For those who believe our country to be exceptional, to be a city on a hill and all that… Is it not clear that we are tragically ordinary? We are ordinary in our evil, in our refusal to acknowledge the sins that built our walls and harvested our wealth. Are we really so different than the countries racked with ethnic violence and division, the rich preying upon the poor, despotism of wealth hiding behind so-called “democratic” processes that mock America’s claims of justice and equality?
How are we so different? Could it be that we are not exceptional, just younger in the maturation of our nation’s imperial sensibilities and the fissures its racist heritage produces and maintains? That we do not have layer upon layer of violence and memory that extends four, five, six, seven hundred years?
Or is it that our country truly is exceptional in the ways it so efficiently renders those it oppresses invisible, exiling the indigenous within their own land and erecting vast industrial complexes to funnel black bodies into criminalized anonymity and marginalization? That it turns some immigrants into Americans, while rendering others perpetual aliens? And that it does this while creating a illusion of normalcy making such exiles “natural” and for “the public good?”
What would it mean for America to be exceptional? Perhaps it would mean that white Americans acknowledged who they truly are, a people who are fragmented and broken, who are rich through the poverty of others, and that they are not race-less, but that their race truly works in this place? Perhaps American exceptionalism would mean that our mutual flourishing is our greatest victory rather than deceiving celebration of the self-sufficient few.
I don’t know if this is possible. As a theologian I understand sin and human fallenness to be a profound obfuscation of our sight, that we cannot see and we do not know that we are blind. And yet, I believe in a God who has taken our condition, rubbed mud upon our eyes, and washed them in his blood, calling us to open them to see anew.
I am living to see truthfully. In this moment it means declaring exceptionalism to be a lie – to see the violent ordinariness of this nation in this moment.