American exceptionalism is a term that one hears increasingly. In the New World Encyclopedia, we read, “American exceptionalism has been historically referred to as the belief that the United States differs qualitatively from other developed nations because of its national credo, historical evolution, or distinctive political and religious institutions. The difference is often expressed in American circles as some categorical superiority, to which is usually attached some alleged proof, rationalization or explanation that may vary greatly depending on the historical period and the political context.” Many believe that we, Americans, are superior to other people. Our work ethic or perhaps our intelligence has made us what we are today; the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth. The attitude of many who use the phrase is not a new one.
While the word “exceptionalism” isn’t found in the Bible, the attitude behind the worldly connotation of it is. We find a good illustration of this in the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. “The king spoke, saying, ‘Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for a royal dwelling by my mighty power and for the honor of my majesty?’” (Daniel 4:30) The attitude behind this type of exceptionalism excludes God from the picture – it’s all about the greatness of self. Nebuchadnezzar had, of course, been warned about the attitude and its consequences. “They shall drive you from men, your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field, and they shall make you eat grass like oxen. They shall wet you with the dew of heaven, and seven times shall pass over you, till you know that the Most High rules in the kingdom of men, and gives it to whomever He chooses.” (Daniel 4:25) His ungodly and presumptuous attitude netted him seven years of insanity, living and eating with beasts of the field. When God finally restored him to his senses, the humbled Nebuchadnezzar had an attitude that reflected God’s exceptionalism. “And at the end of the time I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my understanding returned to me; and I blessed the Most High and praised and honored Him who lives forever: For His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and His kingdom is from generation to generation. All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing; He does according to His will in the army of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth. No one can restrain His hand or say to Him, ’What have You done?’” (Daniel 4:34-35).
God also warned the tribes of Israel, just before entering Canaan, to stay away from this same “exceptionalist” attitude when they entered in to the land of their great blessings. “Beware that you do not forget the LORD your God by not keeping His commandments, His judgments, and His statutes which I command you today, lest—when you have eaten and are full, and have built beautiful houses and dwell in them; and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and your gold are multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied; when your heart is lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage;… then you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gained me this wealth.’” (Deuteronomy 8:11-14, 17) Many in Israel, like Nebuchadnezzar, forgot God and attributed their wealth and successes to themselves. Their “Israelite exceptionalism” netted them captivity in foreign lands.
We can stand back and look at our present time or back through biblical history and easily see the arrogance and danger in carnal exceptionalism either on the personal level or nationally. It is a very easy thing to see – effortless. But what if we were to look much closer to home – within the Church of God? This mental exercise isn’t about how another fold of the flock, or the individual members thereof, view itself or themselves. That has no bearing on what our collective or individual attitude will net for us. Are we carnal exceptionalists or simply humble servants of God and members of the Body of Christ?