Walter Brueggemann: The Hard Work of Exceptionalism

There is no doubt that “white nationalism” is among the most dangerous and pernicious notions now operative among us. Only the most brazen will use the phrase out loud, but “dog whistles” about it are everywhere…the notion that “America” (meaning the “United States”) is destined and constituted as a white political community in which all others are unwelcome intruders. Given such a pernicious assumption, all manner of action is legitimated, including white aggressive violence in the service of “freedom.” And of course, the insidious notion of “replacement” feeds the worst inclinations in this direction.

The notion of US exceptionalism has very old roots. Its classic formulation (with the “white” part only voiced inchoately) is the master work of Cotton Mather in 1702. Mather, a New England pastor-theologian wrote an interpretive history and anticipation of “America” in which he showed how the European settlement of “the new land” was a replication and reiteration of the old biblical narrative of conquest of the land of Canaan by the Israelites, Magnalia Christa Americana. As the Israelites were “chosen” by God to receive the “land of promise,” so (white) Europeans were to receive the new “land of promise” by evicting the extant population (native tribes). This early rendering of US narration thus has biblical roots that lend a dimension of theological legitimacy to the enterprise of “America.” Cotton has been faithfully followed by a parade of like-minded storytellers. Of late the doctrine of white entitlement has become aggressive and now lives at the edge of violence in our political discourse.

The church cannot keep silent in the face of such a pernicious distortion of our biblical tradition. In considering white nationalism, we do well to push back to the biblical claims to which Mather appealed. We will not find “nationalism” in the Bible, because such a phenomenon arises only in modern time in the eighteenth century. The Biblical cognate to “nationalism” is “exceptionalism” that asserts that Israel is the “chosen people” summoned to perform God’s will in the world and to receive God’s blessing of land in and through the historical process. Thus we do well to consider “chosenness” in the Bible as it reappears in modern phrasing in contemporary nationalism.

My thought is this: It is the work of the church, in its consideration of the biblical tradition, to exhibit the complex, unsettled, problematic element of every claim of election, entitlement chosenness, exceptionalism, and privilege as it is expressed in our various “isms,” notably racism sexism, and here especially nationalism. The fact that such claims are readily seen as complex, unsettled and problematic serves to undermine the certitude of such present dangerous posturing.

The biblical rootage for the notion of “chosenness” is two-fold. On the one hand, chosenness is as old and deep as the memory of Abraham. Indeed, the biblical narrative gets underway with God’s initial summons to Abraham, a summons that can readily be seen as God’s decisive response to the failure of “world history” in Genesis 1-11:

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:1-3).

Two matters stand out in this summons. First, the overriding matter is that Abram is to receive a land. This topic is further clarified in Genesis 15:18-21. Israel’s history and destiny are to be on the way to “the land of promise.” Second, land promise is in the context of other nations who are to be blessed by and in and through the people of Israel. This two-fold accent delicately balances the deep commitment of God to Israel, and the insistence that Israel as chosen does not and will not exist in an historical vacuum, but must deal constructively with other neighboring peoples.

It is quite remarkable that Abram figures very little in the biblical tradition prior to the exile, so much so that John van Seters, (Abraham in History and Tradition) has opined that “Abraham” is a very late emergent in the tradition. However that may be, Abram begins to appear in the exile and post-exile as a grounding for hope; Abram is a carrier of God’s good promise in way that becomes a counter to despair over intolerable historical circumstance:

But you, Israel, my servant,

Jacob, whom I have chosen,

the offspring of Abraham, my friend;

you whom I took from the ends of the earth,

…do not fear, for I am with you,

do not be afraid, for I am your God

(Isaiah 41:8; see 51:2, 63:26, Jeremiah 33:26, Ezekiel 33:24).

With good reason, the apostle Paul presents Abraham as the primary carrier of the free grace given by God:

…those who share the faith of Abraham…in presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist (Romans 4:16-17).

The other biblical rootage of chosenness is in the exodus event in which God is seen to take a “mixed multitude” (Exodus 12:38) of slaves and calls them to be

my treasured possession out of all the peoples: Indeed, the earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation (Exodus _19:5-6).

