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The idea of exceptionalism moves in different ways – toward community or toward empire

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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.

Marc H. Ellis
About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is Professor of History and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of the Global Prophetic. His latest book is Finding Our Voice: Embodying the Prophetic and Other Misadventures.

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12 Responses

  1. marc b.
    marc b.
    September 25, 2013, 1:07 pm

    ” If you follow the ark of Gandhi’s life”

    yeah, that’s ‘arc’ perfesser.

  2. crone
    September 25, 2013, 1:32 pm

    Sorry to disagree…
    ‘Exceptionalism’ is a myth… just as ‘chosen people’ is a myth…
    Believing one is exceptional/chosen/superior is toxic…

    from Antiwar website:

    Weeks of failed efforts to sell the Syrian War to the American public seemingly still aren’t over, as President Obama used the occasion of his speech to the UN General Assembly to demand a UN resolution authorizing military action against Syria if the chemical disarmament process stalls.

    While giving lip-service to the idea of diplomacy, President Obama made it clear repeatedly during the speech that his view of American “exceptionalism” centers entirely around its willingness to fight unwise wars.

    “I believe America is exceptional, in part because we have shown a willingness, through the sacrifice of blood and treasure, to stand up not only for our own narrow self-interest, but for the interests of all,” Obama insisted. This of course segued back into calls for authorization to attack Syria.

    Noam Chomsky on American Exceptionalism

    “… The reigning doctrine of the country is sometimes called “American exceptionalism.” It is nothing of the sort. It is probably close to a universal habit among imperial powers. France was hailing its “civilizing mission” in its colonies, while the French Minister of War called for “exterminating the indigenous population” of Algeria. Britain’s nobility was a “novelty in the world,” John Stuart Mill declared, while urging that this angelic power delay no longer in completing its liberation of India.

    Similarly, there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of Japanese militarists in the 1930s, who were bringing an “earthly paradise” to China under benign Japanese tutelage, as they carried out the rape of Nanking and their “burn all, loot all, kill all” campaigns in rural North China. History is replete with similar glorious episodes.

    As long as such “exceptionalist” theses remain firmly implanted, however, the occasional revelations of the “abuse of history” often backfire, serving only to efface terrible crimes. The My Lai massacre was a mere footnote to the vastly greater atrocities of the post-Tet pacification programs, ignored while indignation in this country was largely focused on this single crime.”

  3. Kathleen
    September 25, 2013, 2:08 pm

    I totally disagree that the left and the right in America are all “exceptionalist” In fact I know folks whose focus is equanimity in all things and for all people. And most of us know that taught exceptionalism can be a social, cultural, religious phenomena that can turn into socio-pathic tendencies that are terribly destructive to individuals and the larger community. It is the degree of severity of exceptionalism that causes serious problems around the world.

  4. seafoid
    September 25, 2013, 3:17 pm

    I’m afraid I’m with Thomas on this jewish exceptionalism. I haven’t seen it and I don’t believe it.

  5. libra
    September 25, 2013, 6:00 pm

    Professor Ellis: The prophetic is the greatest gift to the world in history…

    I’m all for a self-promotion but I wonder if our resident prophet isn’t getting a little carried away with himself here?

  6. DICKERSON3870
    September 25, 2013, 9:33 pm

    RE: “Of course, President Obama is an exceptionalist – including at the United Nations yesterday.” ~ Marc Ellis


    . . . If this were a movie
    I’d say the acting is pretty bad
    Everyone’s stiff
    The dialogue is sad
    If this were a movie plot
    I wouldn’t believe it
    But if this were a movie I could
    Get up and leave it . . . ~ “If”, by Coyote Shivers

    ● Coyote Shivers: “If”, Go Records [VIDEO, 03:57] –

    • DICKERSON3870
      September 25, 2013, 9:47 pm

      P.S. ● Coyote Shivers: If (uncensored version) [VIDEO, 04:42] –

      • DICKERSON3870
        September 26, 2013, 3:45 am

        P.P.S. ● Coyote Shivers (9 Songs) From Their CD [VIDEO, 28:17] –
        1. Happiness is a Warm Bong 0:00
        2. Pay per View 3:32
        3. Its all over 5:56
        4. Guilty 7:47
        5. The Truth 9:57
        6. She drives me to drink and drive 13:54
        7. Leather Jacket Weather 17:42
        8. Classic Car 20:51
        9. Living With Me 24:22

        P.P.P.S. FROM WIKIPEDIA: …He [Shivers] and actress Pauley Perrette were married in 2000. Perrette and Shivers separated in 2004 and obtained a divorce in 2006. Shivers was deemed a Vexatious Litigant in 2008 by The Los Angeles Superior Court[2] during a long ongoing trial between himself and Perrette…

  7. RoHa
    September 25, 2013, 9:53 pm

    “The prophetic”

    Remind me. What exactly is that? Is this “prophetic” something only Jews can do?

    “is the greatest gift to the world in history”

    Why do you think that?

    “and is only possible within a framework that proposes a destiny of life beyond what is”

    And why is that so? (The answer to this question might become obvious from the answer to the first question.)

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