our exceptional unexceptionalness.

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.

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar co-pastors at The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver and is the author of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.

16 Comments

  • Good points Kathy,

    As I read what you say, I think of our celebrity culture where if anyone is thin that “club” the rules that apply to anyone else don’t. So behaviour that woudn’t be accepted for example with others becomes OK. It sounds similar to what you say about the “high feeling of being better than anyone else”. Maybe the tough expereince did you some good to be yelled at by your fellow worker to get out of that and expereince what it was like on the “under side of it”? So that you have more freedom now?

    In my last expereince of church I was aware of the power dynamics and, as I have shared before it came to a head when I called out a leader for haviing practicing false prophecy. Having shared with the pastor in a meeting with this leader that I had lost respect for her becuse of this, he said he couldn’t have that. At the same time he said that everyone in the church loved me and valued me. The leader I had difficulty with said I was a great contrubutor at the group she led and hoped that I would continue to come. However because of this power stuggle, it ended up with me leaving. I am on good terms with both the female leader and the pastor now. And I am free from the church politics by having moved on. Because of this expereince I have had greater bonds wiith the real freinds I have and more of an awareness of the superficiality that can go on and how easy it is to be caught up in that with a herding instint. Being different in that respect is to take risks and be courageous, doing what others choose not to do. I have paid a price for that socially but I am freer. Blessed are those that thirst for rightteousness. Isn’t that how it goes in the beattitudes?

    I hear what you say about power and the rampant “tromping on others”. What you have mentioned has come at a timely moment for me. I was just yesterday reading an article about a sprtsman claiming tha God was on his side. I was thinking God is on everyone’s side! The article went on to say:

    “Whether capitalist or socialist, celibate or in relationship, clinically depressed or overly bubbly, loud-mouthed or soft-spoken, a member of a church or someone without religion, African or Caucasian or Asian or Latino or European or whatever tax bracket you find
    yourself in, whether you speak English or another language, whether disabled or able-bodied, a pastor or parishioner – God is not taking sides with you against anyone.”

    I say Amen tothat and I say Amen to what you say Kathy that we really are “all the same”.

    So what do we do with power? It seems to me that the real power comes when we ddo as you say Kathy or in similar ways, by laying down our personal power, being humble and loving. In one instance of what had happened at college I shared with two female staff, one said to me “you are a powerful man”. My reply was to say that “all I have done is to be aware of what God was doing and what my part to play was in that”. She said “that’s what makes you powerful”. Now, I know some people would see that kind of thing as a threat but I have to keep doing what I know pleases God in spite of how people respond and when I am misunderstood. At least soem people get it. But it does start with humility. It really is a beautiful thing to channel that power in the Spirit of sound mind truth and love in service, a privelidge. I am honoured to be part of that. I love it when I see the reactions from people when it works. I seem to remeber not so long ago, a certain person telling me something I wrote meant “more than you know” to me. *wink*.

    God Bless 🙂

    Reply
  • thanks for putting the issue of pride on the table when it comes to church politics, staffs, ministries … this is truly a sin that twists and distorts His work, a heart attitude that we think is safely tucked away, yet is oh-so-evident to those who watch from the sidelines …

    Reply
  • After leaving my church almost two years ago, I continue to wrestle with both the freedom of being just like everyone else and that pain of not feeling “included” anymore. As you’ve said so many times here, I’ve lost a lot in leaving. It’s a weird tension that I both love and struggle with. Your words continue to encourage me to continue on, that I’m not crazy, that even though what I’m doing doesn’t fit the old mold, I’m okay. I’ve said it before and I will say it again…thank you so much for your words.

    Reply
    • thanks chelsie. that loss is so deep. being on the other side and unincluded is so painful. glad you are here and finding your way. peace from colorado.

