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Mother insists, to the loud applause of cronies and cohorts, that Americans are an exceptional people.  I laud her patriotism and faith, but I take exception. 

“Exceptional” means something outside the rule; that is, to claim the Americans are exceptional is to claim that they are different than all other peoples.  I can’t very well argue with that, the American people have their own characteristics, culture and stereotypes.  But this makes them the same sort of exception as every other people: all nations differ from all other nations, that’s part of being a nation.  Thus, semantically, this statement is both true and untrue.  The Americans differ from other people- an exception- just as all other people differ from each other- a rule.

This is just pettiness on the part of a English teacher.  However, what I truly take exception to is not the literal meaning of Mother’s banner, but its implications.  In the vernacular, to say something is exceptional is to say that it is better than other things.  To claim Americans are exceptional in this sense is to step into the imperialism of the Roman and British Empires.

The Romans, and later the British assumed that because they were “exceptional” they were better than other peoples.  Both civilizations had some very real contributions to offer the world: Roman aqueducts, roads, and democracy provided a bridge from antiquity to the modern world, British etiquette, order, and civility, not to mention the English language, provided a bridge of diplomacy between modern peoples.  However, both nations  made the mistake of thinking that because they were “unique”- as is every nation- and because they had certain improvements on the way things had always been done, they were better.  Their language was more civilized, their customs less barbarous, their goals wiser.  In some instances they may have been right, in others, they were definitely wrong, but as the Empire grew, the impression that if it was Roman (British) it was right became stronger and stronger.  Until the day the Empire failed. 

Why do empires fail?  There are many reasons, but the one that affects our topic is the laziness and blindness that comes from assuming one is “exceptional” – both as a definite exception to the rule of all  nations, and as something higher, better than other nations.  The Roman army was supposed to be the best in the world- “different”, “unique”- exceptional.  Until the day a raggle-taggle band of half-civilized Britons drove them off a small insignificant island into the sea.  Britain was Queen of the Sea- until a few insignificant, half-civilized colonies not only claimed their independence , but surpassed her in strength, wealth, and industrial development.

I have no idea who might surpass the American Empire, or if that will take place.  If it does, it will be in part due to the complacency of being excellent.  However, my strongest objection to concept of American excellence is on moral grounds. 

I agree, as a matter of fact, I teach that America has some truly wonderful characteristics.  And yes, they are unique- exceptional.  There are many benefits to living in America, there is much to learn from her history, much to respect in her construction, much to thank God for in her development.  But she is not better than other countries.  She is certainly no worse, and there are many, many virtues that may make her seem better.  And oddly, Christians are some of the most persistent in claiming that she is better- due to her early history as a bastion of Christianity: which is an early history shared by Rome, Germany, and Britain, incidentally- also Armenia which was the first nation to call itself Christian, and Ethiopia which was only a few moments behind.  Not to mention Israel, which is the only true Promised Land- though no one seems to think she’s the best nation in the world.

It’s admirable to love one’s country, but blind love isn’t a very valuable gift.  I love my husband; I daresay he’s exceptional, since I have no problem telling him apart from the other men around.  I do not claim he is the best man in the world.  He is the best man for me; but there are many, many other good men in the world.  At least I hope so, or I’d have to feel really sorry for the rest of the female population.  I freely admit that he isn’t perfect, that he isn’t a paragon of all the male virtues; but I love him because he is the best man for me.

America is a wonderful country, especially for Americans.  Britain is also a wonderful country.  So is Italy.  So is South Korea.  So is Peru, if you like rain forests and massive snakes.  I draw the line at Iraq.  But each country is wonderful, unique, exceptional even- for its own people.  And the best way to appreciate the uniqueness of one’s own country is to accept and respect the uniqueness of other countries.

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Humble Pie

When Christ promised blessing to the humble, did He mean the humble, or those who think they are? This is a serious question, not mere rhetoric. When a person is deliberately, determinedly humble, does that count as humility? Or pride?

I would be humanly inclined to discount such artificial humility; the pretension grates, and anyway, it’s less stress on me… If I can discount others’ virtues as tinkling cymbals, there is no pressure on me to measure up.

And of course, it’s easy to find hypocrisy in others. (And to mark mine off as insignificant.) After all, when my father-in-law states that God listens to HIS prayers because he prays on his knees- and God resists the proud, a little indulgent eye-rolling seems to be in order. Especially when I’m familiar with his sentence constructions- «Those believers loved ME…. those Communists didn’t know what to do with ME… all the prisoners came up to ME to pray for them…» A man who considers the church service a blessing when he’s allowed to speak, and unfulfilling when he’s not makes it easy to discount the humility that insists on eating old bread, refusing cheese or sausage, and saying «We never had such things…» (I mentally hear my mother-in-law snapping, «Kolya, don’t make things up, we did to!»)

Such trumpeted humility is common among the people with whom I live. After all, my father-in-law can’t take all the flack! For one thing, humility is more respected, historically, in Russia than in America. Leo Tolstoi was an evangelist of the glories of the simple life, and the purity of the peasant, and it’s a common literary theme. And then, the communism that was never achieved was supposed to make all equal- not in the American sense of equality, «Be all that you can be», but in the Russian sense of brotherhood and shared opportunity. And naturally, the very real poverty experienced as a natural state of being by many has played its role, too.

