Sermon: The Shadow of American Exceptionalism

By Joanna Lawrence Shenk

This is the fourth sermon in a Lenten series entitled “Shadow Dancing: Pulling Back the Veil.” 

Matthew 5:13-15

The year is 1989. The setting is the White House. Ronald Reagan is offering his farewell address after 8 years in office. “The Great Communicator,” as he was called, waxes eloquently:

The past few days when I’ve been at that window upstairs, I’ve thought a bit of the shining “city upon a hill.” The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined. What he imagined was important, because he was an early Pilgrim – an early “Freedom Man.” He journeyed here on what today we’d call a little wooden boat, and, like the other pilgrims, he was looking for a home that would be free.

I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind, it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind swept, God blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace – a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors, and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.

What a vision. Or rather what a delusion. For those who lived through the Reagan years it was anything but this. It was an era of neoliberalism, deregulation, weakened labor unions, decreasing investment in public institutions, increasing wealth inequality and mounting political polarization. Reagan’s ghastly lack of response to the AIDS epidemic resulted in the deaths of 10s of thousands of people, including loved ones in this congregation. And he also stoked the fires of anti-Black racism and anti-taxation through the fabrication of the myth of welfare queens. During the Reagan era the Christian Right rose to prominence and has been a political force ever since. 

As Sheri articulated in her sermon last week, we continue to reap the bitter harvest of this era. 

“This city on a hill” in Reagan’s mind was a manifestation of American exceptionalism that has been present since Europeans invaded this continent. The explorers claimed it as the Doctrine of Discovery. The settlers added to that Manifest Destiny. The founding fathers claimed democracy, which was only available to white land-owning males. And now our gift to the world is the export of free-market capitalism, also known as imperialism. 

We are special. We are different. We benevolently help the rest of the world. The world needs us to lead the way. What happened at the Capitol on January 6 is not who we are. And a coup could never happen here. 

I think we can all see the shadows in these statements. But this exceptionalism can be even more insidious. Last week while Eric and I were meeting some new neighbors, we got on the topic of vaccines and covid, and how the United States has done such a bad job of responding to the pandemic. The point was made that our federal system doesn’t work and we’re such a big country on top of that, so it’s all very hard to manage. 

Eric pointed out that that wasn’t the case for China. They are a huge country and were able to get and keep things under control. In response one of our self-described progressively liberal neighbors said, “Well yeah, they just follow orders in China and are more collectivistic. That just isn’t possible in America due to our individualism.” 

What if actually China just has it together in their pandemic response in a way that we can’t muster in the United States? But American exceptionalism says, that’s only possible because they are a Communist dictatorship. You just can’t expect that kind of coordination from free people. 

We are special. We are different. The rules don’t apply to us because we’re free people. As Richard Rohr says, our ego is the part of us that is “highly defended and self-protective by its very nature,” for the ego wants to “eliminate all bothersome, humiliating or negative information in order to ‘look good’ at all costs.” 

If you grew up believing the delusion of American exceptionalism, when did that shadow start to become visible for you? I remember standing on the beach in the Domincan Republic. I had traveled to Santa Domingo to attend a conference hosted by the group Justicia Global of which my cousin, Tim, was a part. During the week long conference we learned about organizing among coffee farmers and other worker collectives. I also learned about the NAFTA and CAFTA trade deals, and how they continue to devastate Mexican and Central American economies. 

Late one evening a group of us ended up on the beach and I remember one of the participants loudly calling out the Beast of the North. At first I was confused and then realized he was talking about the United States. “A beast?” I thought. It felt a little strong but I let it sink in and raise questions in my mind. 

I also realize that my kids are growing up in a different reality than I did. They are very aware of the shadows of this country. Whereas I wish my parents would have raised my consciousness along these lines as an adolescent, I recognize my kids need hope that our future can be different than the present.  

So speaking of hope, what actually are the qualities that make the city on a hill shine? What was Jesus talking about in the Sermon on the Mount? As we know, he wasn’t talking about being the best or being prosperous or being the most well-defended. 

You will stand out because you are part of my movement, of my kindom, he said. It is a kindom where the captives are released, where debts are forgiven, and where the oppressed are liberated. Your light will be a beacon of hope to the outcasts and a threat to the established order. Rather than Jerusalem or Rome being the city on a hill, the marginalized and maligned followers of Rabbi Yeshua are emitting a great light. 

What is the path through our shadows from the delusion of Ronald Reagan’s city on a hill to the exhortation of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount? It is a journey out of self-defensive and self-protecting behavior. It is a journey that honestly and soberly reckons with the past. It is a journey that de-centers the ego and admits failure. 

Our national ego, rooted in white supremacy, has proven itself to be too immature to handle such a reckoning thus far. But the prophets continue their call and the spiritual sickness of our society makes it more and more difficult to live in the shadow’s delusion. 

I’ve wrestled with my own ego’s shadow, connected to this collective shadow, in layers. As a 20-something I shed layers of Christian triumphalism and became aware of my formation within a white supremacist reality. Developing my analysis to see these things clearly became a significant priority. This learning helped to inform the communities with which I surrounded myself and also shaped my vocation in the world. 

In recent years, through pastoring and parenting, I have received many invitations to more deeply release my ego’s need to be right or to know the answers. I’ve noticed that my ego can get wrapped up in my analysis at times, and yes I still want to be right! It has been painful to hit up against my ego’s self-defensiveness. I am trying so hard to do the right thing, and sometimes I fail. Sometimes I hurt someone. Sometimes I seek to control rather than to accompany. Sometimes I miss the mark. 

For those of us who are choosing to face this shadow, both on the collective as well as individual level, a healing guide can be found in the Beatitudes. These passages come just before Jesus’ exhortation to be a city on a hill. 

3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” 

We see our need for healing. 

4 “Blessed are those who mourn.”

We grieve when we recognize how we and others have been harmed.

5 “Blessed are the meek.”

We give up self-defensive and self-aggrandizing behavior. 

6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”

We eagerly seek right relationship. 

7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

We forgive and we are forgiven. 

8 “Blessed are the pure in heart.”

We recognize the divine wisdom within us. 

9 “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

We make a way for justice to flow. 

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.”

We don’t expect to be respected by the powers that be, because our loyalty is not to that order.

We are blessed as we do this healing work. We are blessed in our need, in our grieving, in our desire for restored relationships, in our forgiveness of self and others, in our wisdom and in our acting for justice. 

May we carry this light of healing within us, and may we shine ever brighter through the power of the Spirit. Amen.