Open Doors is a St. Stephen small group whose members strive to live out their baptismal vows to resist evil, injustice, and oppression. Open Doors offers occasional commentaries and articles exploring a wide range of issues at the intersection of faith and justice.
I wonder if you grew up being taught the idea that America was a “chosen nation.” Perhaps you heard we were a “city upon a hill.” From Puritan leader John Winthrop to present-day government leaders, America has consistently been cast as “exceptional.”
Dr. Catherine Brekus, a professor of the history of American religion at Harvard University, traces the origin of some of these ideas back to the book of Exodus. God had saved the Israelites and they were called the chosen people because they obeyed God. It was a compelling and spiritual, albeit “self-serving,” interpretation of the Exodus story that animated some early colonists and influenced the Revolution.
“The British were the Egyptians and Native Americans were the Canaanites. Patriots justified their treatment of the original inhabitants of the land by remembering God’s biblical command to destroy the people of Canaan,” Dr. Brekus shared at a recent lecture titled “The Myth of American ‘Chosenness’” at Mercer University in Georgia.
Similar, seemingly biblical justifications for oppression made its way into arguments defending slavery and explaining the country’s “manifest destiny” to spread west, conquering the continent and all the people in it. If America was “chosen,” then the subjugated inhabitants living in conquered land and the people forcibly brought into the country were “better off” under the care of those whom God had chosen.
Subjugation of all kinds of peoples – poor and unpropertied, white, black, indigenous, non-English-speaking — was justified by these beliefs and widely used in the colonies and then later in the United States.
It is apparent to us now, looking back in history from our own vantage point, that these ideas were so easily and quickly believed out of pure self-interest. Those in power sought to keep their power, unconcerned with the very real lives and needs of those who lacked it. This kind of behavior runs exactly counter to what the prophet Micah told us God expects from us — to be just, and to be kind, and to be humble. Nowhere did Micah tell us that being the most powerful or mighty was the way to serving and pleasing God.
“We have to recognize that Christianity is perceived as power, and if people learn to question that, that would be the first step,” Dr. Michael Hoberman, a professor of Jewish American history, noted in a panel conversation following Dr. Berkus’ lecture. “If Christianity — or whatever religion we’re practicing — is disentangled from power, disentangled from tribalism, then it can begin to mean something in people’s lives.”
How many times in our own lives have you or I justified a belief or an action, based purely on our own self-interest? When have we done so, only to cause harm or injury to one of our family members, friends, or community members? Have there been times when we’ve sought power, instead of acting justly, kindly, and humbly? Have we fallen short of living out Christ’s teaching: “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Over the next week, take some time to reflect on the decisions you make and why you make them. Investigate your motivations. Are there opportunities you have to act with selfless love? Can you identify a moment when pure self-interest can be redirected toward or balanced with the needs of someone else? How can you live out Micah’s call?