Further, humilty was enforced, in a sense, on those who, like my father-in-law, were Baptists in the U.S.S.R. Baptists were considered 1. a sect, and 2. backward. The sad thing is that the force of public opinion has made those slanders true. Many Russian Baptists today do behave like a sect, affecting military discipline, and excluding outsiders; and the majority are insistently backward, refusing too much education, employment, refinement as worldly pride.

Here we need to return to my original question. What counts as humility? My refusal to consider myself humble when I’m really not is not counted to me as a virtue. That’s easy to see. What about my father-in-law’s, and others’ earnest desire to be humble? Granted, it doesn’t result in what we might term true humility- which I would consider dependence on and enjoyment of God, without self-conscious posturing. But surely, their real efforts to please God in this way must count for something. A desire to be humble may not result in true humility; but then again, are people capable of true humilty?

In the end, it’s evident that rather than stopping at the Beatitudes it behooves us to continue to the end of the Sermon on the Mount. Because the real point is that it’s not our place to judge my father-in-law’s humilty, or thank heaven, my lack thereof. The Beatitudes are God’s promises, therefore they are in His hands to fulfill- as He sees fit. Which reminds us that humilty, false or true, is between God and the individual- much as meekness, gentleness, and mercy. And while God looks on the heart, we see only the outer appearance. So, as unspiritual as it may sound, we’re better off living and letting live- that is, minding our business with God, and leaving others’ business to them.

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My first images of Russia were black and white. Blurry photocopied snapshots of tree smudges on snowy backdrops; long low barracks in a snowy yard crisscrossed by sharp wire fences; bristly dark fur hats on stern pale faces. I was four or five years old, it was the first half of the eighties. The U.S.S.R. was the bad guy in foreign affairs. Political prisoners were pitied in America, and my stark black and white impressions were culled from a monthly pamphlet on religious persecution subscribed to by the church we attended.

I don’t know why those pamphlets should have had a such an effect on me. Yes, the church was very involved in praying for Christians imprisoned for their faith. Yes, it was a topic often discussed. But that doesn’t really explain why it should have captured the imagination of a preschooler. Maybe because I was always a serious child… because I have a latent sense of drama (more or less well-controlled)… because the only entertainment available during long boring sermons was reading those stern, but peopled pamphlets. In reality, I think it was God’s hand; you can agree or not, as you read further.

I remember a hurried film shot in scratchy frames of a forbidden Christian wedding in the woods, interrupted by the authorities. The bride’s white dress and veil look washed-out and pitiful, a farce, against the harsh white glare of the snow drifts. Black figures stumbling between gnarled black tree trunks tangled and blended with the bare black branches. I was bewildered: who would choose a wedding in snowy woods? And who could forbid such an extravagent gesture?

I suppose it was the romance that gripped me. I am one of those incomprehensible souls who likes to walk in the rain (as my neighbor once reminded me, only mad dogs and Englishmen walk in the rain), black coffee and chocolate and sad endings. When we had the opportunity to copy squiggles and hieroglyphs and actually send letters to those prisonerers of their faith, I was thrilled!

Eventually, my blacks and whites took on grey tones. The first time I saw Mikhail Gorbachov I was shocked. I had no idea the red splotch on his head was a birthmark; I thought someone had beaten him- maybe his guards, or his friends, someone he trusted. I felt sorry for him- and my childish blacks and whites of good guys and bad guys blurred. Another Misha, Baryshnikov, «artist-martyr» took asylum- but turned out to be rather shady. And the blacks and whites ran further out of the lines.

At some point I discovered that ballet was Russian, and figure skating. I admit, ballet was French in its conception- but in execution and in excellence ballet is Russian. This brought whole palettes of midtones and shades into the spectrum- rose and indigo and dusky blues and greens, old gold, and twilit silver.

I sobbed when I watched the televised «Swan Lake» from the Bolshoi- and fell hopelessly in love with Tchaikovsky. Yes, I know. A music teacher acquaintance rolled his eyes when I proclaimed my favorite composer: «Romantic,» he laughed condescendingly. But no matter how many classical composers I may enjoy, Tchaikovsky is always in my heart.

Tchaikovsky brought blue tones, and violets, lavendar and lilac, pink and all sorts of delicate feathery colors. And from Tchaikovsky I moved on to Prokofiev- his «Romeo and Juliet» is the one I remember, not Shakespeare’s. Stravinsky and his reds and oranges and yellows, Rachmaninov and his scarlets, burgundys, golds and velvety blacks. (Granted, I don’t have a good relationship with Rachmaninov, I cry- weep, more like it. Not a pleasant, romantic sniffle, but heart-rending sobs.)

Oddly (because I’m a fanatic reader) it was only after music that I discovered literature. Tolstoy filled my pictoral imagination with the rich fulsome colors of a Russian lacquer box, and peopled it with Russian types that I recognize today. Chekhov brought back greys of every tone, and salmon pink, blue, and wry purples. Solzhenitsyn brought back blacks and whites, but not the sharp, concrete moralistic tones of my chilhood; these were blacks and whites of tragedy and minor virtues and heroisms.

But it was only when I stepped out of the airport in Moscow that the colors jumped into focus. Alive. Real. Breathing. It was then that I realized that that side of the rainbow is like this side- only different.

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