When I was privileged to give a keynote address at the Fourth World Christian Gathering on Indigenous People in Kiruna, Sweden, the MC – a convener of the event – gave a dramatic and worldview-changing response. I delivered a message that worldwide revival would begin with the indigenous peoples, but only if all of us chose repentance over redress of even justified grievances. (I am white, but descended from Scottish Highlanders.) I was coming from the Biblical concept that none can look God in the eye without first falling on their faces before Him. None are without sin, according to Romans 3:23: “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
Arild Maso, a Sami man, took the microphone when I finished my address and called for a complete change, of course, in the assembly. We had always concentrated on forgiving those who had harmed us; today, he required us to focus on seeking forgiveness from those we had harmed. The more than one hundred tribes and nations represented spent the rest of the day in repentance.
In making my appeal as I did, I was expressing one of the primary tenets of what is known as American Exceptionalism. That tenet is that all we have in the United States is an undeserved gift – for the uses of which we are both responsible and accountable. It comes from the Puritan playbook, along with the kernels of every other institution we hold dear in this country.
American Exceptionalism is the matrix of ideas summarized in the understanding that we are a people bound together not by a common history or ethnicity, but by a shared body of belief about who we are and what we are called to do. We reiterate this understanding each time we say that we are a nation of immigrants, that we are uniquely gifted to bring liberty and limited government to the world, or that we do what we do for the good of mankind rather than for a self-serving agenda.
When I offered my own apology to a Filipino delegate named Pio Arce that afternoon in Sweden, I apologized for the brutality and arrogance with which we blessed his nation, but not for the fact that we are the only nation in history to conquer a land and work tirelessly to set it free in less than a generation. He agreed with me, and we became friends that day. I was again expressing a primary tenet of American Exceptionalism – we see ourselves not as masters but as servants to the world.
Critics will say that imperial powers throughout history have claimed the kind of exceptionalism that animates Americans – from Rome to Great Britain and from Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union. It is true that Rome saw herself as gifting the world with Pax Romana, while the British Empire called it Pax Britannia – the peace and order of civilization as those nations understood them. Nazi Germany claimed to offer racial purity, and the Soviets came bringing so-called political purity. Rome and Great Britain stumbled on their own arrogance and sense of entitlement. Nazi Germany and the Soviets were evil and corrupt out the gate; they fell of their own bloated weight.
Americans are unique – for better or worse – in believing we are called by God to bless the world with what we were given by Him – the first democratic republic in history and the first nation constituted so as to have a limited government for the release of maximum opportunity for all mankind. Of the latter reality. there can be no doubt; the record of history is clear–of the former, there can be no reasonable doubt when viewing the whole of our track record.
Americans as a people and culture are a flawed template for such an undertaking. We failed to make a constitution that abolished slavery, although we expressed our disgust for it in the document and the papers that facilitated its adoption; and we installed a mechanism in the document for repairing its deficiencies by amendment. We treated the indigenous peoples we found with brutality, although we address such issues with an openness that is unprecedented in the world. When we repent of our sins and excesses, as I did in Sweden and later in the Philippines, it constitutes not an about face but a return to our identity in Him who creates us as a work in progress.
The next installments of this series will examine our flaws and our rootedness in a hope-filled future. It seems the right thing to do.
Photo credit: Quinn Dombrowski (Flickr)