This “chosenness” is Israel’s entry into the Sinai covenant and the mandates of Torah. The erstwhile slaves, “nobodies” in the face of history, are reckoned to be God’s “first born son” (Exodus 4:22), to have the privileges and rights of an heir.

On both counts—concerning Abraham and concerning the people of the exodus—chosenness is a designation of the vulnerable who of themselves can have no leverage or claim on the historical process, and can legitimately expect nothing from the historical process. Thus “chosenness” is a forceful designation that counters the political facts on the ground. It is a lordly act in the face of historical reality, that God’s commitment to this nobody-people gives them a viable way to be in the world among the nations. Israel is said to be an exceptional people and this exceptionalism is a counter-factual claim of faith. In both of these traditions, the end game is the land of promise.

It is to be noted (and is often noted) that unlike the Abraham tradition, the Moses tradition of “chosenness” is premised on the “if” of Torah obedience:

Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant… (Exodus 19:5).

This conditionality of chosenness becomes a defining mark of Torah teaching in the tradition of Deuteronomy, so much so that everything depends upon willing complete Torah obedience. This claim of conditionality is what shapes the “sanctions” of covenantal prospects for “blessing or curse” in Deuteronomy 28 that is formulated around the double “if” of verses 1 and 15. This element in the tradition of covenant can eventuate, in the thought and faith of Israel, that Torah disobedience can indeed lead to Israel’s forfeiture of its status as “chosen.”

When Israel came to royal power, via David and Solomon, it was easy enough to forget the conditional “if” of chosenness, and to assume that chosenness was a guaranteed status without any conditional terms. The claim was grandly voiced in royal liturgies:

You said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one,

I have sworn to my servant David;

I will establish your descendants forever,

and build your throne for all generations…

I will not remove from him my steadfast love,

or be false to my holiness.

I will not violate my covenant,

or alter the word that went forth from my lips.

Once and for all I have sworn by my holiness;

I will not lie to David.

His line shall continue forever,

and his throne endure before me like the sun.

It shall be established forever like the moon” (Psalm 89:3-4, 33-37).

Thus the historical movement from powerlessness to power radically repositioned the claim of chosenness. It is only the lingering insistence of the tradition of Deuteronomy that continues, in unwelcome nagging terms, to remind Israel of the conditionality of its status as chosen:

If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life (I Kings 3:14; see 6:11-13, 9:4-9). (See Walter Brueggemann, Solomon: Israel’s Ironic Icon of Achievement 139-159.)

Thus we may see that much of the Old Testament tradition is a contestation between two very different notions of chosenness—unconditional or conditional. The terms, moreover, take on great force when they are variously voiced in contexts of power or powerlessness. In its seasons of royal power, Israel can imagine unconditional chosenness. Or in such seasons of power, it can notice that conditions are imposed even upon power, because the covenantal insistences of Torah are not voided by power. Conversely, Israel in its seasons of powerlessness can in great hope cling to unconditional covenant, but is much more likely to consider the conditions that must be accepted. The outcome is a rich field of interpretation that invites great contestation among these options.

The prophetic tradition of ancient Israel must come to terms with the claim of chosenness by Israel. We may consider as representative three utterances in the book of Amos.

First, in Amos 7, the prophet can envision great threats that endanger Israel. In response to each threat, the prophet utters a petition for Israel:

O Lord God, forgive, I beg you!

How can Jacob stand?He is so small! (7:2; see v. 4).

In both cases, God heard the prayer of the prophet and “relents.” In the third case, however, there is no such petition or relenting. Thus the prophet speaks up for the claim of Israel in its acute vulnerability.

Second, in Amos 3:2 the prophet verifies Israel’s special claim of chosenness:

You only have I known of all the families of the earth (3:2).

In this usage, “know” affirms chosenness. But then in the very next line, the prophet reverses field with a decisive “therefore” that chosenness brings acute divine judgment:

Therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.

 It is Israel’s chosen status that evokes God’s punishment!

