The Heresy of Exceptionalism

A Facebook friend recently posted a link to an article/newsletter by David Barton. Normally I am loath to read anything by Barton (the self-proclaimed “renowned historian” without even an undergraduate history degree or any clue about historical methodology), but since this had to do with Texas politics and particularly the Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, I thought it might be worthwhile to give it a look. Barton’s contention is that Speaker Joe Straus isn’t really a conservative and not much of a Republican. Fair enough.

But what really caught my eye was an attack Barton made on one of Straus’ allies. After commenting on a piece of pro-life legislation that State Affairs Committee Chariman Burt Solomons prevented from reaching the floor of the House, he says, “Incidentally, as a reflection of Solomons’ philosophy, he had previously even objected to teaching that America is a blessed and unique nation – i.e., American Exceptionalism…” There’s no indication as to whether Solomons currently objects to this teaching, and the comment is a bit of the cheap ad hominem that is sadly found pervasively in conservative circles.

In my youth I imbibed heavily from the trough of American Exceptionalism and have held to it explicitly or implicitly for most of my life.  As a result, I have done the only logical thing: I have repented.

America has been a blessed and unique nation, but recognising this is not adhering to American Exceptionalism. Many nations have been blessed and all nations are unique, but this is not what David Barton believes. American Exceptionalism is the teaching that the United States is special above all other nations – that God has blessed America and likes America more than the others.

American Exceptionalism has been used as an exemption from the law of nations. The attitude is that international law may apply to the rest of you but it doesn’t apply to us, because we’re special and we don’t have to play by everyone else’s rules.  We will tell you what you can and can’t do in your country, but don’t you dare tell us. In fact, international law so doesn’t apply that we can violate the sovereignty of other countries and have done so with impunity. All countries are sovereign, but some countries are more sovereign that others. The sovereignty of other countries is always secondary to American interests.

This doctrine of American Exceptionalism is not something new. One hundred and seventy years ago it was called Manifest Destiny (though the term is often used for the period between 1812-1860, it was coined in 1839 and only came into common use around 1845). It was used to justify the expansion of the United States at whatever cost. The biggest acquisition was 42% of Mexico as a result of the Mexican War, which started as a dispute over the territory between the Rio Grande and Nueces Rivers in South Texas. This is a bit like taking an area twice the size of France as the result of a dispute about an area the size of, for example, Alsace-Lorraine. This area now contains over 16% of the US population, so it could be argued that we eventually needed the lebensraum.

It was also the justification to gain control of much of the central part of the continent that had been purchased from a European power which claimed it by right of conquest.*  Most of the inhabitants were completely unaware they had been conquered. When they objected to their lands being taken by white folks, the US Army brought this to their attention. They were, after all, savages, so it was okay to kill them. Having no concept of private property, they also had no property rights, so it was only right that it should be taken over and controlled by folks who understood their God-given right to plat and deed every inch land. Now it must be said that out of the goodness of their heart, the American government did reserve some of the Indians’ own land for them, force them to live there, and shoot them if they objected.

The most extraordinary thing about this American Exceptionalism is that it is generally agreed to have its roots in a thesis (it is often called a sermon, but we have no record of it ever being spoken to a gathering of people in church or otherwise) by John Winthrop, written aboard the Arbella on the way to Massachusetts Bay in 1630. The thesis was called “A Model of Christian Charity”. It is best known for the phrase “city upon a hill” which appears near the end.  I reiterate that this is an extraordinary thing, because there is nothing in Winthrop’s thesis that supports the idea of Exceptionalism or Manifest Destiny. If you doubt me, you need to read it. I welcome you to challenge my understanding of it.

“A Model of Christian Charity” is explicitly an exhortation of how the Massachusetts Bay colonists should behave toward one another. This is based upon their religious covenant to each other. Winthrop does say that what they are doing is extraordinary – not in founding a nation that would stretch from sea to shining sea, because they did not see themselves as founding a country nor did they have any concept of the size of North America. They saw what they were doing as extraordinary, so that living by the Golden Rule was going to be essential. The avoidance of usury was going to be essential. Being knitted together as the body of Christ was going to be essential while they struggled to hang on to an existence on the shores of New England.

I have outlined (barely) some of the practical results of Exceptionalism. I have demonstrated, if only enough to encourage you to read the original document (David Barton would be proud), that the connection with the Puritans and the “city on a hill” is non-existent. But none of that relates to the most important aspect of all and the reason I have titled this essay as I have. None of this is the reason I have repented.

