Friday, August 5, 2011

Exceptionalism and Humility


Perhaps my memory is faulty, but I don't remember when I was growing up ever hearing the phrase "American Exceptionalism." It seems to have entered our lexicon only in the last few years and risen to the status of dogma. Any would be politician who does not profess it is deemed unpatriotic. The irony is that the first use of the phrase seems to date to Joseph Saltin in 1929.

I would not deny that there are many exceptional things about our country. I would ask one question: How many of those things are the creation of this generation of Americans, us? And how much of it is pure gift from God? The sheer quantity of natural resources we have puts us at an advantage over most other countries in the world, but can we boast of those?

Even our freedoms and form of government are not "our" creation. For us to brag about those would be like Silvio Berlusconi bragging about the Coliseum or the aqueducts. I would often hear condescending tourists in Rome look at the great antiquities, then at the modern Romans and say, "Hard to believe these are the same people who built all this." But in fact, they are not the same people. That generation is long pasted.

In today's first reading Moses sees the world from a completely opposite perspective. First, he reminds the people of what God has done for them. Moses goes on to give all the credit and all the praise to God. Even those achievements one might argue were the work of the people Moses credits to God, because he is wise enough to know that whatever strength or ability any individual has comes from God.

Moses understood the sin of pride, and the virtue of humility, its necessity if the people of Israel were to become a truly great nation. Perhaps it is time for us to take a sober look at ourselves through this optic.