America the Exceptional

puritans25As I teach a course entitled “American Religious History” this semester, I am deeply enjoying the process of engaging once again with my doctoral field of study.  Since we are early in the term, we’ve only gotten to colonial America at this time.  Requisite, therefore, was a reading from the Puritan John Winthrop, who compared the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony as something like a “City on a Hill.”

This image–a reference to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount–reverberates powerfully, and has come to be identified in a very real sense with the idea of “American exceptionalism.”  Taken to mean that America is distinct from the rest of the world and–not uncommonly–that it is better in some very real ways, the theory is (as you might imagine) somewhat controversial.

It is a potent idea to analyze historically and dispassionately by asking what this idea meant in the lives of citizens over the course of our nation’s development.  It is also, of course, a relevant question to consider in terms of contemporary politics and personal outlook. What we think today about America’s exceptionalism or lack thereof has some definite implications for not only our self-image, but the way(s) we act in the larger world.Shining_City_Upon_Hill-American-Exceptionalism

A lot of ink has been spilled on this topic.  Probably enough to address it from every possible angle.  If you are interested, I commend much of this material to you.  For my part, I’ll simply say this: historically speaking, it is difficult to deny that parts of America’s history have been the exception to the rule.  Unique settlement.  The ability for Old Worlders to start over.  Diverse religious groups that led to disestablishment and de facto and eventually de jure religious toleration.  An early experiment in democracy that continues to have staying power.  A multinational and multiethnic composition that defies easy categorization.

If by “exceptional” we mean different, then in all of these things and more, America was certainly the exception to the rule of the Old World.  If we take the phrase to mean “better,” then, of course, we get into some sticky territory.  The dangers of national chauvinism and being blind to our own faults can ever be wrapped up in this idea.  It makes me nervous to say much in this direction but I will offer this:  I do think that the United States has been better in certain areas.  Think of the persistence of the rule of law.  The functioning of our democracy.  Our value of the freedoms we often take for granted.  Throughout the history of humanity and even today, these things are what sets America apart from so many.  Not from everyone and not at all times…but they have nevertheless been there.

exceptional1200As an historian, though, I realize all of these distinctives and positive “exceptions” are borne on the back of a lot of darkness as well.  The subjugation of native peoples.  Deep-seated racial strife and intolerance of many kinds.  A history of slavery.  A sometimes national chauvinism with international implications.  Economic inequities and the persistence of poverty.  The list could go on.  It is possible to be exceptional for good and bad, it would seem.

Morever, even many of America’s benefits are more from historical happenstance or the hand of Providence than any effort on our part.  What if the continent had been much smaller?  Denuded of natural resources?  Had been populated by a much more technologically advanced set of natives?  What if it was discovered at a different period in human history?  If a few developments in our history had simply gone another way?  So much contributed to the development of America over time, and not all of that can be assigned to the efforts of America itself.  The connotations of “exceptional” changes a bit when one remembers that other lands not so similarly blessed could have tried all of the things we did and ended up with some very different results.

So while I would agree that America is and has been exceptional in a number of ways, I would be very hesitant to say thisCaptain-America without deep qualifications or the understanding that it is an unmitigated grace rather than a necessary consequence.  Exceptional means primarily difference and only secondarily better.  In no case does it mean that it will necessarily continue into the future or that we always deserve this.  It also doesn’t mean that there aren’t other exceptional nations out there.  Good, bad, and ugly, the world is full of them.  It also doesn’t mean that others have not prefigured our exceptions and met or surpassed them today.

Further, if we are really to embrace John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” as a model for this outlook, we would be wise to hear all of us his words, reminding us that great power is often met with a call to great responsibility and not unquestioning pride:

Soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our God in this worke wee haue undertaken, and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. Wee shall open the mouthes of enemies to speake evill of the wayes of God, and all professors for God’s sake. Wee shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause theire prayers to be turned into curses upon us till wee be consumed out of the good land whither wee are a goeing.

Admittedly, these have been some very quick thoughts as I dash off to class.  I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this important topic.


Game Over

20130815-enders-game-poster2**This post contains SPOILERS**

I went to see the new film Ender’s Game this weekend.  I really enjoyed it.  The action was compelling, the acting was just fine…but what really drew me in was the story.  Like many, I have read the popular and award-winning book upon which is was based.  It’s hard to say whether I enjoyed the movie on its own merits or because of my love for its source material, but having experienced both (as well as other novels in the series) I can tell you it is a transformative story.

Ender’s Game is the story of a future Earth faced with a mysterious but deadly enemy.  In response, humanity becomes willing to do whatever it takes to win.  Child geniuses are culled from the population and subjected to testing and training.  The goal?  To find the most outside-the-box strategic thinker in order to defeat the opposing alien race.

