April 24, 2014
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FIRST-PERSON: Questioning American exceptionalism
Matthew Arbo
Posted on May 3, 2012

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. (BP) -- Many of us likely received "exceptional" scores on our grade school report cards at one time or other. Alongside the glimmering "A," our respective teachers commented favorably on our exceptional performance in class. Our parents would in turn beam with pride on reading it, reinforcing the teacher's commendation: "You're exceptional!"

That claim to being exceptional could not have been self-asserted; it required recognition and ascription by someone with knowledge of us and of our situations, someone in authority.

The relatively new and peculiar doctrine of American exceptionalism, propounded more vigorously the past two decades, claims that America's privileged status in the world confers moral responsibility for intervening, sometimes violently, in the event of overt injustice. Genuine injustices ought to be remedied, of course, but the underlying supposition of American privilege among nations is not germane to the Just War tradition of Christian moral reasoning; it has rather been stitched to that tradition like a bad patch.

Perceptive citizens will notice that exceptionalism is almost always appealed to as justification for unilateralism, which curtails or circumvents the Just War principles meant to give us guidance. It's a roundabout way of dismissing accountability. Our exceptionalism apparently guarantees and justifies the truthfulness of our political judgments and actions.

However, this doctrine of American exceptionalism is at best unnecessary to, and at worse a perversion of, the Just War tradition. So why continue to commence deliberations about international justice at a false starting point?

To claim exceptional status is to claim a position above or outside any "normal" range. Indeed the term "normal" does not apply to it by definition. Having done a share of international travel, my feeling is that citizens of other countries see America as "exceptional" in its furnishing of great domestic (i.e. economic) opportunity. In truth, we are one nation within a community of nations and we are accountable to the international community because they are our neighbor. When America claims to be politically exceptional the international community perceives our actions as patronizing, supposing itself once again to be above other nations and exempt from the "normal" rules of play. So, if other nations do not view America as politically exceptional, then why do we understand ourselves this way? Is there a biblical or theological reason for our stance?

The Just War tradition admits that if a nation has it in its power to remedy apparent injustices, then that nation is justified in its intervention if the injustice is in fact real (given the satisfaction of other Just War principles). But possessing the power to intervene does not make a nation "exceptional," for at any time numerous other nations may also have the power to intervene. If many nations have certain powers to intervene in the face of injustice, then logically no one nation would be "exceptional" in this regard. This is why I say the doctrine of American exceptionalism is unnecessary: The Just war tradition contains within it all the resources necessary for deliberating over and engaging in international affairs. In fact, the whole point of intervention would be because it is right and just to intervene, not because the nation is beholden to its privilege.

The doctrine of American exceptionalism has, I fear, been used to justify aggression by insisting that "normal" rules do not apply to the country's actions. We as a nation can work for justice in the world without working from or appealing to this doctrine of exceptionalism; after all, the Just War tradition served perfectly well as a matrix for deliberations of this sort for nearly two millennia without an exceptionalist doctrine.

Biblically, an individual becomes exceptional in the eyes of the Father by virtue of having been made right by the precious blood of His Son. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggested in Discipleship, "What is Christian is what is 'peculiar', the extraordinary, irregular, not self-evident." Jesus Christ and His Gospel are what make the Church exceptional, and nothing more. When one applies divine favor more broadly to national identity one has thereby misunderstood what makes any person -- or people -- exceptional. We are the exception to none because we are slave to the supreme Exception and therefore in following His example the servant to all.

If every good and perfect gift comes down from the Father of Lights, then many Americans have much to be grateful for. But God blesses us despite our national identity, not because of it. American exceptionalism implies that God's favor extends to this nation in a way the Bible promises only to the church -- the church is exceptional because it is the body of Christ on earth. The United States, needless to say, is not the body of Christ. If it supposes to be favored among nations it does so presumptuously and at its peril. So let's jettison once and for all this unnecessary and biblically incongruous doctrine of American exceptionalism and rethink how we, the redeemed members of Christ's heavenly city, might best promote true exceptionalism.
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Matthew Arbo is assistant professor of Christian ethics at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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