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Before South Asia, my visits to other countries were always accompanied by a euphoria that convinced me I could handle just about anything. Those eight-week trips benefited from the ticket home I brought with me. Much was handled by thinking to myself “just ten more days”. But arriving in South Asia without that return ticket changed everything. The intention of staying suddenly made every problem a disaster because it was now accompanied with the thought “for the rest of my foreseeable future”.

Depending on who you ask of late, the United States is either the worst country in the world or the best. Perhaps it’s just the rhetoric associated with an election year. Perhaps I notice it more after being away. But I find my mental neck getting sore from whiplash hearing those diametrically opposed opinions stated in the course of a single day.

If the US is the worst, we’re told it is because of abortion or homosexuality or whatever current Antichrist-possibility is in the White House. If the US is the best, we’re told it’s because of our brand of democracy or our “Christian past” or apple pie (something like that).

While it may seem that these sides have nothing in common – they do. They both agree that the United States is the most. She is either the most good or the most bad – but she is definitely not anywhere in the middle.

In large part, it’s this relentless use of the superlative that’s gained folks from the US a reputation for being quite ethnocentric. Caught up in the land that stretches from “sea to shining sea”, it seems the majority rarely consider the world beyond our borders. Living overseas, I’m learning a certain steadiness that comes with a release from the language of superlatives. We are not the worst country in the world – godlessness is a pretty universal trait. Neither are we the best country in the world – there are other stable, free, happy societies out there; some very different from what we consider our “best traits”.

The language of comparison, the language of superlatives, gets us nowhere. If the US is the worst country in the world, then there is no hope – and hope is necessary for change. If the US is the best country in the world, then there is no need to learn from other countries and learning is necessary for growth.

What disturbs me more, however, is that dedicated Christians can be found using these superlatives just as much as the non-religious. The church seems to have lost sight of the only perfect country – the one “whose builder and maker is God” (Hebrews 11:10). We run around crying “best” or “worst” like our last hope is in the status of our temporary home. We talk more like people who expect to stay here forever than people who know they’ll be leaving soon.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t seek the good of the place in which we live. We should. But we need not do so desperately, defining the culture around us as if we expect it to attain an ideal status. We can do so steadily and open-handedly, knowing that (as so often the case) the truth – and our country – lies somewhere in the middle.