Third, in 9:7, the prophet utters one of the most remarkable statements about Israel’s special status as chosen. He first proposes that Israel is like the Ethiopians, that is, a community of Blacks.  This rhetorical question requires an answer of “Yes.” Yes, Israel is like Ethiopia. In the second rhetorical question, the prophet states the way in which Israel is like the other nations. It is like the other nations in that all of them, Israel and the others, have all received an exodus from God. Yes, God caused exodus for Israel. But yes, God caused an exodus for the Palestinians! And for the Arameans! God caused an exodus for each of Israel’s two historical enemies. The verse seems to explode and nullify any claim of exceptionalism. Verse 8 characterizes Israel as a “sinful nation” that will be destroyed. This firm divine resolve is final. Except that it is not! At the end of verse 8, the prophet (or an editor) has added a statement that refuses the preceding:

Except that I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob, says the Lord (9:8).

The utterance is without explanation. It is as though at the very last instant, God cannot and will not give a final negative verdict concerning Israel. That “except” is perhaps the final inflection of “exceptionalism”! This final line functions to exhibit how unsettled is the claim of chosenness. I suggest that taken together Amos 7:1-6, 3:2, and 9:7-8 indicate how complex and unsettled is the notion of chosenness in Israel. Chosenness is a legitimate claim, says the prophet. But it is a claim that is profoundly vexed and problematic. The matters of power and powerlessness, of conditionality and unconditionality, swirl around the claim.At the end of the prophetic utterance in the Old Testament, we may consider one other promissory oracle. In Isaiah 19, the prophet considers the ill-fated future of Egypt, the classic enemy of ancient Israel. But then in a late reprise, the prophet can utter these remarkable words:

On that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, “blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage” (Isaiah 19:24-25).

The prophet has before him a map of the “Fertile Crescent” that always has powerful Egypt to the south and some powerful force in the north (in this case Assyria), with vulnerable Israel between. But now, in God’s good time, the prophet anticipates a reordered world of easy wellbeing among these three peoples. In a breathtaking utterance, the prophet has God assign three “pet names” for Israel to these erstwhile adversaries of Israel:

Egypt…my people;

Assyria…the work of my hands;

Israel…my heritage.

These are all names for a chosen people, all names used elsewhere for Israel. But now these pet names are redistributed across the map. Israel is now among those treasured by God. All are chosen by God! All peoples, including Israel, are beloved by God! Israel itself has no peculiar claim to being exceptional, except along with the others.

It is my thought that the church and its pastors have work to do to help folk to see the unsettled complexity of the claim of exceptionalism, to see how fraught is the notion of chosenness as it faces questions of power and powerlessness, of conditionality and unconditionality. Very many Americans who have never heard of Cotton Mather have inhaled his easy equation of the biblical notion of chosenness with the destiny of the United States. In that reading, exceptionalism is easy and obvious, made even more so when it is recognized that Mather had in mind only white Americans. It was Mather’s white European vision of America that provided theological legitimacy for the killing of Native Americans and the enslavement of African Americans. It is the easy assumption that now drives so much energy in our midst toward white supremacy. It is, moreover, the unthinkable thought that white privilege and entitlement are now in jeopardy that evokes violence.

But the Bible knows better than that. The Bible knows that every claim to chosenness brings with it hard questions and leaves open the questioning that admits no “ease in Zion,” that is, no ease among the would-be chosen. Given the durable force of Mather’s affirmation, we cannot, I believe, simply dismiss the claim of chosenness. But we can help folk to see that the claim is not obvious or simple, uncritical or self-serving. Well before us, Israel had to cope with the unsettled complexity of its defining claim. Our work is to show that the biblical foundation for Mather’s ideology is itself deeply problematic in a way that many American Christians do not suspect. But the Bible has affirmed from the outset that God has no easy alliances with any nation-state or any race, including our own. It is astonishing that the God of the Bible, the God of Israel, is alert to the claims of other peoples who can also imagine themselves being chosen. That is why the church sings:

This is my song, O God of all the nations,

a song of peace for lands afar and mine.

This is my home, the country where my heart is;

here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;

but other hearts in other lands are beating

with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.


My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,

and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine.

But other lands have sunlight too, and clover,

and hearts united learn to live as one.

So hear my song, O God of all nations,

a song of peace for their land and for mine.

(Glory to God, 340).


Walter Brueggemann is one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.



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