Why does it matter if America is or isn’t the greatest country in the world?

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Competition, this never-ending desire to be the best, is a heartless master. It drives us, seeps into our daily lives and national discourse and doesn’t let go. It is in our educational system, our media, our churches, our national holidays. Self and national promotion has become so normal that we don’t think twice about, never pushing back to ask the bigger questions of why, what for, what does it really matter in light of eternity or in light of human kindness and love?

I was thinking about that again last week as I spent American Fourth of July holiday in England for the second year in a row. Not much celebration there of course of the former colony’s independence. But still I saw the declarations on social media of well-minded people: We are the greatest country in the world! We are the greatest country that has ever been! There will never be a country in the future like us! Though of course other Americans had a different slogan, We are making America great again! Whatever it meant for America to have been great in the first place somewhere back there.

With all the sloganeering, I found myself wondering again what it all meant. And why was it important? Why is it important to be better than someone else? Why is it important to be the best nation on earth? For what? I have blogged about this before in another form. (See Why do Americans use phrases like Best Ever, Biggest in History, etc.?) There are of course innocent expressions of this, coming out of a heart of genuine love of country and people. But to say it uncritically, without the self-awareness of our own temptations to pride and arrogance as people and as nations, can lead potentially to harmful attitudes and actions toward others.

Instead of focusing on being better or the best in comparison to others, rather we could focus on being the best we can be as a person or a nation. I did my usual activity last week in England, visiting a local cemetery. As I walked and meditated on the stories revealed on the stones, I came to a beautiful though weather and age-scarred one. The photo is with this blog post. It has two children, and the writing on it reads: If more were like you, this earth would be nearer the Heaven for which we pray. I don’t know who this was written about, as I couldn’t see any name on a tombstone near it. Perhaps it was put there to give honor and respect in a more general way. I don’t know.

But the sentiments on it and the two children in stone were touching and powerful to me. It reminds me of someone else who talked about greatness and a child. In the New Testament book of Matthew, at the beginning of Chapter 18, the disciples of Jesus came to him and asked this question: Who really is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? Jesus didn’t directly answer them, as was his often practice, but instead called a little child and placed him right in the middle for all to see. And then Jesus did speak, saying “Unless you repent, turn and change, and become like this little child, trusting and lowly and loving and forgiving, you can never enter the kingdom of heaven at all.” (Amplified version)

Jesus never did say who was greatest. I don’t really think it was important to him. Or maybe he did answer, and his answer was the child in front of them. He talked about some qualities of a child, in this translation it was 1) Trusting 2) Lowly 3) Loving 4) Forgiving. These are not qualities we would compete with others to be the best in, but rather what we would desire to live deeply into, transforming our lives and nations as we do so. Can we imagine nations that were really like this? It’s hard enough to find people.

Jesus’ questions are so often different than ours. And He did love to ask questions.

I love my birth country, the United States of America. But I love it not because it is the best in the world, but because it is a place that is imperfect, human and inhuman at the same time. I was born here. I deeply appreciate its freedoms, it being a beacon of hope and an ideal that many long for. Yet I also know its sins, its horrible oppressions of others at times in history, its flaws held up to that same ideal it expresses.

I also love my adopted country, India. It also is a land of many contradictions. Of much glorious and rich humanity and yet also deep inhumanity as well. You can say that if you dare, of any country you call your own, by birth or by choice. It also applies to families, and to individuals like me. We are human, and we are inhuman. Both are there.

Father, deliver us from wanting to be the best of all, the greatest of all. Show us our great humanity, but also our great inhumanity. We repent of pride, of competition that leads us to be less loving, less trusting, less forgiving, less lowly. Let us have the humility of a child, both personally and as a nation. 

So that the Heaven for which we pray will be nearer by the day.

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