Exceptionalism is a heresy. The more one tries to support it with a religious foundation, the more heretical is becomes.

Americans are not God’s chosen people. The Church is God’s chosen people. The Church includes some Americans. Americans do not even make up the largest fraction of national representation in the Church. (That would be the Chinese. Current estimates indicate that there are likely more Christians in China than there are people in the United States.) When St Peter said, “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light,” he was referring to the Church.

In that oft-used phrase, John Winthrop refers to Matthew 5:14 – “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.” The “you” to whom Jesus is referring are His disciples – those who are hearing and following His teaching – the Church. Winthrop was referring to his fellow Puritan settlers as Christians living out the Gospel, not to the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, or a democratic Republic, which would have been the furthest things from his imagination.

With all due respect to Ronald Reagan, who co-opted Winthrop’s phrase in his Farewell Address, as well as by his own admission having use it all his political life, the city on a hill is not prosperity nor is it freedom. No, if we go back to the Original Document and Original Intent (I hope David Barton would be pleased), the city is the light of Christ. Inasmuch as it refers to freedom, we would have to cross-reference to John 8:38, “Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.”

Has the United States been blessed? Certainly. Has the US as a nation done some good things? Of course. Has this blessing been because we have somehow fulfilled Winthrop’s vision for Massachusetts Bay? Absolutely not. It has been by the grace and mercy of God, despite some very terrible shortcomings as individuals and as a nation. How dare we say, “Our fathers expanded and built the United States this way and look at how God has blessed us – surely this is evidence of our righteousness!”

Everyone knows the bit of Winthrop’s thesis that says, “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.” The important bit follows: “So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake.”

As Christians we are the light on a hill. It is we who have a responsibility to live out the Gospel. Not because of what John Winthrop wrote and a connection we feel to the Puritan fathers, however tenuous that may be. Not because we are Americans. Because we are Christians. We have a responsibility to live charitably toward one another. Again, if you want to know the characteristics of the city on a hill as outlined by Winthrop, as true and biblical today for all believers, read the whole thing.

God does not love America more because some of the first white settlers of an area that eventually became a colony and eventually broke away from England were good Christian folk. (And just for the record, we have no covenantal connection to those good Christian folk of Massachusetts Bay, so we are not reaping what they have sown. But that’s an article for another time.) Nor does He love us more because a lot of people that were involved in the American Revolution and the Constitutional Convention were Christians and even those who weren’t occasionally used Christian shop talk.  Nor does he love us more because we are a democratic Republic that has tried to spread our form of government around the world, whether other people wanted it or not.

I’m blessed to be an American, but that does not make me special to God, nor did it make the generations of my forefathers going back to colonial times any more special to God. Nations rise and nations fall. The United States hasn’t been around all that long and it won’t be here forever. God operates on a completely different time scale.

The exceptional thing is that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us, whether we were blessed to be born in America, Europe, Africa, Asia or anywhere else. As the Church, we are God’s special people and unique nation. That is the Gospel.

*Technically, it was purchased from a country (France) which acquired it in a treaty from another country (Spain) which had acquired it in a treaty from the first country (France), which had laid claim by conquest.
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Why Arizona is Wrong

I know that most of my friends, enemies, and passing readers will disagree with me. When the Arizona legislature passed a law allowing the stopping and questioning of anyone suspected of being an illegal alien and made it criminal trespass for an illegal alien to be present on any public or private land in Arizona (thus helping to facilitate their detention and deportation due to the commission of a crime), they did the wrong thing. For once (and probably only once) I agree with President Obama and a lot of Democrats. I don’t necessarily have the same reasons for supporting the same policy, because I think the Arizona law is in violation of Biblical principles and the economic free-market principles that made America great.

The Arizona law does reflect the views of the majority of Americans. Sad, but true. In fact, it reflects the view of the majority of Americans for most of the 20th century as well as this first decade of the 21st. It reflects attitudes of isolationism (not so bad) and protectionism (a bit more bad). This idea of coming to America and shutting the door behind us first reached fever pitch in 1882, with the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was made to look a bit more like the current Arizona legislation by the Geary Act in 1892. Almost all Asians were barred from entry in the Immigration Act of 1917.

The Emergentcy Quota Act of 1921 limited the number of immigrants to 3% of the number of persons living in the US at the 1910 census who had been born in that country.  The purpose of this was to keep out eastern and southern Europeans and allow in more northern and western Europeans. The Immigration Act of 1924 reduced this to 2%. Interestingly, it did not restrict immigration from Latin America. No one was worried about Mexicans then. Rather it was an effort to keep out all those Italians.

