Wednesday, January 13, 2021

On Comparing US and Majority World Politics

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

A week ago, violent, pro-Trump insurrectionists stormed the United States Capitol, disrupting Congressional certification of the presidential election, and forcing evacuation of the country's highest legislative body. This event was rightfully and widely condemned, both in the United States (including by United Methodist leaders) and around the world (including by the Pope, the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, and the World Communion of Reformed Churches).

In their condemnations of the attack, some secular commentators in the United States compared it to what happens in "third world" countries. That comparison deserves some unpacking, as it and the sense of American exceptionalism behind it are worth critiquing in themselves and are moreover relevant to The United Methodist Church.

First, it should be noted that "'Third World' is an offensive term" to many people from the broad but vaguely-defined set of countries indicated by that term, as it is seen as linked to a hierarchical sense of the worth of different countries. Thus, this post will instead use the term "majority world."

The sense of hierarchy contained in the term points to the broader history of American exceptionalism behind the comparison. American exceptionalism is the belief that the United States has a unique role to play in the world-historical stage, a special, even God-given, mission that it is uniquely equipped to carry out because of its supposed moral and cultural superiority.

The belief in American exceptionalism is one way in which people from the United States have seen themselves as better than people in other countries. This sense of superiority applies to both other developed countries in the "Old World" of Europe and to the Majority World in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. When used with regard to those in the Majority World, a belief in American exceptionalism posits that the United States is richer and more economically developed not because of good fortune but because of some sort of moral, cultural, political, or other superiority.

To note similarities between current United States politics and political crises in certain Majority World countries thus is to draw attention to a disconnect between those US politics and how the United States has traditionally seen itself in relation to the rest of the world. There are two ways to resolve the cognitive dissonance of that disconnect, though.

One of those ways actually reaffirms the United States' sense of American exceptionalism. "Yes, there is a disconnect at this moment, but we will and must behave better to show that we still are better than the rest of the world," this line of reasoning goes. While this line of reasoning aims at good outcomes for American democracy (less violent unrest), it does so at the expense of America's ongoing relationship with the rest of the world (through a continued sense of superiority).

The second way to resolve the cognitive dissonance is to jettison or reduce the belief in American exceptionalism. This approach would say, "I guess there isn't as much difference between us and the rest of the world as we thought." There is a danger that such an approach could lead to political fatalism, but there is also an opportunity that it can lead to greater learning from others' experience with democracy and to greater resolve in work to sustain the United States' own democracy, not because it is inevitable, but because people in the United States realize that if they do not work for democracy, they will lose it, just like anyone else.

This second way to resolve the cognitive dissonance thus can work toward the reaffirmation of US democracy while at the same time strengthening relationships, solidarity, and identification with others around the world who are working to support their own democracies.

The question of how those in the United States process the cognitive dissonance between their sense of American exceptionalism and the events of last Wednesday has implications for The United Methodist Church as well as US democracy. The church is notably US-centric, indicating that a belief in American exceptionalism does not stop at politics but applies to the religious as well.

If US United Methodists resolve their cognitive dissonance in a way that reaffirms their sense of American exceptionalism, then the sorts of US-centric thinking and US domination of General Conference are likely to continue, with the dysfunctions and injustices entailed therein.

If, however, the events of last Wednesday prompt US United Methodists to take a good, long look at the national character in a way that mitigates their sense of American exceptionalism, then there will be benefits to The United Methodist Church as well.

If US United Methodists loosen their sense that they are morally superior and the standard around which the church should be organized, then there will be new opportunities for the church to listen to each other across national and cultural boundaries to discern the moving of God's Spirit and be faithful to God's will. There is the opportunity to better be the global church we aspire to be.

If, that is. If.

1 comment:

  1. As we approach the Week of Christian Unity, we might recall the role of the World Council of Churches in modeling an alternative to denominational structures that remain culturally and ideologically bound to places of their origin. The assemblies and working groups of the WCC become arenas of candor, accountability and action from which no member body is easily excused. The Council's history of churches finding solidarity in witnessing to human rights, racial equality and creation protection finds a tribute to its relevance in the voices of its fiercest critics among prevailing principalities and powers. Strengthening the WCC offers the UMC its best opportunity to discard its association with the myth of American exceptionalism.