Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Danger of American Exceptionalism

Walter Russell Mean published a scorching essay regarding President Obama’s new Middle East peace framework and the fiery speech of Benjamin Netanyahu in front of the U.S. Congress: The Dreamer Goes Down For The Count. I heard portions of Netayahu’s speech and it was quite stirring and a marked contrast to Obama’s “nuanced” lecture on a subject he seems to know very little about. I am less interested in those speeches and what Mead had to say about them than I am about something he ended his essay with.

Near the end of his cutting essay on Netanyahu’s dismantling of President Obama’s ill-conceived comments on Mideast “peace” came these three paragraphs:
As the stunning and overwhelming response to Prime Minister Netanyahu in Congress showed, Israel matters in American politics like almost no other country on earth. Well beyond the American Jewish and the Protestant fundamentalist communities, the people and the story of Israel stir some of the deepest and most mysterious reaches of the American soul. The idea of Jewish and Israeli exceptionalism is profoundly tied to the idea of American exceptionalism. The belief that God favors and protects Israel is connected to the idea that God favors and protects America.

It means more. The existence of Israel means that the God of the Bible is still watching out for the well-being of the human race. For many American Christians who are nothing like fundamentalists, the restoration of the Jews to the Holy Land and their creation of a successful, democratic state after two thousand years of oppression and exile is a clear sign that the religion of the Bible can be trusted.

Being pro-Israel matters in American mass politics because the public mind believes at a deep level that to be pro-Israel is to be pro-America and pro-faith. Substantial numbers of voters believe that politicians who don’t ‘get’ Israel also don’t ‘get’ America and don’t ‘get’ God. Obama’s political isolation on this issue, and the haste with which liberal Democrats like Nancy Pelosi left the embattled President to take the heat alone, testify to the pervasive sense in American politics that Israel is an American value. Said the Minority Leader to the Prime Minister: “I think it’s clear that both sides of the Capitol believe you advance the cause of peace.”
I find that language all very troubling. I don’t believe that God “favors” or protects America nor do I think that His favor extends in a particular fashion to the modern Jewish nation of Israel over other nations. The idea that God has taken sides and picked America to shower His blessings on has zero, I mean zero, Biblical support. I likewise find that the creation of the modern Jewish homeland in the Middle East had far more to do with post-World War II political pragmatism than it did with some sort of divine restorative program. God has not promised His blessings under the New Covenant on any particular nation and in many ways I find the cultural religion of America to be more of an impediment to disciple making than a blessing.

American exceptionalism is a poison to the church in America in large part because it colors our understanding of missions. Subtly and perhaps unconsciously Christians in America see our mission to the world as two-fold: proclaim the Gospel and replicate the American religious culture. It is tinged with a not so subtle arrogance, assuming that America is has most favored nation status with God. So we go about planting American style churches with American style worship and American style clergy. This walks hand in hand with spreading American values to the world. We assume that if we can make unbelievers in exotic lands look and act more like Americans, they will naturally be easier to convert. Our call is not to make Asian unbelievers in American Christians, it is to see Asian unbelievers become Asian Christians. We are not called to enact cultural transformation, we are called to “be all things to all people”, taking the Gospel to them whatever their context or culture might be.

Don't get me wrong, I recognize the freedoms we have in America. I love the diverse landscapes and natural beauty of this land, the regional variety that gives us more flavor than any other land. I also recognize that we can worship all sorts of ways without fear of persecution. I also notice that God did not establish His church in America where it would be welcome, He established His church in the Middle East under and during the terror of the Roman empire. I think there are some valuable lessons to learn if we ponder what that means.

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