Thursday, May 17, 2007
American Exceptionalism or Imperialism?
"The American soldier is different from all other soldiers of all other countries since the world began. He is the advance guard of liberty and justice, of law and order, of peace and happiness."
~ Elihu Root, U.S. Secretary of War, 1899

At the heart of the American mythos is this idea that somehow our nation is different, better, than every other nation that has ever existed. We are not an opportunistic empire fighting for our own national interests - instead we serve a higher calling, a divine purpose to bring freedom and justice and peace and order to the earth.

For instance Evan Thomas and Andrew Romano recently had an article in Newsweek about how U.S. Presidents have often used their faith as a justification for war. In 1898, as he was trying to figure out whether to annex the Philippines, captured by U.S. troops in the Spanish-American War of 1898, President McKinley "...went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance." Finally, it came to him: "There was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them ... "

(Neverminding, as Thomas and Romano point out, that most Filipinos were already Roman Catholic, or that they didn't want to be occupied. In a brutal insurgency that dragged on for three years, more than 4,000 Americans and half a million Filipinos died.)

The problem with this theory that in America we finally have the first benevolent empire, dedicated only to serving its fellow man, is that we've heard it all before. Empires throughout history have been justifying their conquests and atrocities with the rhetoric of "freedom", "peace", "justice" and "civilization". Caesar Augustus proclaimed himself the "divine savior of the world. Bringer of justice and peace and freedom." Of course, this "peace" was at the point of the sword, their "justice" was of the kind typically given to the oppressed by their oppressors, and "freedom" was only on the condition that they subjugate themselves to the will of the Empire.

And frankly, it's hard to see that America is much different. Like Augustus, we claim divine authority to impose our version of "freedom" on the world, by force of arms if necessary. Over the course of our existence as a nation we have fought numerous wars of conquest - from the Mexican-American war of 1848 to the Spanish-American War of 1898 to the ongoing conquest, subjugation and extermination of the Native American peoples throughout the nineteenth century (and not to mention our current war in Iraq). We have promoted slavery, disenfranchised women and blacks, endorsed racism with our laws, and allowed our corporations to exploit the poor both globally and at home while we ourselves are dangerously close to mimicking the sins of Sodom, a nation the prophet Ezekiel describes as “arrogant, overfed, and unconcerned about the poor.” (As Billy Graham once said, if God doesn't judge America he will owe Sodom and Gomorrah an apology.) Of course we are not the worst empire to ever exist. Don't get me wrong, there is still much that is honorable and admirable about America. But when one looks honestly at our past (and present) do we really have the right to claim that we much better or less self-serving than most empires throughout history?

What bothers me the most is again, how our leaders use the Bible and Christian language to justify their wars and injustices. For instance, in the words of George W. Bush: “The ideal of America is the hope of all mankind ... That hope still lights our way. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."

No! The "light" referred to in the Bible passage he just quoted is not America, it's Jesus, and likewise with "the hope of all mankind". By conflating the two, Bush is essentially equating American ideals with the message of the gospel and giving divine sanction to all of our just or unjust actions in the world on behalf of these ideals.

Even our more "progressive" leaders are not immune from this attitude that America is somehow more righteous and more just than any that have gone before. In the recent words of Barack Obama on the Late Show with David Letterman, “This country is still the last best hope on earth.” And yet again, as a Christian my belief is that Jesus and his kingdom - not any political nation-state - are the earth's last best hope. The gospel of Jesus is diametrically opposed to the gospel of Caesar, whether Caesar Augustus or all the other Caesars who have tried to claim his legacy over the past 2000 years (do you think it's a coincidence that all of our government buildings mimic Roman architecture?). By declaring that "Jesus is Lord" we are implicitly recognizing that "Caesar is not". The way of King Jesus (a way of true justice and peace and freedom - not to mention love, compassion, and self-sacrifice) stands in subversive opposition to the way of Empire.

Perhaps we ought to pay less attention to the pretensions of our Presidents and more attention to the warnings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he said, "Don't let anybody make you think that God chose America as His divine messianic force to be a sort of policeman of the whole world. God has a way of standing before the nations with judgment, and it seems that I can hear God saying to America: “You are too arrogant! If you don't change your ways, I will rise up and break the backbone of your power."

(Acknowledgment: many of the ideas and quotes for this post came from Shane Claiborne's recent post at the God's Politics blog.)

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posted by Mike Clawson at 12:59 PM | Permalink |


At 5/18/2007 12:27:00 PM, Blogger M James

It's kind of like when the Pope went to South America and proclaimed that it was "okay" for the conquistadors to massacre, enslave and rape the native people because they "secretly wanted Christianity."


At 5/18/2007 04:38:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Yeah, that would be a perfect example of using the Church to "baptize" the atrocities of the State. It disgusts me.