Then along came the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA). This allowed for anyone in the country illegally, even with an expired visa, or guilty of the tiniest crminal offense, to be detained for deportation. It was only because the Supreme Court intervened in Zadvydas v. Davis that the detention cannot be indefinite, though the Court held that “Despite the constitutional problem here, if this Court were to find a clear congressional intent to grant the Attorney General the power to indefinitely detain an alien ordered removed, the Court would be required to give it effect.” So Congress can decide that without any criminal proceedings, those with expired visas can be given an effective life sentence. In addition,  IIRIRA imposes draconian sanctions on re-entry to the US after overstaying a visa.

There’s the review of US immigration law. Now how does it hold up to Biblical principles? Throughout the Old Testament, especially in the Torah and in the Prophets, it is very clear how the Israelites were to treat strangers and aliens who settled among them. For the sake of space, and because it succinctly summarises the teaching of Holy Scripture, I will just refer to Leviticus 19:34 – The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.

The first part is obvious. You should treat aliens (which is what the term stranger means) as someone native to your country. How you treat him is indicative of whether you are following the second great commandment given by Jesus, to love your neighbor as yourself. However, that last bit of the verse is very instructive, especially for Americans. It applies to us because it reveals the reason we should be generous with immigration.

“…because you were strangers in the land of Egypt” is a powerful statement. It is so hypocritical for the children of immigrants to deny immigration to others. Unless you are entirely of Amerindian descent, then at some time since 1607, your  ancestors washed up on these shores, probably without a visa, and made a life for themselves. The law of Moses was not given just to the first generation of settlers in the Promised Land. In fact almost all of those to whom it was originally given died before getting there. It wasn’t the readers and hearers of Leviticus personally who had been strangers in the land of Egypt, but rather their ancestors. Because their ancestors had been immigrants in Egypt, they were to treat their own immigrant peoples as they would want to be treated. They were to love their immigrant neighbors as themselves. Now you can argue against the applicability of the Law of Moses to civil law, but in this case you argue against the teaching of Jesus, Who said this same thing.

IIRIRA and the INA, just like the Immigration Act of 1917, the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, and the Immigration Act of 1924, fly in the face not just of the Mosaic Law, but of the teaching of Jesus.

But let’s de-spiritualise it for a moment and just look at our nation’s history. Hardly was the bronze plaque fixed to the Statue of Liberty before the words of Emma Lazarus’ sonnet were eroded – worn down now to the point of of being meaningless. We all know them:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Just like in 1917 and 1924, the US employs quotas. We still only want people from certain countries (if you are from the UK, for example, you can’t even enter the green card lottery). Most of the quota allotments are reserved for PhDs, professional athletes, researchers who are recognized internationally, business executives, and investors. We also let in a few Filipino nurses. The others don’t fit our protectionist, anti-capitalist, anti-free market model.

But for me the standard by which immigration policy and law must be judged: you shall love him as yourself. Does the new Arizona law meet that standard? I don’t think so.

Why I am a Reactionary

It is a term that is generally meant as a perjorative.  Reactionaries rebel against all the wonderful progressive ideas that all right-thinking people know make the world a better place. In a word, liberalism. Well, I am a reactionary. I react against all of the ideas that see separation from God as progress. That it because these ideas are not progress at all. Progress is to move toward God’s desire that creation be reconciled to Him.

In being a reactionary, I follow in some pretty big footsteps. When someone called me a reactionary recently, I began to think of other reactionaries among whom I am not worthy to be counted.

I think of that young Jewish boy 3000 years ago, not old enough to be drafted into the army, reacting against the challenge of a giant man who had defied the armies of the living God. He reacted with a stone in a sling.

I think of Elijah in the midst of a government that had rejected the historic worship of God for worship of Baal. He reacted by calling down fire from heaven.

Elijah was but one of the prophets who reacted against the apostasy, injustice, and bad governments of the day. The people still chose captivity, but it was reactionaries who warned them and showed them another option. Being a reactionary has long been a thankless task.

Then I think of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah – usually known as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego.  The government said bow to the statue. It’s not a big deal and you won’t notice any real difference to your everyday life. Just bow and everyone will be happy. But Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego were reactionaries. They just weren’t willing to buy into the spirit of the age.

They had a friend called Daniel. When the government said all petitions must be made to the state and not to any god, Daniel reacted by opening his window the exact same way he always had (conservative that he was) and knelt down and prayed the same way he always had. It cost him a trip to the lions den, because the state doesn’t like to be defied when it has set itself up as the font of all blessing and the focus of worship.

