This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
Of course, President Obama is an exceptionalist – including at the United Nations yesterday. Why wouldn’t he be? Americans are exceptionalists across the board. The Left no less than the Right.
Martin Luther King was an exceptionalist. His dream evocations are only possible in America.
As a descendant of slaves, King’s appeals might seem naïve. Perhaps they are. Then why are they so captivating fifty years later?
Even King’s later despair about the American dream is exceptional. Why be disappointed if there wasn’t an American destiny being squandered?
King’s exemplar of non-violence, Mahatma Gandhi, was no slouch on exceptionalism. If you follow the ark of Gandhi’s life, it’s hard to see him as an ordinary person with a live and let live sensibility. Gandhi’s non-violence was fired by the quite exceptional belief that the purveyors of injustice and atrocity could be transformed by human beings willing to absorb the oppressors’ violence.
Jews are exceptionalists. The Left no less than the Right. Why shouldn’t we be? The prophetic is the greatest gift to the world in history and is only possible within a framework that proposes a destiny of life beyond what is.
One can doubt the prophetic as unrealistic. Nonetheless, there’s no getting away from it. Around every corner the prophetic awaits. That haunting – prophetic – anticipation – is exceptional!
I haven’t met a Christian or a Muslim who doesn’t believe somewhere in their psyche that Christianity or Islam is the place to be. It’s irritating for sure, no more or less than Jewish exceptionalism. It all depends from what side of the exceptionalism fence you view things. In Christianity and Islam service to others and submission is also, at least for them, a demonstration of their religious exceptionalism.
Think of Vatican II, the great Catholic religious revolution of our time. It was certainly an advance when the Catholic Church decided it wasn’t the exclusive site of salvation. But, then, in its humility, the Catholic Church became the servant – of all!
Read the documents of Vatican II. You won’t find a place for requests for the Church to be of service. No, it is simply stated: the Church and Christians in general are to be in service to others. Humble – exceptional – servants Christians are called to be!
Of course, the notion of exceptionalism moves in different ways – toward community or toward empire. Thus exceptionalism is – exceptionally – dangerous. But then bold endeavors always run the risk of dangerous turns. There’s a thin line between power over others and justice seeking.
If we abandon exceptionalism – if that is even possible – I doubt we should embrace the world as it is. There are always exceptionalists buttressing their particular brand of injustice in the status quo.
The challenge of exceptionalism is focusing it and sharing the hope of a better world with others who trumpet or hide their exceptionalism. That is where criticism of President Obama – and all exceptionalism – should begin.