Enter Ender, who as a child is taken from his family by the government and subjected to test after test: zero-g games that make laser tag look like a tea party, a computer game that is as violent as it is graphic, and a battle room that would challenge even the fiercest Call of Duty aficionado.

All of these training games, Ender is told, are meant to prepare him and others to remotely control an Earth fleet sent to deal a decisive blow to their alien enemies.

Though originally written in the 1980s, Ender’s Game is oddly prescient of today’s complex world.  A place where war is fought against a faceless enemy we don’t entirely understand.  Where drone warfare makes the line between combat simulations and actual violence hazy at best.  Where the reality and violence of video games, harmless in one sense, may nevertheless be preparatory for devaluation of life all the same.1373884333_Enders-Game-2013-Movie-Image-2

In the film, this culture of violence is too much for Ender.  He wants to stop, slow down, and understand the enemy.  The war machine that is Earth has no time for this.  No time at all.  Like The Hunger Games, the film features a world that is locked in a cycle of violence that it forces its society–children, no less–to fight.  Katniss and Ender alike are caught up in this system.  Part of their story is an attempt at fighting the seemingly unstoppable force of such a culture.  Indeed, perhaps it is their youth that simultaneously allows them to be taken advantage of even as it provides the platform from which to imagine another way forward.

As a 21st-century blockbuster, Ender’s Game has all the requisite special effects and explosions.  Here, though, the theme of the film and its source material doesn’t really allow us revel in these big moments.  Violence here is not a means to any good end; it just blinds most of its users to other potential options.  So devastated is he by what is taking place at his hands, Ender rejects his masters near the end of the film.  After a certain victory, his military mentor tells him, “We won, that’s all that matters!”  Ender’s retort?: “No. The way we win matters.”  A needed response to a world interpreted solely in terms of the zero-sum game.

imagesMuch ink (electric and otherwise) has been spilled in writing about the film, not all of it positive.  For my part, though, I’ll side with those who see it (and the book series from which it takes its cue) as a piece that calls into question the easy use of violence in which our world revels.  I don’t think I’d go so far as to call the story a pacifist one, but it does come close at times.

Words from the original book,  paraphrased at the opening of the film, tell us all we need to know about fighting our enemies.  Be warned, it reminds us.  Violence is possible but never easy.  And it always comes with a cost:

In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves. And then, in that very moment when I love them…. I destroy them.

The Cartography of Good and Evil

old-world-map-625The following represents a column I’ve written that will be published in the upcoming issue of our student newspaper.  But before that, a word about the humility of which I write.  It is no secret that I’ve been severely questioned in the past week for my support (here and here) for some kind of intervention in Syria.  To both my political right and left there have been numerous concerns raised about the legitimacy, necessity, and morality of my position.  I’m glad for those who’ve questioned me.  I’ve tried to clarify what I mean, and I think it has been sufficiently nuanced.  But at the end of the day, I’m still endorsing violence.  I’m taking a moral position with regard to a situation I know comparatively little about.  While I’m convinced that it is a necessary course of action, I don’t for a second want to say it is a good, simple, or uncomplicated one.  It is a messy and dangerous one that involves real people, and where I’ve implied otherwise I repent.  And I want to admit, in fear and trembling, that I might be wrong.  Please know that I take a position here because I think it is needed, but at the same time I am basing my thoughts on a “map” of which I’ve seen comparatively little. I know enough to know that the world is complicated with few easy answers, but I’ve not experienced the fulness of that complication in my own life.  I am, in some sense, naive.  Even so, for the United States and the world there is a decision point here, and I have made my choice known even while I wish, hope, and pray there is another way.  I do not retract my previous thoughts, but I do…hesitate.  To do otherwise would be sheer hypocrisy.  And now to the words upon which I ought to reflect a bit more:

817zSlJXNZL._SL1500_This past summer I’ve indulged one of my hobbies: reading science fiction.  For the haters out there, I won’t try to defend myself, except to say that I am quite really and honestly an irredeemable nerd.  Yet know this: the best science fiction isn’t about explosions or alien wars or transporter beams.  It is about ideas.

So it was that I’ve been reading the Ender’s Game series by Orson Scott Card.  The first book, soon to be a major motion picture, deals with questions of war, peace, innocence, and betrayal by focusing on a young boy called upon to save the human race.  I wholeheartedly endorse getting a copy and reading it today.

The sequels to that first volume are a bit more philosophical in orientation, and in one of them I read a statement that rather blew me away.  In the middle of the book, an older and rather bitter character says the following to her younger conversation partner:

“Don’t ever try to teach me about good and evil. I’ve been there; you’ve seen nothing but the map.”

Good and evil.  Powerful concepts.  We Christians think about them a lot.  As a former pastor and now ministry professor, it is my job to reflect on them, preach about them, and teach them with some regularity.  In so doing, I run the risk of treating them like intellectual topics rather than the realities they are in the lives of so many.  Perhaps that’s why this short statement struck home for me.