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  • Thanks Kathy. I have a friend who just gave me two big boxes of his ‘Christian books’ because he has left the Christian faith. Very sad and it made me cry. He loved Jesus so much, got involved in a big church and was totally in love with God. Then he found out it was a ‘cult’. He is a smart guy, working on his PhD and when he found out the church was a cult, he was devastated. I had a dream about him where he & I were hiking. We came to a village where there was a white church like building, like the grange hall. We both entered the building and saw that we had to check in at a table. When he approached the check in first, he began to unzip his skin and then stepped out of it and proceeded into the big room where everyone was talking and laughing and seemed very happy. As I looked around the room everyone looked exactly the same. Sort of like adult cabbage patch dolls with togas. Everyone was so joyful. My friend is afro American if that makes a difference. The dream really helped me see what Jesus is all about! That neither race, or privilege, or appearance, etc. made a difference in the end. And that it was all about being equal and loving and free. I had a feeling of being able to breathe and let go…finally!

    Reply
    • oh my heart always hurts for those who have given so much and lost so much in the process. God is bigger than our jacked up systems but it’s so hard when what’s being reflected back is so contrary. what a fun dream!

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  • Excellent!!! Thanks so much for sharing. This topic is something we have been chatting about in our family for awhile now. ALL are created and loved equally by God…no IFS, ANDS or BUTS!!

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    • yes! no ifs, and, and buts. that’s often our first response–“but what about….” and that always leads us to separation somehow. every single time. thank you for taking time to share.

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  • When I was twelve, I spent the weekend with my uncle. We attended their local Methodist church on Sunday. The pastor who had been there about one year told the congregation that they had become little more than a country club that tried to attract people they thought were the “desirables” – doctors, attorneys, business executives and so on, while at the same time trying to ignore those they thought were ordinary or less-than desirable. That sermon got him fired.

    So little has changed. There are those who need to form their own little clubs (this includes lots of churches) and pretend they are better-than because of their social status, religious status, economic status or whatever criteria they feel they meet (but others don’t).

    Of course this way of thinking demands groups of people who we, the better-thans, are better-than. Those folks are poor, ugly, sinners, gay, female, fat, suffer from wrong-thinking or whatever criteria we can invent to make them lesser-than in our eyes.

    When I was younger, we called the better-thans “posers” and “pretenders”. We all know some of those folks, don’t we?

    We are all exceptional in the eyes of the one who walked among us, touched us, and suffered a humiliating death at our hands because he pointed out what many did not want to see.

    Reply
    • thanks, sam. yes, i have seen the same thing happen over and over, pastors who try to make that shift and lose their churches. it’s nuts! “we are all exceptional in the eyes of the one who walked among us, touched us, and suffered a humiliating death at our hands because he pointed out what many did not want to see.” so good!

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  • You show very clearly how Jesus turned things on their head yet again my sweet friend. Philippiuans is my fave book in the Bible and reading your post reminded me one reason why. Paul explains in amazing simplicity that Jesus, the One who truly had the right to claim supreme power and authority, the One who was wxeptional and holds the titles that are the greatest of all- voluntarily chose to put no ego into them and instead be a servant. Everytime I think of it it makes my jaw ant to drop. On BioLogos website they have some awesome articxles and one i just read tallks about the theology of the Cross and how God chooses to endure pain suffering amnd death Himself. You always provide so much impetus for thought and transformation Kathy. Can’t wait to read all the insights you will share from your trip!!!!

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    • thanks robert. i just re-read that verse the other day and am always amazed by Jesus’ humility and what that means for us. whoa, so contrary to so much of what we’ve been taught about things!

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  • This is so right on! Seems like all injustice comes from an “us and them” mentality. Kathy your prayer at the end…I go back and forth between a humble, understanding prayer and lots of anger. Lots of impatience with the “exceptionalism” hierarchical systems and with people who are perpetuating these systems… but I know that anger isn’t the best way to live and it’s a pretty icky, prideful feeling in me.

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    • thanks laurie. oh i think anger can be a very propelling emotion. there’s a lot to be mad about and it’s not all bad. in fact, it can help us tap into important places in our hearts and lead us to action. it’s so tricky, though, in the systems that teach us that anger is bad and we should do whatever we can to put it down. i appreciate your sharing. so good.

      Reply

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