Excepting Exceptionalism

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Though my own spiritual beliefs have, umm, changed...my parents still attend the church in Lansing where we first started going when we moved here as a family from Detroit. They've never become "members," but are actively involved.

This is going to be a long post. The minister, Dr. Jeffrey O'Neill, delivered a sermon about a month ago that the church finally released in printed form (every sermon is printed and available for The Flock a week or two after its original delivery). It was relevant enough to recent conversations here and at Streak's blog that I wanted to share it with each of you in it's entirety; it deals with the true and false senses of Exceptionalism. Here it is:

Being Exceptional
May 15, 2011
Dr. Jeffrey O'Neill

Acts 2: 42-47[original transcript included entire verse; linked by me to save space. Look it up; it provides context for the rest of the sermon]
1 Peter 2: 19-25[same as above]

I'm sure you're aware that on Saturday, May 21, the world as we know it will come to an end. Actually, life and time won't simply stop, but things will get really, really unpleasant for the majority of us who won't be Raptured - that is, bodily taken into heaven on this day of judgment and Christ's second coming.

At least this is the scenario being laid out for us by some fellow Christians whose discomfort with life's messiness generates anxiety, and whose anxiety couples with resentment, which in turn produces a spirit of vengeance upon those with whom they disagree or dislike. This they project as God's agenda to wreak a violent justice upon a world that is so profoundly out of joint. In the hands of these fearful brothers and sisters the Bible has become a book of dark urges and secret codes, and victory goes to the one who figures it all out, while the rest of us can go to hell.

It's always been distressing to me personally and professionally that such silliness all too often rears it's clownish head in the church. It pains me to admit that religion has always had it's sideshows - some absurd, some simply stupid, but some very vicious, indeed. I don't know how many people really take rapture predictions seriously. What is disturbing is how much attention the sideshows seem to attract and how much the thirst for the bizarre seems to displace any thirst for good news. In a perverse way religion has become a form of entertainment not much elevated above the rude mean, fascinating the media with behaviors and beliefs that most of us would consider well beyond the fringe. On the other hand how little attention gets focused upon the routine, day in and day out service provided by you and millions like you who do good things because you are religious, and none of these things you do has to do with burning copies of the Koran, setting the date for the second coming of Christ, molesting children, or fleecing the flock of their millions.

These are not days where it feels comfortable to admit being religious. There are vast differences as well as fine distinctions to be made among religious groups, but we live in a time which holds no respect for nuance and lives only by labels. In regard to being a minister, I can identify with a lawyer friend who confessed to me that when he travels and is placed between two strangers on an airplane and the inevitable friendly chatter begins, he lies about his profession in order to avoid (a) hearing all the lame lawyer jokes for the millionth time, or (b) enduring stories about how badly a lawyer treated them in their divorce, or (c) being pestered for free legal advice. Likewise, I am considering going about in disguise. A clergy friend, in defense against the chance of his ear being toasted by a religious zealot on some interminable flight, says he simply lies and tells his seat mate he's a proctologist. "That usually shuts them up," he says.

The way we human beings are wired seems to prejudice us in the direction of prejudice. That is, we are wired to see similarities, to make associations, to simplify the complex in order to fashion generally acceptable rules in the handling of things and situations. if you think about it, that's a factor in the way language develops. We hear our parents say the same thing in regard to an object or an instance. We repeat it in the same instances or in regard to the same object, and before long we are extending the application, testing whether or not it fits or applies. We learn how to deal with one another this way, too. In short, it is native to us to think in terms of forms and groups and types. But, of course, as we do so and the more we do so, we begin to ameliorate difference, we veer towards distortion, we generate misconception. We get to the point where all Christians are alike, all Muslims alike, all Jews alike. It's lazy thinking, of course, but how quick and how convenient.

To me from a religious perspective one of the essential theological categories we should think in terms of is being exceptional - that is, in being different and making a difference. What made Jesus stand out was not that he was just like everyone else; rather, he was an exception. Today's scripture readings make that point in several ways, both about Jesus and about those who followed him. It was exceptional that the Jesus people helped one another, shared what they had in common, devoted themselves to good works, to worship, to healing and teaching. It was exceptional when they suffered the scorn of their neighbors or of the state, when they suffered violence and rejections and did not strike back. It was exceptional what they claimed was true of Christ, what they trusted was true of God's promises. It made them exceptionally peaceful people, exceptionally kind, and exceptionally generous.