As you might expect, I’ve done a lot a reading in my day.  And, like many of you, I’ve sat in a lot of classes.  So believe me when I tell 2-pathsyou it would be easy for me to talk about the reality of evil in our world, the need to stand against it, and the way that Christ comes to redeem us.  Tie things up in a nice little bow and leave them at that.  Utterly pious yet overly simplistic statements that would satisfy the “Christian checklist” but do little more.  It would be easy, in other words, for me to provide students with simple uncomplicated answers to questions about the hurt, pain, and suffering in our world.

But I can’t do that.  I can’t do that because there is so much of that “map” that I haven’t journeyed through.  That I haven’t lived.  While I hope I never have to, I do know enough to realize that in any case there are some things that are too deep for me.

We make a mistake as Christians when we think we’ve got it all figured out.  But if we think that we ourselves have all the answers to people’s questions just because Christ is the Answer, we run the risk of running roughshod over others when we have no idea what they’ve been though.

Being a Christian means many things, but one of them is being humble.  Humbling ourselves before God first and foremost. Humbling ourselves before others and being servants. passion_icon It also means humbling ourselves in our own eyes and realizing that despite our vaunted theories and ideas and “answers,” this fallen world is much more complicated than we comprehend.

So the next time a friend comes to you with hurts and honest questions, be careful not to answer them too quickly or tell them that you understand, when quite honestly you have no way to feel the pain they are going through.  When classroom debate turns to issues of politics, suffering, or good and evil, make sure you understand that what you speak about is not just another topic to play around with, but involves real people.  Remember, first and foremost, that all of our knowledge and ideas are but a drop in the ocean compared to the God who holds all things and has suffered all things for us.  Because, at the end of the day, the only one that fully comprehends the entirety of human good and evil is Christ Himself.

War Powers

Barack ObamaThe news broke over the weekend that President Obama has had a change of heart about his approach to the conflict in Syria.  He still agrees that military action needs to take place, but has now decided to seek the approval of Congress before doing so.

As someone who has favored intervention in Syria (though, as I’ve argued on Facebook, I’m not a military or geopolitical expert enough to know how exactly it should happen and do not want to just indiscriminately start dropping bombs…I just believe that doing nothing is not the answer), you might expect that I would be frustrated by this seeming step back from decisive action.  I’m not, though.  Not entirely.

My endorsement of President Obama’s approach has to do with the fact that this is the appropriate path that such military efforts should take in the United States.  The Constitution indicates quite clearly in Article I, Section Clause 8, 1 that it is the power of the Congress to declare war.  Though various presidents have used their role as Commander-in-Chief to engage in all sorts of military actions and wars, in reality it seems to be the place of the Congress (i.e. the representatives of the people) to decide if we are going to enter into military struggles.  While it is true that an actual declaration of war has not taken place since December 1941, Congress has often taken votes surrounding other military conflicts (Vietnam, Gulf War, Iraq War), .  There is, it seems, a kind of war Congress can authorize which is not a war.  Peculiar, that.  In any case, they’ve had a say.height.288.width.448

While a declaration of war may be, considering its rarity in American history, too much to ask for here, at least we might hope for a resolution endorsing the necessary intervention that the Obama administration has asked for.  To not give Congress its chance to speak would be undemocratic and ignore the War Powers Resolution of 1973, passed in the wake of Vietnam and requiring Congress to endorse or reject military authorization (thus limiting the unilateral power of the President in this area).

As I support a careful intervention to help save lives and draw the line against chemical weapons, I also believe it is worth it for our nation’s representatives to take a stand together.  They should listen to what is hopefully a strong case from the administration replete with clear evidence, and make their choice.  I hope that,  now that the weight of this decision rests more generally on the Congress, they would realize their responsibility to do what is best.  In this I agree with a helpful article from Slate:

No more lazy sniping—or hollow rooting—from the sidelines. Those who have long urged Obama to do something about Syria, and then criticized him in recent days for doing something (just because it’s Obama who’s doing it), will now have to step up and take a stand.

This said, I do fear for what will happen if Congress chooses to do nothing at all.  Because of my feelings about the Constitution in this matter, I agree that President Obama would be left with little latitude if Congress votes “no.”  If they decide we should not intervene, the force desert-roadwe can use will be limited if at all.  I do not believe that ignoring the War Powers Resolution (as some presidents have before) would be legal.  Obama might still act–and face the consequences, but the people will have spoken.  I will say this, though: it could very well be to our shame if we do nothing.  And because it is our Senators and Congressional Representatives who are involved, this ignominy would devolve to all of us.

Moreover, whatever happens likely ought to take place quickly, and this looks not to be the case.  Congress does not meet again until 9 September, and I would worry for what a murderous regime will do in the days to come.  I wish that our democracy could move a little faster.

As always, I welcome your criticism and thoughts.