What we say tells a lot about who we are.

Witness our response to events in Tucson, Ariz., to disastrous war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan and to Sept. 11: We haven’t done anything wrong, and right now, we need to show everyone we’re stronger than ever by being united.

That response worries me because when the world cries out that something is wrong and something needs to change, we respond with self-preservation and hubris.

I don’t bring this up to say we are wrong, or that our system is flawed, but to say that it has been co-opted. And that the people it governs have been led to believe that in order for our system to be strong, we need military power and economic prosperity.

In response to the shootings in Tucson, and for a great deal of President Obama’s State of the Union address, we heard talk of American exceptionalism and that “America is a force for good in the world.”

In many ways we are exceptional: We have one of the most democratic electoral processes and systems of governance; we have some of the greatest incentives for innovation and new ideas; and we have one of the most mobile socio-economic class systems in the entire world – though this is changing.

Some of the president’s address touched on those areas that make the United States unique.

But the president, along with others using the rhetoric of American exceptionalism, also spoke of our exceptionalism as our ability to outspend, out-job and overwhelm other economies.

Our “force for good” rhetoric is not only imbued with our ability to provide humanitarian aid and peacekeeping forces, but also with the reality that our intelligence agencies have toppled entire governments by pulling a single trigger, that we defend our economic interests in areas of the world at gunpoint, and that the freedom and economic prosperity we enjoy is in many cases built on the backs of child laborers who make our T-shirts, jeans and socks for pennies a day.

My lingering question after the 2011 State of the Union address is, “What makes America exceptional?”

· Are we exceptional because we have the strongest military force the world has ever seen?

· Are we exceptional because we have the most jobs?

· Are we exceptional because of our ability to influence political and economic world events?

· Are we exceptional because we stand far above the rest of the world in all these areas?

Because it doesn’t seem like those things would make us an exception. They would just make our country the pinnacle of the status quo. We aren’t exceptional in our use of the military, world economy or nuclear bombs. We’re just better at keeping them all to ourselves.

But the good news is that doesn’t have to be our paradigm for exceptionalism. What if our paradigm wasn’t about being better than everyone else but about being unique?

· What if our power wasn’t in having the biggest military, but in how we actually used it?

· What if we were a force for good – going into places to help defend those in need even when it isn’t politically or economically profitable?

· What if our prosperity wasn’t in the ability of the government to create jobs, raise profits and increase spending, but in our ability to value the basis for our democratic government – the people (not just their jobs and money) and their health and happiness?

If we don’t begin to consider these possibilities, then we will never be an “exception.” We will merely be the next in a long line of economically prosperous, militarily powerful, globally reaching empires that have risen fast and fallen hard.

And if we are to be Christians living in that country of exception, we must always be challenging what that exception really means.

We realize that our faith has lived over and under the power of the sword throughout its entire history. We live a faith whose visionaries imagined a world where weapons of war were beaten into farming equipment. We worship a God who cancels debts, lavishes in free healthcare and grants amnesty to the immigrant. And we have a savior who died at the hands of an empire maintaining its exceptional status.

To live into that faith means we must always reimagine how God’s call to turn over power structures, to care for the broken and to make peace will respond to a country that claims it is the exception.

While it may be a stretch to believe we will pound weapons into pruning hooks tomorrow, it is a possibility that we must continue to imagine and continue to proclaim. And imagining the possibilities is one way we begin to redefine how the United States can be a true exception.

Chris Hughes is a student at Wake Forest University’s School of Divinity.

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