Recently I read Andrei Markovits’ interesting and challenging book, Uncouth Nation – Why Europe Dislikes America. Then this morning in church I had the opportunity to listen to a sermon based on the 73rd Psalm. What connection could there possibly be between these two texts?
Uncouth Nation, if I may provide a ridiculously short summary, explains the why and the how of Europe’s centuries-long dislike for the United States. Markovits offers a number of reasons for this antipathy; some are plausible and others, I might say, seem stretched.
The 73rd Psalm is a confession from the writer (Asaph, the king’s poet and minister of music) about how he was nearly undone by his fixation with the worldly success of arrogant and careless men. Perhaps my interpretation of this psalm is the result of having read Markovits’ book. Read a sample and see whether any of this rings a bell:
…[the arrogant and the wicked] have no struggles;
Their bodies are healthy and strong.
They are free from the burdens
common to man; they are not plagued by human ills.
Therefore pride is their necklace;
They clothe themselves with violence.
From their callous hearts comes iniquity;
the evil conceits of their minds know no limits.
They scoff, and speak with malice;
In their arrogance they threaten oppression.
They lay claim to heaven,
And their tongues take possession of the earth.
…This is what the wicked are like – always carefree, they increase in wealth.
Psalm 73 verses 4 through 7, and 12
Oddly, I don’t remember ever reading this passage before. What strikes me about it now, entirely apart from its spiritual significance (which is great), is that this is exactly how much of the world views Americans! What we Americans see as a virtue (confidence, a positive attitude) is construed by others as arrogance or self-superiority. “Psychotically optimistic” was the expression that one BBC reporter used to describe American combat troops who he met in Iraq. This description may have seemed all the more apt to the writer in light of what he knew (or thought he knew) about the American psychological makeup.
More specifically, this passage could be (probably has been) related to our former president, George W. Bush. His relentless optimism and determined can-do attitude, which inspired such admiration in some people, has offended the sensibilities and turned the stomachs of many more.
Obviously this passage of scripture has all got me thinking about politics, as I am prone to do. It’s got me thinking about the difference between reality and interpretation. Maybe what W needed in the White House was an attitude czar; someone to help him moderate his language and his attitude to avoid offending our friends and allies. After all, the US population comprises only about one-twentieth of the world’s population, and that means that if we have no friends, we are badly outnumbered. Maybe what W needed more, what we Americans all need, is to remember that much of the world’s population views us Americans as the winners of life’s lottery, born lucky and determined to remain oblivious. A little bit of accommodation and a lot of genuine humility is in order if we wish to reverse the worldwide trend that sees us that way.