Last week, the two men vying to become our president for the next four years held their last debate. In the final moments, they summed up their appeal like this.
- Obama: “I will fight for your families and I will work every single day to make sure that America continues to be the greatest nation on earth.”
- Romney: “I’d like to be the next president of the United States to support and help this great nation and to make sure that we all together remain America as the hope of the earth.”
Of all the things you remember from that debate, I bet you missed these. You’ve heard them so often that you’re mostly inoculated – the constant drumbeat that America is the greatest nation that’s ever existed, the light of the world, a city on a hill, the hope of the earth.
Maybe it takes a fresh set of eyes to see through these declarations and call them what they really are.
That’s the assessment of Heidi Lutjens, a friend of mine fresh off the plane from South Sudan and Uganda, where she has served some of the poorest people on earth for five years as a Christian medical missionary.
“What arrogance!” said Heidi. “We as Americans often feel as if the world revolves around us, as if everyone on earth should look to us for the answers. As if the world would be a better place if only everyone would be more like us.”
I think my friend has it just about right. American voters demand from their leaders “constant reassurance that their country, their achievements and their values are extraordinary,” as Scott Shane wrote in the New York Times last week. The last time one of them told us the truth (remember President Carter’s “Malaise Speech?”) we turned him out on his ear.
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And so they tell us that we’re unique, superior to all other countries – deserving of the best living standards on earth, the lowest taxes, and most imposing military. Yes, even that we’re the light of the world and the hope of the earth – biblical titles usually reserved for Christ and the kingdom of God.
Setting aside the theological delicacies, these assertions persist despite some inconvenient facts:
- We rank 34th out of 35 economically advanced countries in child poverty.
- Among the same 35, we rank 28th in preschool enrollment.
- We’re only 14th in the percentage of 25-34 year-olds with higher education.
- Our infant mortality rates are worse than 48 other countries in the world.
What would ever make us think that people all over the world are longing for the privilege of being just like us? Of course, Shane points out that we are indeed Number One in a number of notable categories. Here are a few:
- In obesity, we’re way ahead of #2 Mexico.
- We’re tops at locking our people up, with incarceration rates far ahead of Russia, Cuba, Iran and China.
- Our world-leading energy use per person is more than double that of the German industrial juggernaut.
- All by ourselves, the U.S. accounts for 41% of all military spending on earth, far ahead of the 8% spent by China, and 4% by Russia. In fact, we spend $2,141 on the military for each of our citizens; the Chinese spend $74. Imagine it! Every year, we saddle every single American with an extra $2,000 burden to feed our war machine, as compared with the Chinese.
Do we really think all these people are longing to be just like us? Let’s not talk hogwash.
“I love the USA,” writes my friend Heidi. “But I am so thankful that God made our world diverse, that we have a worldwide community to share with and, more importantly, to learn from.”
And what does she think we might learn from them, you wonder? It happens that she’s come back home to deal with a personal emergency. When they learned of it, every single person in her Sudanese church came to reassure her personally: “Rabona fi” (the Lord is here); “Rabona kabir” (the Lord is great); “Anina bi seli” (we will pray). The women selling produce in the market, young men of the village – all have come together to remind her of the hope they share in God.
And where does this wellspring of hope come from? Her answer: “Unimaginable pain and suffering in and around their own lives. These brothers and sisters know sickness and death like no one else I’ve ever met. They hate it, they grieve, they wail, they’re amazingly empathetic, but they’re not surprised by it.
“And, I would argue that our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world are greater and more hopeful in the ways they face the realities of a fallen world and take their longings for something different to the feet of their Lord.”
I’m so glad for the fresh vision that my friend brings back from East Africa to the political discussion back home. We do indeed think that we’re special and deserving. But we’re not the first at this. John the Baptist told it straight to the Pharisees, who had made the same mistake: “And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.”
The prophet John wouldn’t have many followers in today’s America, would he? But may God give us the grace to see that we’re part of a global community, a rich and inter-dependent tapestry that God is weaving from cultures in every corner of the earth.
Whatever you may hear from the candidates, we’re not the hope of the earth. That name belongs to its Creator and Redeemer.
Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.