And there was that carpenter from Nazareth. He reacted against “you have heard it said” with “but I say to you”. But wasn’t this progressive? No, quite the opposite. He peeled back all the Talmudic layers of Pharisaism and brought it back to the revealed truth. And when it came to moneychangers in the temple, He was very reactionary. You might even say He was reactionary after they killed Him. He reacted by rising from the dead, trampling down death by death. That was the ultimate reaction.

So while I will never be as significant or successful a reactionary as David, Elijah, Shadrach, Meshach, Abed-Nego, Daniel, or Jesus, I will be a reactionary nonetheless.

Stand in the ways and see,
And ask for the old paths, where the good way is,
And walk in it;
Then you will find rest for your souls.
But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.
Also, I set watchmen over you, saying,

‘ Listen to the sound of the trumpet!’
But they said, ‘We will not listen.’
Therefore hear, you nations,
And know, O congregation, what is among them.
Hear, O earth!
Behold, I will certainly bring calamity on this people—
The fruit of their thoughts,
Because they have not heeded My words
Nor My law, but rejected it.

God of the Present Tense

I recently sent a message to the son of a deceased friend and was about to mention what a great man I thought his father had been. I caught myself before I phrased it that way. I realised that in the Christian life, there is no past tense.

There are events in the past, but the life remains. I suppose that if I thought my friend had been good at one point in time and had ceased to be good later, I could say that he was a good man. The man remains. Even while the body is in repose, temporarily going back to the earth from whence it came, the man remains.

As Orthodox Christians we are reminded of this when we venerate the saints through their icons, though when talking of the saints, I lapse into the past tense: who was St Athanasius or who was St Paul. When I teach about Jesus in school, I am very vigilant to always speak of Him in the present tense, because I want the kids to understand that Easter happened after Good Friday. And since we pray to Jesus, we have a habit of speech that constantly recognises Him in the present tense.

But it is not just those glorified heroes of the Faith that are still alive with Jesus. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. (We can discuss various Catholic and Orthodox theories about how instantaneous this is, but it still is.) Likewise, the disembodied soul in the presence of the Lord is but a temporary arrangement.

God only has a present tense. He revealed it to Moses. He revealed it in Jesus. Though we are created beings and have a beginning, as we are knitted together in our mother’s womb, once created in God’s image we share in his eternity. When we live in communion with Him, we share that eternity with Him. As Jesus told the Sadducees, God is not the God of the dead, but of the living. Jesus’ Resurrection was the down payment to guarantee our own.

My friend Mark has been away from his body for a number of years now. God took him quite suddenly and quite young. Because he trained me to be an Emergency Care Attendant and an ambulance driver, I still think about him every time I use my cut-through-anything EMT shears. There will be a time when EMT shears won’t be needed, but for now they remind me that there is a time after time when those who have gone before and those of us who will go sometime hereafter (for death comes to all men) will rejoice in the presence of God together in the new creation.

Joe Klein, Rick Warren, and Heaven

Time magazine political columnist Joe Klein doesn’t like Rick Warren. Why? Because Rick Warren thinks he’s going to hell.

Warren didn’t pick out Klein specifically. No, he just had the audacity to say that Jews are going to hell. He wasn’t preaching a sermon entitled, “All Jews are going to hell” or writing a book called “The Hell Driven Jewish Life”. Someone just asked him point-blank whether Jews are going to hell and he gave an honest answer. It’s not like he thinks Jews are especially going to hell. He just thinks that the only way to heaven is through Jesus.

Klein even gets silly, assuming that also sort of people fit into this category:

Indeed, if Jews–and all other non born-again Christians–homosexuals, feminists, and anyone who has either had an abortion, performed an abortion or reluctantly agrees that it’s none of our business who has abortions…if all those people are going to hell, then heaven’s got to be about as interesting as linoleum.

In fact, neither Rick Warren nor most evangelicals say homosexuals, feminists, or the variety of people Klein characterises in relationship to abortion, are going to hell. But what Klein wants to do is take the focus off of Jesus. That’s the real issue.

Regardless of sexuality, or sexual politics, no one gets in except through Jesus. It’s so basic to the Gospel that all these peripheral issues aren’t even mentioned by Jesus. It’s that whole the way, the truth, the life thing.

Even Jews are welcome, Joe. Jesus first disciples were Jews. Jesus Himself was a Jew. It’s just Jewishness itself is meaningless when it comes to getting into heaven, even if it is believing in that One Jew that makes the difference.

