Bonus Blog from Pastor Scott Peterson - adding to the conversation on American Exceptionalism that Pastor Brenda Bos started in the second of this series!
In 2016, my family returned to the United States after living in Canada for over 17 years.
Some context is in order: Our daughter had only visited with other family, or taken family vacations in the U.S., but had never spent more than a week or two in the American context. My wife had returned to the U.S. in the 1980s for high school and university after spending 5 years in Nigeria as the daughter of missionaries. I had grown up in Minnesota and lived there until my cross-cultural excursion to Wisconsin during seminary. My wife and I considered ourselves ‘Americans’ even during our time in Canada, we voted in the U.S. elections, we kept abreast of what news was coming across the media and news outlets, we talked to family who were engaged in the day to day life of America. Our daughter was a citizen, but was truly Canadian in context.
When we thought about returning to the U.S., we didn’t really think it would be a difficult transition. I mean, we had lived as Americans for many years, how could it not be just simply a matter of ‘coming home’? We returned before the 2016 election and were excited for the prospect of being in the middle of the process, but were transfixed and flummoxed by the tone and vehemence that seemed to be a part of the campaign. And then we started to see the division happening between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Our daughter, although of Scandinavian descent and about as white as you can get, was seen as an outsider and someone ‘strange’ as she spoke about universal healthcare and playing underwater hockey. My wife and I were keenly aware of the racial realities of America, but our daughter who was one of the few white students in her school in Canada, couldn’t understand the white bias. She didn’t understand how her skin color, although different from her peers, could create an implicit exceptionalism just because she was White. She grew up a minority in multi-ethnic context.
As the “Make America Great Again” hats, banners, and flags were waved in celebration of a victorious election, our family began to fear for what this might mean as we heard the undertones of the message “Make White America Great Again”. The Doctrine of Discovery, Manifest Destiny, and so much more pointed to an American Exceptionalism that was founded and built on the backs of those who truly ‘did the work’ to make America what it is. The tears began to fall from our eyes as families began to crack upon Party lines. The unbelief that signs of compassion and calls for justice could be seen as political ploys. That speaking truthfully about what Jesus says about the “least of these” could make parishioners stand up in the middle of a worship service and walk out. We were lost. We began to realize that we were looking at America through the eyes of Canada and the world. We were from the ‘outside’ and our eyes opened wide to the widening divide that was before us.
I don’t know what happened to Jesus’ command to “Love God and love your neighbor.” This seemed like the exception to the truth of individual, white, male, exceptionalism. Narcissistic realities came to the forefront when questions were asked and facts, not opinions, were the answer that was looked for. The cries of “Me!” and “Mine!” rang out above the masses, and if those cries were met with “But what about caring for the neighbor?” the cries grew even louder and the label of ‘Snowflake’ seemed to erupt like a blizzard.
Humility was for the ‘sucker’. Compassion was for the ‘weak’. Justice was forgotten. Hope was fading into shadow.
I am an American. But not from ‘that’ America. I am an American who realizes that we are a part of this spherical planet, not the top of the triangle. I am an American who understands that we go farther together, than by striking out on my own. I am an American who strives to care for my neighbors, both near and far. I am an American who hopes that tomorrow will be better for all of us, not just the ones who share my White race. I am an American who repents for the injustices that this country was founded and built upon, and ask for forgiveness of how I still profit from my privilege.
Oh, and I am also Canadian, just in case things fall apart.
Pastor Scott Peterson
Lutheran Church in the Foothills
La Canada Flintridge, CA