I have a confession. Lately I've been watching Survivor, that popular CBS "reality show." Normally, I am not a connoisseur of crass TV (okay, I've seen a few episodes of The Apprentice, too), but in the midst of trying to figure out what all the fuss is about, I stumbled upon larger meaning.
For the uninitiated, Survivor is a game whose players are stranded on a remote island and divided into two tribes. With few resources, each tribe must cooperate in scavenging for food, building a shelter and competing against the other tribe. If, however, their tribe loses a "challenge," they must vote one of their tribe-mates out of the game. The last survivor left wins.
Each episode I've seen is filled with unsettling mixtures of trust and betrayal, sacrifice and self-preservation, as contestants decide how to "play the game." Alliances are made and broken, and before long, everyone's watching their back. But here's the lesson Survivor taught me: success breeds conceit, and conceit will be your downfall. Invariably players gain power and think they control their destiny, only to be abruptly voted off by their tribe. Few sins are less forgivable, it turns out, than arrogance.
As I ponder this over my morning newspaper, larger questions emerge. How is the country of my birth, the world's sole "superpower," like the brash Survivor contestant? Are we a little too sure of our power? Have we claimed for ourselves the ability to control not only our destiny but the destinies of other countries as well? And if so, what's an American Christian to do?
One needn't discount all that is admirable about the United States-its ideals, its freedoms, its image of hope and opportunity for many in the world-to admit it has an incessant propensity toward arrogance. Our leaders rarely apologize, repent or acknowledge malfeasance. Both Democrats and Republicans regularly intervene in foreign countries in ways we would never tolerate if the tables were turned. And now, the United States has affirmed unilateral, preemptive warfare as a legitimate foreign policy option. Arrogance of this sort can undermine even our best qualities.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, a recent public opinion poll taken by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that citizens of Europe and the Middle East are registering increasingly higher levels of antagonism toward the United States. In the world court of public opinion, "the tribe has spoken"-and their word stands as a warning to the abuses of arrogance.
Stories of national arrogance are as old as the Bible. In one chapter, it could be Assyria and in the next Israel, but the condemnation of God is consistent. "Thus says the Lord: I will ruin the pride of Judah and the great pride of Jerusalem. This evil people, who refuse to hear my words, and who stubbornly follow their own will ... shall be like this loincloth, which is good for nothing." (Jer 13:9-10).
I do not expect either President George Bush or presumptive Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry to repudiate superpower arrogance. They have a game of Survivor to play over the next months and will be following a time-honored script of promise-making and mud-slinging.
But followers of God are given a different script. The biblical response to pride is to humble oneself (Luke 18:14, James 4:6) and associate with the lowly (Romans 12:16). This has political as well as personal ramifications. It suggests that we are not deserving of a disproportionate share of the world's resources simply because we're Americans. And it calls us to stand with the poor, the marginalized, and the undocumented, offering compassion and advocacy. Micah puts it best: "What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8).
In this season of Eastertide and the way of the cross, we acknowledge that Jesus was a loser in the world's game of Survivor. But the glory of Easter is that God plays by a different set of rules. Do we?