As I binge-watched Amazon’s Man in the High Castle last month, I realized that American exceptionalism runs deep.
I had never thought of myself as a great believer in American exceptionalism. You know, the idea that America has a special and unique calling in the world that no other nation has due to our history and ideology. I’m extremely proud to be an American, but as one prone to self-examination in my own life, I’ve always been aware of ways in which we could improve. My belief in the “now and not-yet” of God’s kingdom keeps unquestioned patriotism in check, but also spurs me to pray and work for the justice, grace and love that kingdom offers.
And yet, as I recently watched the first season of Man in the High Castle, the series based on Philip K. Dick’s book of the same name, I was surprised by my reaction to a subjugated America. Set in 1962, 15 years after the Axis powers have won World War II, America has been divided into the Greater Nazi Reich and the Japanese-controlled Pacific States of America. In the Nazi-controlled East coast and Midwest, many citizens were collaborators during the war and there is no place for Jewish people, differently-abled, or any other kind of minority. In the Pacific States, Americans are third-class citizens, relegated mostly to menial labor and servitude—
Wait! This doesn’t happen to Americans!
Of course that thought itself is born from the privilege of growing up in the 80s and 90s, watching the Berlin Wall come down (and remembering a time when the USSR, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia were things that existed). It’s born from the privilege of living in an extraordinarily prosperous country, with infrastructure and peaceful transfers of power. And it’s born from the privilege of living in a country that has never been invaded by or subjugated by a foreign power.
But I’ll admit that while watching Man in the High Castle, it was extremely uncomfortable to see Americans depicted as aiding and abetting the Nazis, our classic enemies and the trope we use when we want to shut down a conversation on the internet. It flies so counter to our vision of ourselves as being the “good guys.”
It was extremely jarring to watch Americans be third-class citizens in “our” country.
Watching the show was a stark realization of how much we’re surrounded by the myths and messages of our nation’s unique place and calling in history and how that narrative has shaped the way we live in this world. In contrast, it’s an even more stark realization that the American church has not managed to cast a vital and imagination-capturing vision of God’s kingdom that can match the pervasive narrative of our nation’s exceptionalism. Quite the contrary—the church has been complicit in reducing the kingdom to a pie-in-the-sky dream that fits neatly into what America likes to think of herself or into the earth-bound politics of the day.
In The Man in The High Castle one of the characters, Juliana, becomes radicalized to join the American resistance when she watches a film depicting an Allied victory over the Axis powers. This vision of America is what drives her to work to make it a reality. So in the same vein, I thought I’d spend a few minutes reflecting on the exceptionalism of God’s kingdom.
Christ’s kingdom is described as enduring forever. Isaiah 9:7 prophesies, “Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.”
Centuries later, in Luke, we read the story of the angel Gabriel’s appearance to Mary saying, “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
Surely this was a radical—and even exceptional—claim to make especially during times when kingdoms were often waging war against other kingdoms. Both the Northern and Southern kingdoms of Israel are led into exile and captivity; during Jesus’ life, Judea was under Roman occupation.
But this is an exceptional claim even—and especially—now during an election season that has been fraught with apocalyptic prophecies of doom and the decline and fall of America. As Americans we have some idea of what it is like to live in a nation that endures (so the threat of it ceasing is a terror), but we can’t ever fully live in that security.
Even more exceptional than the claim of perpetual dominion—and probably most striking and counterintuitive to our human understanding of power structures—is that we have nothing to do with what makes the kingdom great.
That kingdom stands forever not because of a great system of governance or ideology, but because Christ is seated on the throne. And unlike the leaders of this world, his enthronement only draws a greater contrast to the fact that he is “gentle and humble in heart.”
What would it look like to live now as citizens of the kingdom of heaven? What would our cities, states, and nation look like if we had a real vision of this kingdom and of its King?