Saturday, August 11, 2012

When Janet Reno came to church.

The idea of American Exceptionalism scares me on many levels, one of them definitely as a Christian.

I love the Olympics. It's easy for me to. I have a natural bent toward international environments. I get excited at seeing a new country's take on the games. I love seeing the names I can't pronounce (Eastern European names make seeing Chinese ones a, so many consonants), the native costumes, the bloodless competition. It's also easy for me because I'm American. I wonder how excited I'd be for the games as a whole if I were from, say, a country like Grenada who just won their first medal ever (a gold to boot...huge congratulations to them!).

So yes...due to our recent political climate already having things riled up, the Olympics, from what I can tell, has only caused a slight uptick in the frequency of the "America is the best/greatest/most powerful/most awesome country in the world" meme. During the Games it makes perfect sense. The Games themselves are essentially one huge, two week festival of comparison and oneupsmanship. That's what competition is. I'll take this any day over war. Imagine...if instead of Japan attacking Pearl harbor and America responding with two atomic bombs, Russians began using professional basketball players against our college Olympians and we responded with Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson...oh wait. 

But comparison outside of clearly designated boundaries? I have to ask why. When a comparison is being made, there's a reason...usually to assert the superiority of one, to emphasize the inferiority of others or to retaliate against an attack. It's not always bad, but there is, always, a reason.

When I left the church I was raised in, it was bigger than just walking away from a building, my family, a routine or a peer group. I was walking away from a social institution. I walked away from the Black Church. I did it to preserve my faith. I haven't said it in a while, but I got to a point where Sundays in church were when I felt the farthest from God. (I say that not to assert that one can't be Christian and attend a Black Church. I'm saying simply that I found a conflict between the culture and the working out of my personal journey of faith as a Christian.) Yes, my individual home church had some issues, but I believe...I know that they were symptoms of cultural retaliation.

Displaced cultures are peculiar creatures. It happens afresh in today's world, but here in the US, we watch, every day, the effects of a country trying to regroup and redefine itself after engaging in the mass displacement of Africans...a practice that flew in the face of the very values a young country was trying to implement, all for the sake of economic prosperity. National cognitive dissonance of that level does not go away without the growing pains of racial relations we live today. (This is one of those points that I believe the US actually is breaking ground on, but yet another point of exceptionalism we choose to ignore in favor of clinging to successes of the past).

The solidarity and uniformity of the Black church is a reaction to that displacement. It's not just a religious institution. It's a place where culture is affirmed and reaffirmed and recycled and replayed. It was and is a core of education, family and community during the Civil Rights era and continues to be one of the primary funnels and filters of power in the Black American community. Pastors know this. Politicians know this. I realized this one Sunday when, as an usher at 16, I stood face to face with the formidable presence Janet Reno.

...and this is where things get fuzzy. You have an institution that has a dual of faith and one of culture. The words in Matthew 6 apply here. An organization cannot serve two masters. It will eventually, if not every day, have to choose. My old church made its choice and I vowed not to return until a specific leader left. Well...a few years ago he did leave. He did not though, take the influence of Prosperity Gospel with him. I heard reports of a new song titled "Speak it to the Universe" that had made its way into the rotation at the church. I knew then, that this was deeper than one building or one branch.

I see something similar going on in the White Church. The culture is threatened and trying to regroup and redefine. Christianity is still, by far, the dominant religion in the US, with almost 80% of people identifying as Christian. What has changed though, is that it is no longer the default setting. People of other faiths, or no faith, now, thanks to social media and...well...more media in general have more of a voice to express their disinterest, disagreement or animosity. More platforms to highlight their displeasure and faults of the past...and this disruption in the status quo...this redefinition of the profile of America...I think is the birthplace of this reactionary new use of the concept of American Exceptionalism.

The loss of the perception of security is shocking (see Sept 11th). No one needs to assert their superiority when they feel secure. Part of the reason you hear overweight women assert their beauty, attractiveness and sexiness is self-acceptance. Part of it is them trying to convince themselves.

But a few personal words of affirmation aren't too much to be concerned about on a global scale. My concern is what happens when any group of people go from saying they are inherently exceptional to believing it...when they feel they and all their actions have been ordained by God. It hits my ears as the beginning of the latest reincarnation of what was once referred to as Manifest Destiny, British Imperialism, the territorial expansion of the Holy Roman Empire...etc.

God is not a fan of pride. Never has been. Check out Obadiah 1. Yes, it's addressed to a specific nation, but it tells us a lot about the character of God. The tone behind the term of American Excpetionalism is completely devoid of the submission and subjugation of Amazing Grace that is, at least in word, so respected by those that sing it. There is no scent of wretchedness, no acknowledgement of a state of loss. There is no hope in God's word. There is no need of Grace.

My father told me today that he heard a speaker on Moody Radio say that politics was the new religion of the American Right. I fear he may be correct.

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