A Fourth of July Reflection: Taking Exception to American Exceptionalism

A Fourth of July Reflection: Taking Exception to American Exceptionalism July 4, 2013

Ferdinand Bol (1616–1680) , God’s Messenger Appears to Joshua. This work is linked to Joshua 5:13 (1642); Wikimedia {{PD-US-expired-abroad}}

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, including 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 or most exceptional nation on the earth, the exception to the rule? What criterion do we use for our long-standing conviction of our exceptionalism? The largest economy? The greatest military? State of the art health care research? Nations in our time and nations to follow will no doubt debate where such superlatives go on the ladder of greatness.

The origins of American exceptionalism is sometimes attributed to John Winthrop’s exhortation to his fellow colonists in New England: “We shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.” However, others claim that it arises in view of the European Enlightenment. According to Donald E. Pease in his article titled “American Exceptionalism” in Oxford Bibliographies, America’s founding fathers

imagined the United States as an unprecedentedly free, new nation based on founding documents—the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—that announced its unique destiny to become the champion of the universal rights of all humankind. In Rights of Man (1792), Thomas Paine asserted that the “revolution of America presented in politics what was only theory in mechanics.” Despite American exceptionalism’s standing as an invariant tenet of the national creed, however, accounts of the discourse’s content have changed with historical circumstances. American exceptionalism has been taken to mean that America is either “distinctive” (meaning merely different), or “unique” (meaning anomalous), or “exemplary” (meaning a model for other nations to follow), or “exempt” from the laws of historical progress (meaning that it is an “exception” to the laws and rules governing the development of other nations).The particulars attributed to the term have been said to refer to clusters of absent and present elements—the absence of feudal hierarchies, class conflicts, a socialist labor party, trade unionism, and divisive ideological passions, and the presence of a predominant middle class, tolerance for diversity, upward mobility, hospitality toward immigrants, a shared constitutional faith, and liberal individualism—that putatively set America apart from other national cultures. Although historical realities have posed significant challenge, these tenets have proven uncommonly resilient.

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:

13 When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” 14 And he said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the LORD. Now I have come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped and said to him, “What does my lord say to his servant?” 15 And the commander of the LORD’s army said to Joshua, “Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so (ESV).

As revealed in this passage, Joshua asks the “man” looming before him whose side is he on, to which the figure responds that he is not on either side. Rather, he has come as the commander of the Lord’s most exceptional army of heaven. Joshua falls flat before the heavenly commander in homage and then takes off his sandals in response to the commander’s command. It is reminiscent of what the Angel of the LORD told Moses to do in Exodus 3:4-6: 

“Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God (ESV).

This text may, or rather should, also call to mind Paul’s hymn of praise to Jesus in Philippians 2:9-11:

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

How about the rest of us, especially those who claim to be American Christians? Do we presume that God is on our side, just like soldiers of various military forces that have gone into battle throughout history with “Gott mit uns” or “God with us” (or in some other language) etched on their belt buckles, rolling off their tongues, and stirring in their hearts? I honor the bravery of America’s 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–Jesus. 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 and exceptionalism 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 imprisonment in exile. If such is the case with God’s chosen people in the Bible, do we think God would excuse us who espouse America as God’s chosen nation from a similar fate?

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