our exceptional unexceptionalness.

kathyescobar church stuff, incarnational, injustice 16 Comments

plato quote

“you shall love your neighbor as yourself” – mark 12:31

according to wikipedia (the source i always tell students in my online college class never to use for their papers so i feel a little bad using it here), exceptionalism is: “the perception that a country, society, institution, movement, or time period is exceptional (i.e., unusual or extraordinary) in some way and thus does not need to conform to normal rules or general principles.

maybe many of you have heard this term before but it’s not a word i was very familiar with until now. during my trip, it came up several times related to issues between israel & palestine. i heard it from both sides, in the context of  israel, as God’s chosen people, being able to play by different rules because of their specialness.

exceptionalism has deep & wide ramifications for what’s happening in the holy land and in many other places where there is war and strife.

but i think it’s rampant here, too, in much more subtle ways. it is reflected in the attitude of “we’re the ones who are somehow-better or more-special or have-the-market-cornered-on-this-or-that or are-closer-to-God or know-what-God-wants-or-thinks.”  and it’s especially strong in church-y circles.

i wonder if some of it goes back to wanting to be on the winning team. to consider ourselves set apart from the average. to have something to make us feel better about ourselves.

regardless of how we get there, it tends to lead to us tromping on others.

it’s why so many people have big gaping church wounds or are just worn out by church elitism.

the more i reflect on this, i wonder if almost every church hurt somehow stems back to exceptionalism and a feeling of superiority or specialness that someone or some group of people felt over others that caused them to mistreat, malign, neglect, harshly discipline, control, and-a-whole-host-of-not-so-good-things.

when i was on a big rocking church staff, i remember the high of feeling so much better than everyone else.  that we were so amazing, special, smart, cool, progressive, so…. and it meant we could get away with things that really weren’t okay or right because we were doing it for “the sake of the kingdom.”  we could hide behind our “exceptionalness”, our “on-top-ness” and it did make me feel invincible.

until i was on the under side of it.

the one who was less than, the one on the outs, the one who was no longer in the club or special anymore.  i remember one of my coworkers yelling at me that i’d never find anywhere outside of that church that would value me more as a woman, that i’d never be able to influence more women (not people, ha ha) than that place, that the grass was not greener anywhere else, that their specialness could never be surpassed.

once i was out i saw how truly dangerous this select kind of exceptionalism is.  it clouds judgment, it distorts reality. it oppresses. it allows people to do terrible things in the name of God & their specialness.

that’s just one small example and i’m guessing you have many others, not just in church but in life, too.

when it’s all said and done, exceptionalism points to our tendency to stay divided from others, to have a “right” group and a “wrong” group, an “us” and a “them”, a “saved” and an “unsaved”, a “righteous” and an “unrighteous”, a “better than” and a “less than”, an “over” and an “under.”

Jesus made clear that in the kingdom of God that we are all equal, no less or no more than another. 

and maybe the harsh truth is that is the hardest thing of all to embrace in this world. to accept our unexceptionalness no matter what skin color or sexual orientation or gender or socioeconomics or belief system or life experience.

that we are just as sick and normal and broken and human and healthy and whole and free and ugly and beautiful as the person next to us.

that we are all equal & wonderfully special in the sight of God despite our all our differences.

that we are no better nor worse than others.

that when all of our spiritual & physical protections are stripped away, we really are all the same.

maybe part of our group-craziness is that we don’t want to be the same as “those people”, whoever those people might be. in some weird part of our hearts, we want to be better than them, more loved than them, more right than them, more special than them.

but we’re not. we are equally created & loved by God.  none better nor worse than another.  none more worthy than another. none with more specialness-in-the-eyes-of-God-than another.

oh, how i dream of this being our starting point in how we live, how we breathe, how we treat one another, how we see ourselves in the world, how we live out our faith.

and the truth is, we will never ever be able to get there without first bending our knee, confessing the prejudices in our hearts, acknowledging our fears of being equal, laying down our power, and being willing to be perceived as crazy and irresponsible and gone-off-the-deep-end for actually truly, deeply, madly loving our neighbor as ourselves.

God, show us the way.