How unfortunate that today much religion seems to be a force for making people unexceptional, for making them part of a rather unimaginative and uneducated crowd. Spiritually and theologically we are being "dumbed down" in our outlook and perspective. Jesus took exception with those who were judgmental, but today faith seems to have become the means for exercising a severe judgmentalism. Jesus took exception with those who were violent, but how many times have we heard our nation's war-making justified on religious grounds? How many Christians gathered in public places cheered the assassination of Osama bin Laden? It was Ghandi long ago who mused perplexedly that Christians seem the only people who fail to understand that Jesus was a pacifist.

It is a heavy irony. We are called to behave exceptionally, to think exceptionally, to bear an exceptional witness. As G. K. Chesterton observed, "It is not that Christianity was tried and found wanting; it was found difficult and left untried." instead of the rare Christian virtues, today we are encouraged to think in terms of American Exceptionalism, the idolatrous notion that America bears a destiny, that its people are imbued with extraordinary virtue, that its manifold gifts and wealth and skill have been bestowed so that it may thrive and achieve and dominate and lead. We hear this articulated in religious terms, of course, so that this becomes a Devine destiny, a God-mandated supremacy. God bless America becomes not just a suffix to political speeches but the sacred motto of an exclusive priesthood. Just wait - the political season is just warming up. This rank idolatry will be the order of the day. My friends: be exceptional and renounce it.

Arguably, it is the fundamental sin. Idolatry is the process of making sacred that which is unholy. It is the worship of that which is unworshipful. It is giving allegiance to that which is corruptible, transient, imperfect. It is giving power to that which enslaves.

Exceptionalism is what Alexander the Great claimed. It is what Caesar claimed. It is what Hitler claimed. In other forms it is what the KKK claimed about the white race, it is what many Christians claim about Christianity and what many Muslims claim about Islam. It is what some men claim regarding women, and vice versa. It is what some heterosexuals claim about homosexuals.

The world doesn't need Exceptionalism or any other kind that claims a goodness it cannot show or a justice it cannot achieve or a creative hope it cannot generate. The world needs exceptional behavior from persons of great faith, of diverse creed, of various colors and nationalities, of divergent insights and diverse experience. It needs persons exceptional in generosity, of spacious spirit, of hopeful action, of profound justice, righteousness and mercy. It needs persons who are exceptionally honest, whose hearts are exceptionally joyful, whose spirits are exceptionally open to the new things God is doing.

The world says to the victor goes the spoils, to be rich is the ultimate good, that he who dies with the most toys wins, that might makes right, that privilege is for the violent few, that the poor are undeserving, that friends are for getting ahead, that winning is everything, that perpetual war is peace, that truth is infinitely plastic... This man Jesus was exceptionally immune to these lies; so should his followers be.

[spelling errors and messed up sentences are mine]


Bob 3:12 PM  

"In the hands of these fearful brothers and sisters the Bible has become a book of dark urges and secret codes, and victory goes to the one who figures it all out, while the rest of us can go to hell."

"... and none of these things you do has to do with burning copies of the Koran, setting the date for the second coming of Christ, molesting children, or fleecing the flock of their millions."

Dang. I dig this guy. He is on a roll.

"These are not days where it feels comfortable to admit being religious."

I too know a pastor who does not admit she is a pastor until after she gets to know the person.

This is a great sermon. Unfortunately no one will give him a microphone or a talk radio show.

Streak 4:25 PM  

Yeah, I like this a lot. Thanks for posting it.

steves 7:51 AM  

Good sermon. We have a new pastor and I have been impressed at how much he tries to challenge people's beliefs. CS Lewis pointed out that Christians tend to gravitate towards the passages that support what the think and ignore the ones they don't like. To some degree, it can't be avoided, as the Bible contains a fair amount of contradictions.

Post a Comment


Potential Drunks

Search This Blog

  © Blogger template On The Road by Ourblogtemplates.com 2009

Back to TOP