- Matthew 5:14-16, The Voice translation
American exceptionalism, the idea that the United States of America is inherently different from other countries is presently, a myth. Long have we forgotten the basis of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The promise proclaimed to all other nations by the Mother of Exiles, with lightning trapped in her torch, has been eroded by a caustic and vile misinterpretation of American values. Our mutually agreed upon principles of egalitarianism, liberty, and democratic governance are today publicly refuted and boldly challenged by the elected, in favor of gaining power through fear and sewing suspicion.
We extol the virtues of the American independence on July 4th. We honor that which has set us apart from authoritarian and oppressive regimes, namely the principles that make up the Bill of Rights. We gleefully display the American flag on clothing, stickers, koozies and beer cans, against the regulations listed in the U.S. Flag Code, and without realizing the underlying irony.
Unintentionally, I believe, we reduce the flag and therefore the values it represents to a simple mark to overt patriotism, while abandoning the virtues it symbolizes. I suspect that these virtues are too often a romanticized memory, a faded vision of Old Glory seemingly forgotten in the corner of America’s cluttered, dusty partisan garage.
How is it possible for American Christians of any stripe to commemorate Independence Day without also recognizing the irony of our history, and more poignantly, our present? How easily has our society forgotten, or purposely and foolishly ignored, the suffering of Indigenous Americans, African slaves, Japanese Americans, and millions of others at the hands of the American Empire? Can we not learn from our history to keep from making the same mistakes?
If Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus”, etched on the base of the Statue of Liberty were 2000 years older, we’d consider it sacred scripture. Hear the echoes of Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount, as Lazarus recalls the image of an illuminating beacon that summons all who are weary to come;
“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-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Friends, I take no pleasure in saying this, nor do I say without consideration; America isn’t exceptional in the world. Not when refugee children are dying in makeshift detention facilities in the name of national security. America isn’t exceptional in the world. Not when refugees are indefinitely detained and denied basic hygiene supplies. Not when the dead bodies of migrants wash upon our shore because xenophobic policies turn them away from our “golden door". Not when compassionate volunteers are arrested for supplying water stations in the desert for neighboring sisters and brothers seeking a better land to call home.
When these atrocities and others happen, we’ve lost our credentials to claim exceptionality. Rev. Robin Tanners says that “there is hypocrisy in declaring loyalty to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness while abiding slavery, imprisoning babies, or making fellow humans drink from toilets.”
And for American Christians, to stand silently and idly by while those sick on power exact inhumane control over a vulnerable population is anti-Christ. It is dangerous to the heart of the Christian to level public faith with nationalism. Let me say this plainly; the immigration policies that are currently in place are not only causing a humanitarian crisis, but are fueling a faith crisis in America. If followers of Jesus are to take his words from Matthew 5, or Matthew 25 seriously, or the overarching witness of God’s liberating intent in scripture, we cannot in good faith, abide the indignity shown to, and outright disregard toward these ones who also bear the image of God.
The idea that America is somehow exceptional in the world is no longer apparent or accurate. American Christianity has failed to stand as a witness and check on the empire of power, and too often is complicit in dehumanizing acts of racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia. The witness of American Christianity has too long been dominated by the values of discrimination, bigotry and hate.
The witness of American Christianity has failed to proclaim jubilee; failed to guide public conversation with love and grace; failed to celebrate a diversity of images for the divine in the public square. American Christianity has in many circles, turned a blind eye not only to the plight of the marginalized, but also to the sacred scripture that expects hospitality, not maltreatment, for “foreigners who reside among you in the land…” (Lev. 19:33)
My colleague Rev. Julie Richardson suggests 3 ways for Christians to respond: that we pray for humility, humanity and honesty. Humility that seeks to listen and serve. Humanity that we have the ability to see one another as kin. Honesty in that we deeply examine our influences and seek new understandings.
I would add that in our prayers we confess our sin of indifference, repent of our selfish and greedy ways, and seek forgiveness from our Creator and our human kin. That this nation, born of immigrants and the dream for a better life, not forget these founding experiences shared through centuries with our sisters and brothers.
So as independence is remembered and commemorated today, also be mindful that the very nation whose freedom we celebrate, is once again engaged in inhumane and unwarranted incarceration of foreigners. Let us too be mindful of our ancestral stories in scripture, that our welcome of the sojourner would be a faithful practice of our Christian witness of God’s love and compassion.
This is our way to be excellent to each other.
-Rev. Andy Beck
Leviticus 19:33-34 (New Revised Standard Version)
33 When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. 34 The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.