American Flag, Flickr photo by Mike Mozart

The Virus of ‘American Exceptionalism’ Hampers Our Responsiveness

By Scott Kinder-Pyle

In times like these, appeals to our ‘better angels’ are ubiquitous — and for amazing and appropriately altruistic reasons. We want to meet the challenge, to marshal our energies, to declare the patriotic mantra — This is who we are! — and by doing thus, and saying so, citizens of these United States get that collective tingly feeling at the base of our nationalistic spine.  I too would consider myself, in a small and insignificant way, one of those neural pathways. That is, like the character played by Tom Hanks in “Saving Private Ryan,” I want to ‘earn’ those sacrifices made by previous generations, and especially those humble and discrete acts of generosity and compassion which may never be revealed to history’s written and audio-visual documentation.

[Hanks himself, after testing positive for Covid-19, is now under quarantine with his spouse in Australia; the tedium of this sacrifice, which is unlikely to appear on film, is arguably just as great as the one depicted on the beaches of Normandy.  We’ll have to wait 50 years for the entertainment industry to catch up.]

Having said all this, however, it should be obvious to most freedom-loving souls that this country has only been in existence for 240 years. And by this, we might infer one or two things. First, unless one is partial to certain dystopian storylines, we clearly have a ways to go — that the generations who follow us may either faun over our current displays of heroism or they will mourn our descent into dysfunctional tribalism. A second thing that remains (for now) verifiable is that, for millennia, other nation-states have thrived for a span of centuries and then had to face the dissolution of those fellow-feelings and the dismissal of a flag-waving pride. And is it, in fact, so unthinkably treasonous to suggest that in a thousand years the stars and stripes won’t so much wave as they will wear thin forever? 

Time to Re-contextualize Our Place

The point of these words is neither to conjure up some kind of political revolution, nor to depress voter turn-out by paying homage to a stoic pessimism. However, I would suggest that now — during these weeks of ‘social distancing’ — it is time to re-contextualize our place, not only in the geography of the world, but in the ineffable spasm of the Big Bang. The Covid-19 pandemic, therefore, ought not to inspire American Exceptionalism — which would pepper our Facebook posts and Twitter feeds with boasts of being the ‘best’ country to ever grace planet earth — or of surviving these perilous times (economically) at the expense of other nations who are struggling far worse than us. On the contrary, it would seem that our greatness is most authentically measured in ways that cannot be measured, and may never become magnified by the masses. 

Can you imagine, for example, a president or any political leader who refrains from taking ‘victory laps’ before, during and after fulfilling the promise of health care for 328 million people? Can you hear it? It doesn’t necessary sound like happy-talk, and it doesn’t look like sunshine filtering down through the cherry blossoms and resting on the rosebuds of the White House rose garden. To tell the truth in love, I would argue, is the task of leadership in general and all leaders in particular. And for followers, it is to listen, to learn and to cooperate with a profound sense of discernment.  Why? Because, as the Hebrew prophets have warned, not every prominent, public voice will prophesy what God intends a people to do, and there are, indeed, times when the most suitable attire for the historic occasion is dust— with a little ash in lieu of ice cream sprinkles.  

Repentance, of course, is not the most popular pastime (especially when we’ve been trained for March Madness and the opening pitch of Major League Baseball). But, it was interesting when the President of the United States recently offered this ditty of an answer to a reporter’s question. The journalist had asked if it was right that professional athletes were being tested for the Coronavirus almost immediately, and without showing symptoms, while many not-so-prominent folks have been told there were no tests available. The Leader of the Free World then responded, “But that’s the story of life…”

Not The Story Of Life

No, I’m sorry (and elated) to say, I do not believe that is the story of life. Nor do I believe it is faithful and right to identify an epidemic-illness with its place of origin. The Chinese government, with its draconian treatment of the first whistle-blowing scientist, is responsible for covering things up and for wasting valuable time that could have been utilized in suppressing the outbreak. But just as responsible — and perhaps more so — are we, who continually enunciate how wonderful it is to live in the U.S.A., without re-contextualizing our place in the vast scheme of the ever-expanding Universe (or Multi-verse).

Yes, to be sure, it is wonderful!  Particularity is spectacularly wonderful.  And I wouldn’t have my birth take place anywhere else in the world. And yet, since I’m born here, and have been raised here, and commune, at a distance, with people here, it’s my responsibility — and yours — to tell the truth in love.  nd, I would say, to tell it as if we ourselves live and breathe with a contagion that’s far worse than Covid-19.  The Christian faith calls the dis-ease, Sin, and its symptoms are legion—more legion than Legionnaire’s Disease, whose ‘ground zero’ just happened to be Philadelphia, in 1976, when we celebrated our bicentennial. 

The cure-all is Confession: Forgive me.  I belong to much more than a nation.

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