Let’s Say Goodbye to Exceptionalism

by the Reverend Doctor Peter W. Allen

Hingham Congregational Church, United Church of Christ

Hingham, Massachusetts

July 7, 2019

2nd Kings 5:1-14

As most of you know, I was raised in a town similar to Hingham — Westport, Connecticut — in the 1960’s and ’70’s. I had something of an ideal childhood. Loving family, comfortable home, beautiful beaches a bike ride down the street, excellent schools, etc., etc. I enjoyed a privileged upbringing on lots of ways.

My dad is a World War II combat veteran. My mom’s dad and my great grandfather had seats on the New York Stock Exchange and did well financially. Both of my parents come from politically conservative backgrounds. You get the picture.

And I was raised to believe that our world, our reality, was the very best on earth.

Our country, the United States of America, was the best country, the only place in the world where one could have the freedoms and the opportunities to truly reach one’s potential. Then, over time, I learned that the US lagged behind many other nations when it came to infant mortality and other health measures, that we were far from the top in science and math achievement (in fact, we currently rank 17th in overall educational performance).

I was raised to believe that New England was the best region in the US. That the pilgrims were the first to settle the New World. Imagine my surprise when I learned that there were groups sailing to and settling in Virginia years before the pilgrims came. Oh, and there’s that really inconvenient fact that there had been human beings here in North America for millennia before any Europeans arrived here.

I do believe that the Union did and should have won the Civil War, especially because that victory ended legal slavery in the US and preserved our country. But it was only when I was about 20 that I learned how tenaciously the Confederate soldiers fought, how many battles they won, and that the Union Army committed countess atrocities and went way beyond what they needed to do to win the war as they burned and destroyed Southern communities.

It was only when was a young adult, when I fell in live with reading, that I discovered the wonderful Southern literary tradition (William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, Caroline Gordon, Allen Tate, Thomas Wolfe, Robert Penn Warren, Tennessee Williams, Harper Lee, Truman Capote, Walker Percy). This realization flew in the face of the prejudice I had absorbed as a child (and that I admit still lingers within me today) that all white Southerners were ignorant and stupid. They’re not. Not all of them. Not by a long shot.

Sine then, I’ve also discovered the great African American Southern intellectual tradition, nurtured in places like Morehouse College, Spelman College, Howard University… And even though I was never given a book by an African American author as a child, I’ve discovered amazing black authors and poets as an adult: Langston Hughes, Tony Morrison, Maya Angelou, Ralph Ellison, Alex Haley, and more.

Yeah, I had a wonderful education as a kid, but it was incomplete. It was classist and racist, not in what it told me but in what it didn’t tell me. We believed that our region, our town was the best, that the surrounding regions and towns were somehow inferior. Maybe you had the same experience growing up. Maybe it’s just human nature to want to believe that your community is better than the adjacent ones. I hear that there’s a South Shore/North Shore rivalry. Not sure why.

I remember being told that my high school was one of the best, if not the best public high school in the country. Not true. I look on various rating websites from time to time and, sure, Staples High in Westport sometimes makes and appearance in the top 100, but not always, and not ever as the top school.

Many of you know that I have been involved in a summer camp called Camp Dudley for pretty much my entire life. You can probably anticipate what I am going to say. Dudley is indeed the oldest summer camp for boys in the US and its early leaders were pioneers in summer campig, but even though I was told over many years that we were also the best camp, we consistently come in behind a number of other camps in the eyes of independent rating organizations. We’re good, but are we the best? No.

There’s a pattern here. Do you recognize it in your own life?

There is something about our culture, at least the one I was raised in and have lived in, that encourages us to believe that we are better than others. Our nation, our communities, our institutions, our businesses, our religion, our era, our families. Even ourselves as individuals. We’re taught to think that we’re superior.

Exceptionalism is a part of who we are and how we are formed.

And we’re not alone. It’s a very human assumption. But is it a faithful assumption? I don’t think so.

In our reading for this morning, a Syrian army commander, a successful general named Naaman, comes down with leprosy. Naaman’s wife has a slave from Israel, a girl who suggests that the prophet Elisha from Israel would be able to help Naaman, so he goes and seeks Elisha’s aid. Elisha tells Naaman to wash in the Jordan River and that this would cure his disease. Naaman has a tantrum, claiming that the rivers of Syria would work just fine, and he storms off in a rage.

Thankfully, his servants convince him to bathe in the Jordan and, despite his prejudice, he is cured. This is a case of exceptionalism manifesting itself in self-destruction. Thankfully, wisdom prevails and healing happens.

Now, it’s not just old Naaman who falls prey to exceptionalism here. Whoever made sure that this story made it into the Bible believed that the Jordan, the sacred river of Israel, was superior to the rivers of Syria in their healing powers.

What does exceptionalism do for us? What purpose does it serve? I suppose it feeds our egos. It reassures us that we’ve made the right decisions when it comes to what town to live in, what company to work for, what school to study with, what country to settle in or fight for.

But how does it harm us? I believe it’s time to say goodbye to exceptionalism because it blinds us to reality. It keeps us from asking important questions about our nation, our religion, our family histories.

Maybe we’re not all that exceptional after all, and that’s OK. Let’s ask those hard questions and seek the answers together as a community. Instead of patting ourselves on the back, let’s seek to be better, more faithful, more inclusive, more caring, more generous people.

For Jesus, second only to compassion for our neighbors and faithfulness to God, humility is a bedrock value. Humility allows us to see ourselves as we really are. It encourages us to look to others for best practices. Humility encourages us to look to something greater than ourselves for support and love and encouragement. It reminds us that we and our “team” are really not enough. That we need to serve and rely on a greater reality if our lives are going to be truly full.

It may be hard to ask ourselves these questions, but…

Do Rockland, Weymouth, Hull, Cohasset, and yes, even Norwell, have anything to teach us? Probably, yes, as much as we might resist that notion. Do the UCC churches in those communities, and the other Christian and non-Christian religious organizations in Hingham, have some effective practices that we could put into place and benefit from? Of course. Do Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and other religions have important things to teach us about how to be faithful? Yes.

Do the Yankees have anything to teach the Red Sox this year? I hate saying it, I really do, but just look at the standings.

Are there school systems, town and state governments, and other nations, that are doing a better job than we are at leading and educating? Yes. To deny that is to bury our heads in the sand.

So let’s become the best… at listening, at learning, at collaborating, at incorporating new wisdom, at sharing, at partnering. And yes, let’s be proud of what we do well because we do some things very well. When you’re truly the best, you don’t need to say you’re the best. Everyone knows. And in a little while, someone else will take your crown, and it will be time to start learning and growing all over again. And that will make life so very sweet.

                                                                     Thanks be to God.