It is also interesting that Klein thinks heaven will need homosexuals, feminists, and people who have had, performed, or politically approved of abortions to avoid being boring. It seems Klein thinks heaven is about entertainment – some sort of extension of Hollywood. I suppose I can see where with that presupposition, and the prominence of homosexuals and feminist in the entertainment industry, he doesn’t see how the Big Heavenly Show can keep everyone’s attention for eternity.

There will be a Big Heavenly Show, with one Big (Bright Morning) Star. We’ve even see previews, and frankly I don’t think God cares that Klein would not be impressed. He would probably find it as interesting as linoleum:

Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne, the living creatures, and the elders; and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice:

“ Worthy is the Lamb who was slain
To receive power and riches and wisdom,
And strength and honor and glory and blessing!”

And every creature which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, I heard saying:

“ Blessing and honor and glory and power
Be to Him who sits on the throne,
And to the Lamb, forever and ever!”

Honest Hate

At least he’s honest. Anjem Choudary has been telling Muslims they shouldn’t be celebrating Christmas. “How can a Muslim possibly approve or participate in such a practice that bases itself on the notion Allah has an offspring? The very concept of Christmas contradicts and conflicts with the foundation of Islam.”

He sees that all this bunkum about worshipping the same God is as offensive to Islam as it is to Christianity. Either Jesus is the Son of God, the incarnation of Allah, or He is not. To say that the Babe in the manger is the Most Holy One is direct contradiction to the very essence of Islam.

So I don’t see why it is such big news that he is saying this. He’s just being a good Muslim.

Why didn’t it make bigger news when Choudary, who is the chairman of the Society of Muslim Lawyers, praised the Mumbai attacks? Nobody seemed to notice when he called for the assassination of the Pope.  It is almost forgotten that he organised the demonstrations over the Muhammad cartoons, which included incitement to murder.

And why it is only mentioned in passing that his family is not supported by his legal work and he apparently isn’t well paid as Principal Lecturer at the London School of Shari’ah.  Perhaps he doesn’t have time for that with all of his preaching since he has to fill in for his mentor Omar Bakri Mohammed, who has been exiled from the UK. I’m just guessing that’s why they receive  £25,000 a year in state benefits.

It’s like, sure he is bigging up the deaths of 163 people in the name of Islam, but now he hates Christmas, too? Good grief. Why not actually expose that we are supporting the work of a domestic terrorist who doesn’t just hate Christmas. He hates us.

Happiest of Feasts

Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And having come in, the angel said to her, “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!”
But when she saw
him, she was troubled at his saying, and considered what manner of greeting this was. Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name JESUS. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.”
Then Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?”
And the angel answered and said to her, “
The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God. Now indeed, Elizabeth your relative has also conceived a son in her old age; and this is now the sixth month for her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible.”
Then Mary said, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.

Today is one of the greatest Feasts of the Church. So great, in fact, that I don’t understand why Lent isn’t completely suspended for a day. This is the feast of the Incarnation. Sure it comes to fruition in the Nativity, but this is the day we celebrate that God came to Earth. Today we grapple with the mystery of kenosis. Today the very God of very God, the eternal and incomprehensible chooses the Virgin’s womb for a Temple wherein to dwell.

The incorporeal become corporeal. The Word becomes flesh to dwell among us.

In the midst of all the Easter TV programmes challenging all of the orthodoxies of the Faith, cries of critics and doubters, it is a good thing to rejoice. I also feel sad, because they cannot share the joy. They spend their time trying to dig up ways to prove that Jesus wasn’t really the Jesus of the Gospels. He must be anyone other than who He was, His life told to us by eyewitnesses and faithful transmitted to us by the Holy Evangelists and from them by our Holy Fathers who have gone before us. There must be conspiracies and power plays, intrigue and underhanded dealings. And all of it must be because they knew the story wasn’t true. It was made up much later. Tiresome and sad.

So let us rejoice in the love of God shown to us in the Incarnation. Let us rejoice in so great a salvation.

My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.
For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant;
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed.
For He who is mighty has done great things for me,
And holy
is His name.
And His mercy
is on those who fear Him
From generation to generation.
He has shown strength with His arm;
He has scattered
the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down the mighty from
their thrones,
And exalted
the lowly.
He has filled
the hungry with good things,
And
the rich He has sent away empty.
He has helped His servant Israel,
In remembrance of
His mercy,
As He spoke to our fathers,
To Abraham and to his seed forever.