american exceptionalism

An Open Letter to Missionaries

Bible and boots, Paul Matthew Photography /

Bible and boots, Paul Matthew Photography /

Dear Missionaries,

I like to tell people I’m a missionary convert, because I wear this genesis of my faith journey proudly, like a badge of honor. I heard the story of Jesus from your lips, sang the songs of worship in your language, and prayed for the concerns in your heart. You taught me how to be Christian.

I learned from your lavish generosity and boundless love and affection. I also learned how to do Christmas. One day in my freshman year of high school, I asked my Chinese parents if we could find a Christmas tree. This was before Christmas became commercialized in Taiwan, so all I could find was a tacky, tiny, plastic tree, which I set up delightfully in the corner of our living room. I arranged neatly wrapped fake presents under my wannabe tree and meticulously set up some lights. I longed for that warm feeling I felt in your homes, the atmosphere I saw in American movies. I wanted to be like you; if only I could have convinced my parents to do Christmas like you did, with gifts, candles, and prayers.

Little did I know your celebrations were crippled by your overseas living because, like me, you also could only find dinky little plastic trees. When I visited your home country, I saw the full potential of CHRISTMAS unleashed, with real trees as tall as houses and white lights, icicle lights, flashing lights, lights shaped like reindeer, elaborate nativity sets, and ridiculous amounts of presents and candy. I thought, wow, is this how the Christians do Christmas?

The American Church's Absence of Lament

Movie still from '12 Years a Slave' Fox Searchlight

Movie still from '12 Years a Slave' Fox Searchlight

When we consider the typical church worship service in the United States, we discover certain trends. Lament and stories of suffering are conspicuously absent. In Hurting with God, Glenn Pemberton notes that laments constitute 40 percent of the Psalms, but in the hymnal for the Churches of Christ, laments make up 13 percent, the Presbyterian hymnal 19 percent, and the Baptist hymnal 13 percent.

Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) licenses local churches for the use of contemporary worship songs. CCLI tracks the songs that are employed by local churches, and its list of the top 100 worship songs as of August 2012 reveals that only five of the songs would qualify as a lament. Most of the songs reflect themes of celebratory praise: “Here I Am to Worship,” “Happy Day,” “Indescribable,” “Friend of God,” “Glorious Day,” “Marvelous Light,” and “Victory in Jesus.”

How we worship reveals what we prioritize. The American church avoids lament. Consequently the underlying narrative of suffering that requires lament is lost in lieu of a triumphalistic, victorious narrative. We forget the necessity of lament over suffering and pain. Absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. Absence makes the heart forget. The absence of lament in the liturgy of the American church results in the loss of memory.

Why I Love My Country

Margaret M Stewart /

Constitution with American flag and Statue of Liberty, Margaret M Stewart /

What do I love about America? I love the land, one of the most spectacularly beautiful countries in the world (and I’ve visited many of them). I love walking our long stretches of beaches, hiking our majestic mountains, seeing the desert skies, walking beside the rivers, sailing along the coasts, and visiting hundreds of lakes in my home state of Michigan, where I camped as a kid. I even love some of our big cities! “O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, for purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plains.” I love our many diverse cultures, including their music, their food, their art, their sports, and their particular stories and histories.

I especially love our best national values: freedom, opportunity, community, justice, human rights, and equality under the law for all of our citizens of every race, creed, culture, and gender, not just for the rich and powerful. In particular, I love our tradition and history of democracy, its steady expansion here, and how it has inspired the same all over the world. We take legitimate pride in seeing how our founding documents have been the models for many new nations.

7 Marks of A Stereotypical American Christian

American flag and the Bible, SUE ASHE /

American flag and the Bible, SUE ASHE /

1) You Love To Argue, Fight, And Attack

There’s nothing quite like flooding people’s Facebook feeds with posts about the sins of gay marriage, abortion, and the Democratic Party or the volleyed claims of bigotry, hypocrisy, and self-interest.

American Christians seemingly love to argue with people and engage themselves in various culture wars. Whether it’s about the existence of global warming, prayer in schools, evolution, gun control, or homosexuality, you love to let people know that you’re RIGHT and they’re WRONG. Oh yeah, and if you don’t agree with me —You’re going to hell! Literally.

Your main forms of communication include boycotting, accusing, yelling, screaming, pointing, spewing, slandering, shaming, shaking your fists, and waving protest signs. In fact, you’ll probably write a venomous response to this piece in the comments section below.

Christian Patriotism: Love for the 'Other'

Photo by Steven Errico/Photographer's Choice via Getty Images.

Photo by Steven Errico/Photographer's Choice via Getty Images.

Recently, someone asked me to respond (on video) to how I reconciled both love of God and love for country. I struggled with the question, mostly because of the typical baggage that comes along with Christian patriotism, much of which teeters on the verge of jingoism. So I didn’t respond at all.

I’m really sensitive to what I call “Christian exceptionalism.” There are those within Christianity that honestly believe America is God’s second Zion, the new Israel, and that we Americans are God’s new chosen people. This, in turn, helps justify everything from flags in worship spaces to the Ten Commandments in the public square, and even pre-emptive acts of aggression against perceived threats around the world.

Basically, when you hold yourself up as somehow favored in the eyes of God, it’s easy to hold those you deem as less favored to be somehow “less than,” and to dehumanize all who do not conform to your custom-built ideal of what it means to be “American.”

For me, though, such sentiments not only are un-American in the sense that they don’t ascribe to the “liberty and justice for all” ethos; it’s also patently un-Christian.