“America remains the one indispensable nation.”
President Obama, during third presidential debate
October 22, 2012
When I heard him say it last night, I instinctively flinched. I honestly thought perhaps there would be a flash of lightning, and that an iron hand would come down out of heaven and slap Obama to the ground.
But … nada. Nothing.
The grand myth about America was told again, with no repercussions, theologically or politically. In fact, it probably helped Obama in the polls. Mitt Romney likely cursed himself for not saying it first.
Yes, from a political point of view, it was a wise thing to say. Whether it’s true or not, it makes us Americans feel good. And so much of today’s politics is about the way we feel. “Do you feel better off now than four years ago?” “Do you feel safer with this or that man as president?” “Do you feel indispensable?” “Do you feel necessary?”
Yet there are so many things wrong with this line that I don’t know where to start.
I guess one could begin by actually asking people who are not Americans if we really are “indispensable.” Ask an Iraqi for starters. Would they be better off if we hadn’t invaded nine years ago? Depends on how many people in their family died, I suppose. Same goes for an Afghan.
Then ask a Rwandan – apparently, we weren’t interested in being “indispensable” back in 1994. Or a Pakistani, who lives in fear of random drone strikes. Or a Zimbabwean. Or a Vietnamese.
If we want to mine the depths of our own history, we should ask those who were Americans before there was an America. Do the native peoples of this land really think of us as “indispensable”?
And what about Mother Earth herself? Could she really do without the most materialistic, consumeristic, natural resource-addicted country on the planet? I think she’d love to try.
Maybe it’s just the word “indispensable” that bothers me. I’ve lived in other countries where people certainly don’t wake up every morning and sigh, “Oh, thank God for America.” They are thankful for their own nation, and work to build stronger institutions and organizations in their own countries. They have no desire to emigrate to America; they want to stay and enjoy the God-given fruit of their own land.
I realize that the president’s words were political rhetoric, but the rhetoric bothers me, as a Christian. Theologically speaking, a Christian dare not claim that any nation, race, or human is “indispensable” to the human project. This claim strikes close at the heart of the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). A “god” is anything which claims ultimate power or importance. When America claims to be “indispensable” in the world, then she veers much too close to asserting her self-importance.
This is the doctrine of American exceptionalism, the idea that America is different from all other nations, not just in the way she was founded and is organized, but is fundamentally of a different character. Some Christians claim a theological version of this doctrine; they believe that America has become God’s new “chosen people,” or an updated, upgraded Israel. And, thus, America is God’s chosen policeman, moralist, and exemplar.
But this is downright heresy. Everything I know about Jesus points me to an attitude, a character, a behavior that eschews bombast, self-aggrandizement, and pride. And there’s nothing more prideful than asserting that America is, somehow, the most important, most indispensable country in the world.
Try repeating his words with any other entity in mind. We would never say, “The United Methodist Church remains the one indispensable church,” or “The Magruder family remains the one indispensable family,” or “The Walmart Corporation remains the one indispensable corporation.”
Certainly America plays a vital role in the world – we can’t deny that. And at crucial junctures, the world needs us to lead. But to say and believe that we are “indispensable” foreshadows a walk down a path that so many other empires have traveled.
In fact, I believe that Jesus happened to live in a time and place where every Roman citizen truly believed that “Rome remains the one indispensable nation.” Everything Jesus did and said poked fun at this conceit. He offered civil disobedience advice in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:38-42), and was crucified in the mocking costume of a king. His followers said that he was “Lord,” an honorific usually associated only with Caesar. The book of Revelation accuses Rome of being a dragon and beast.
And only a few hundred years after Jesus, Rome was overtaken by the barbarians. Turns out Rome wasn’t all that indispensable.
The only indispensable entity is the kingdom of God, that kingdom which Jesus said was right here and now. And in this kind of kingdom, the President would have been better off saying something like this:
“There is no nation that is dispensable. We Americans need you, every one of you, to be a place of peace and a refuge for the poor. We need you, and you need us. We need you, Iran. We need you, North Korea. We need you, Afghanistan and Jordan, Russia and India. Only together can we be the people that God wants us to be.”