any better at gaining persuasive influence over others? Humility is also about relationships. The humble person is actually paying a complement to those he is in relationship with. Enemy or friend, the humble person’s message is one of respect, even admiration, certainly open-ended curiosity about what another thinks and feels. To be humble is not to be weak, as so many advocates of American military exceptionalism would have us believe. No, to be humble is to occupy a rather oddly powerful position. To be humble means that our egos are tamed and so we won’t interpret criticisms as insults and lash out in anger. Being humble means our actions and reactions are not governed by the need to soothe our wounded pride, to win at any cost, to be the one in the spotlight or the most popular person at the party.

And truth be told, the claim of exceptionalism is counter to the Christian revelation. It may surprise many who see him as an enemy, but Putin knows this. He ended his article this way:

It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.

Ouch! Putin is actually right to invoke God, but I might put it a bit differently. It’s not that God created us equal (perhaps Putin was trying to flatter us with a reference to our Declaration of Independence), but that God is in the process of creating us, or better yet, of inviting us to be created in God’s image. And the perfect revelation of that image is of Christ on the cross. Talk about the opposite of exceptional! Being crucified is losing big time. It’s a failure on a grand scale and a humiliating failure at that. Jesus’ disciples went into hiding after the crucifixion because they were powerless, frightened of Roman aggression, and ashamed of their failed attempt to inaugurate God’s kingdom. But what looked like a humiliating failure in human terms turned out to be an expression of God’s power, a power rooted in the incredible strength it takes to occupy the place of shame and humiliation, the place we human beings trample over each other to get away from. James Alison calls the place of failure that Jesus occupied on the cross as “the place of toxicity”:

… think what it means in terms of strength that someone is able to occupy the place of toxicity without being run by it. The one thing we know for sure is that it is the one place not to be in at all, that the ultimate sign of being a loser is the person who gets to be in that place. And winners, by definition, are the people who don’t get to occupy that place. So we know the difference between strength and weakness. Being strong is not being in that place, but being able to put others in it, and being weak is being unable to avoid getting put in that place. But here is someone whose strength is totally off our radar, because they’re so strong that they can lose and not mind losing… What does it do to our sense of what’s good and what’s bad, what’s right and what’s wrong, who wins and who loses? (Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice, p. 291-292)

And who is exceptional and who isn’t? Perhaps as Dr. Wellman suggests, being exceptional in God’s eyes means rejecting the way humans have gone about asserting our exceptionalism and trying on Christ’s way for size. I’ll leave you with this call to action from Dr. Wellman:

It’s time for Americans to rise up and call an end to this madness. To tell the President we must become truly exceptional not by turning to violence, but by not using bombs, by not thinking we have all the answers. By using other means, non-violent ones, to encourage peace, to undercut the terrible civil wars that now kill and maim so many.

This would be exceptional: that the globe’s world power no longer claims to be exceptional; who now uses nonviolent means to resolve problems. This would make history: a humble approach and an approach that as a people who purport to be Christian, we can actually begin to live out the words and actions of the one who we supposedly claim to follow.

We hope you will join us at Teaching Nonviolent Atonement for our weekly conversations about human violence and the divine promise of peace.


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