“Our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria, along with our leadership of a world where we seek to ensure that the worst weapons will never be used. America is not the world’s policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional.”
– Conclusion of President Obama’s Sept. 10 national address on Syria.
By the end of his life in 2009, Kosuke Koyama had concluded that there is only one sin: exceptionalism.
I wish President Obama had been able to consult with Kosuke Koyama (1929 – 2009) before delivering this speech. He might have chosen his words more carefully. Koyama was a world-renowned Japanese Christian theologian and leader in inter-religious dialogue, author of Waterbuffalo Theology, Mount Fuji and Mount Sinai: a Critique of Idols, among other books.
Koyama first heard the claim of national exceptionalism in the Japan of his childhood. Japan was exceptional. The best. Number one. The Empire of the Rising Sun. The Emperor, supported by the religion of the imperial cult, could do no wrong. He was divine. So was Japan.
Dr. Koyama and his wife Lois moved to Minneapolis following his retirement. He shared with his friends his deep sadness that the old Japanese imperial claim had become the American claim.
America’s “leadership of a world where we seek to ensure that the worst weapons will never be used” is at stake.
Fact: the worse weapons ever used (nuclear and chemical) have already been used. We used them. We are the only nation on the planet to have dropped the atomic bomb. We dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. We used chemical weapons in Vietnam. Agent Orange is a chemical weapon. Napalm is a chemical weapon.
America is not the world’s policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong.
We have thought of ourselves as the world’s policeman and we still do. A policeman insures that the law of the land is enforced. The law that causes such resentment in the Middle East is the law of American exceptionalism and prerogatives. For the Arab world, this is what makes America different: the presumption of American exceptionalism expressed by re-arranging the economic-political-cultural landscape to advance Western interests, as in the case of Saudi Arabia, or by imposing and disposing, as in the CIA assassination of the legitimate President of Iran and the installation of the Shah, or our support for Saddam Hussein and Iraq in the Iraq-Iran War.
Very clearly, the U.S. has not sought to right every wrong. Nor should we. But our language is hollow at best and jingoistic at worst when one surveys the history of American intervention into the internal affairs of other sovereign states as the heir of British colonialism. The arrangements in the Middle East have their genesis in deals made by wealthy British and American elites with elite Arab Sheiks and strong men like Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi until they no longer were useful.
“But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act.”
International scenes of human suffering and terror abound. In some cases we have chosen to act. In others, like Darfur, we chose not to act based largely on the principle of American self-interest. If American national interests were not threatened or affected, we did not act militarily. We acted humanely with humanitarian aid, but we did not act militarily to stop the horror of genocide in Darfur.
The principle of American national security and self-interest is clear in the President’s speech where he ties together the long-term safety of American children here at home with the short-term safety of children being gassed in Syria. That is, arguably, the way it should be. The use of chemical weapons and the threat of them in the hands of those who hate us is an ominous prospect.
Whether we should act is not, however, the question. The question is how America should act? Furthermore, how we decide to act should be informed and guided by the lessons of our own historic use of weapons of mass destruction and our own involvement in the supply of chemical weapons to Saddam Hussein, used in the Iraq-Iran War and allegedly used against his own people in Iraq.
It is an essentially moral position to condemn the use of weapons of mass destruction (chemical, nuclear, or biological. It is immoral to use them –an offense against humanity, and offense against all nature, and, for religious people, an offense against God.
Unfortunately there is not an equivalent of confession for nation states when they themselves have acted against their own declared moral principles. President Obama did not drop the bombs on Japan. Nor did he or his Administration supply the chemical weapons that did in Iraq what has happened to the mothers and children in Damascus. He might wish he could wash the blood from America’s hands or erase these chapters of American history, but he cannot. He cannot because the facts are facts, and the rest of the world remembers.
em>“That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional.”
“There is only one sin,” said Kosuke Koyama,.“Exceptionalism.”
The myth of American exceptionalism dates back to a great hope as the new nation was about to be born. It was spoken in a sermon by Puritan John Winthrop on the Arbella sailing the high seas from the Old World of England to the New World of America. The biblical text of John Winthrop’s sermon was the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew applied to the adventure of establishing an exceptional nation, “the city set upon a hill” (Matthew 5:14) to give light to the world.
Although the word ‘exceptionalism’ is foreign to most Americans except those in academia or those who are especially attuned to American politics, it is the controlling myth of American life and the ground to which succeeding American Administrations and Congresses have turned to justify American ventures – economic, spiritual, political, cultural, and military.
In some way or another it falls to each Administration to uphold the myth, even and perhaps especially, when the myth appears to be false. The aspiration of a city set upon a hill was etched in mind of the Church, not a nation-state. It was and is a call to a different way, and its original spokesman saw that city quite differently from the American military-industrial-technological-corporate complex. This Jesus, a Jewish rabbi living under the Roman occupation of the First Century C.E., was not a warrior or a policeman. He saw to the heart of the human condition and the tragedy of high moral claims that justify all forms of violence.
“Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye’, while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye” (Gospel of Matthew 7:3-5, NRSV).
There is only one sin.
Koyama’s last work was Theology and Violence: Towards a Theology of Nonviolent Love, published in Japanese in 2009 in Tokyo. There is, as yet, no American translation.