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"Tony Robinson is one of the most active church leaders in the United States, greatly in demand as he teaches congregations and denominations about church life. His work has a deep theological underpinning, which many congregational-development gurus don't have."

Fleming Rutledge
author of The Gospel and the New York Times and And God Spoke to Abraham: Preaching from the Old Testament

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American Exceptionalism

The concept or doctrine of “American Exceptionalism,” has some things in common with the biblical ideas of chosenness and the doctrine of election.

Both are ways of saying, “You are different. You are special.” But in what way “different?” Or what does it mean to be “special.”

Some in the biblical narratives seem to understand and interpret “different” or “chosen” to mean “better than,” or “entitled.” And that is also the way some seem to understand “American Exceptionalism.” We are better than other nations or peoples. Or we are entitled to act in different and self-interested ways because we are America or Americans.

But as the prophets and Jesus reminded Israel, election and chosenness do not mean better than or entitled or free to mistreat others or arrogance, they mean responsibility. They mean you are expected to live according to a different and higher standard than others.

The rubber meets the road in the current debate over refugees. A worthy understanding of American Exceptionalism would mean that though others may close their boundaries or turn away the suffering and needy, we are different. We have a responsibility to those in need, to “the storm-tossed, wretched masses, those longing to be free” -- as the Statue of Liberty puts it.

When others close their doors and hearts, we are not permitted to do so, by our best values, our history, our identity.

Certainly, reasonable precautions, security and background checks, so-called vetting, needs to happen to avoid admitting those who intend to do harm. But to let fear cause us to shut our borders, to forget the contributions of immigrants, to demonize Muslims is to forget who we are.

As Marilynne Robinson wrote in an essay on “fear” earlier this fall, “When Christians abandon Christian standards of behavior in the defense of Christianity, when Americans abandon American standards of conduct in the name of America, they inflict harm that would not be in the power of any enemy. As Christians they risk the kind of harm to themselves to which the Bible applies adjectives like ‘everlasting.’


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