Read Author’s Note regarding the title below.
I have been thinking about “being chosen” since my high school days. In my high school (Blackburn, Missouri) of twenty-seven kids, there were eleven boys. But since Leslie Cook had a bad heart, there were ten of us to play basketball. Almost every day we “chose” sides for basketball scrimmage. The choosing always went the same way. First Donald Buck, Buddy Borchers and my brother Ed were chosen. They were by all odds the best players. I was among those in the middle range who were chosen next. At the end of the process were three kids who were never chosen, but simply “divvied up” by the choosers. As I recall, these three boys were allowed to run up and down the court, but never were passed the ball. They continued to be the unchosen!
This all came to mind for me when I recently saw a church street sign: “God has Chosen You to be His.” The sign is of course unembarrassed about its masculine pronoun, even if it expresses a truth about the God of the Gospel. In any case, the sign set me to thinking afresh about being chosen (on which see my little book, Chosen: Reading the Bible amid the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, 2015).
The Old Testament revolves around the notion of Israel as God’s chosen people. The Sinai tradition articulates the claim of chosenness with a strong “if” of conditionality:
Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation (Exodus 19:5-6).
In the tradition of Deuteronomy, however, the “if” of Torah conditionality is subdued because God’s choosing of Israel is located in YHWH’s own inclination that requires no explanation or justification:
For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the earth to be his people, his treasured possession. It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt (Deuteronomy 7:6-8).
Although heaven and the heaven of heavens belongs to the Lord your God, the earth with all that is in it, yet the Lord set his heart in love on your ancestors alone and chose you, their descendants after them, out of all the peoples, as it is today (10:14-15).
The same ambiguity pertains concerning God’s choosing of David and his dynasty. In Psalm 132, God’s promise to the dynasty is governed by an “if”:
The Lord swore to David a sure oath from which he will not turn back:
‘One of the sons of your body I will set on your throne.
If your sons keep my covenant and my decrees that I shall teach them,
their sons also, forevermore, shall sit on your throne.” (Psalm 132: 11-12).
But in Psalm 89, the “if” of conditionality has disappeared in a sure promise:
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.’”…
Forever I will keep my steadfast love for him,
and my covenant with him will stand firm.
I will establish his line forever,
and his throne as long as the heavens endure.
If his children forsake my law and do not walk according to my ordinances,
if they violate my statutes and do not keep my commandments,
then I will punish their transgression with the rod and their iniquity with scourges;
but I will not remove from him my steadfast love,
or be false to my faithfulness.
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,an enduring witness in the skies. (Psalm 89: 3-4, 28-37).
To be sure, verses 30-31 include an “if” of obedience, but that “if” is now fully and finally subordinated to the ringing claim of “forever” (vv. 28, 29, 36, 37). In this regard, Psalm 89 echoes the narrative affirmation of II Samuel 7:
When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever (II Samuel 7:14-16).
Punishment and/or judgment are penultimate in their relationship. What counts is the unqualified commitment of YHWH to the dynasty as to the people.
This is enough to see that the notion of “chosen” was, from the outset, problematic in Israel. On the one hand, it is conditioned by obedience; on the other hand, it is fully unconditional. Its problematic character becomes more evident in the prophetic tradition. On the one hand, the prophets could entertain the thought that God’s harshness towards disobedient Israel could be so severe as to signify the ending of Israel as chosen. On the other hand and quickly, the prophets readily affirmed God’s commitment to Israel that would, in the rhetoric of prophetic promise, “make all things new” for Israel, according to God’s durable promises. The tradition does not need to resolve this problematic, but keeps available different accents appropriate to varying circumstances in the life of Israel.
I have thought that we might articulate the deep problematic of chosenness in this way: Chosenness is a powerful tool of community formation and maintenance among those who have few claims and few resources, and who are vulnerable amid the give and take of public life. Chosenness is a way to gather identity and mobilize purpose for the “mixed crowd” that has no sense of people-hood (see Exodus 12:37). Conversely, chosenness becomes a narcotic and an alibi when the community becomes strong and powerful, so that its claim of chosenness becomes an excuse for destructive, exploitative action, and a justification for willful anti-neighborly conduct. Thus “election” works well for the weak and vulnerable, but is misleading and distorting for the strong and powerful. Its misuse is evident in the exploitative power of the church through its history, in the overstatement of White American exceptionalism, and even in the contemporary state of Israel.
The early church appropriated the claim of
chosenness from Israel, and did so in a way that smacked of supersessionism. Now it could claim that the community of Christ—the church—was the chosen community, a community formed of “nobodies” who were summoned and empowered by the gospel for witness and obedience. Thus Paul could celebrate this new community constituted by the foolish, the weak, the low and despised:
But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are (I Corinthians 1:27-28).
Such a community is a good match for the God whose foolishness is wise and whose weakness is strong:
For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength (I Corinthians 1:25).
The same affirmation is made in the Epistle of Peter in grand, sweeping language reminiscent of the rhetoric of Sinai:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
Once you were not a people,
but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy (I Peter 2:9-10).
The “not a people” who have become the people of God matches the Christ who is the stone the builders have rejected that has become the head of the corner (v. 7).
In both the traditions of Paul and Peter, the church as chosen is constituted by those who have neither power nor credentials in the world. And so the status of “chosenness” serves well in order to form the chosen of a faithful church. But of course, as the church historically came to power, the matter of “church as chosen” became exceedingly vexatious. Cases in point run from the medieval crusades to the modern world of violent usurpatious Western colonialism wherein the cross went along with the flag, down to present day habits of sexual predation among church leaders. All of these are instances of “chosenness” made into an excuse for conduct and policy that exhibit greed and covetousness that are inimical to the God who chooses.
It may be the church, with its chosen sign, intends to appeal exactly to the un-chosen in the community who are without significant social identity or resources. It is, moreover, mind-boggling to imagine the three boys always un-chosen for basketball in my high school being the first chosen, or perhaps even made captains who would choose the teams. None of that occurred to us back in my high school.
So perhaps we are left with this question: who are the chosen among us? Jews will continue to claim their chosen status. And the Church will continue to sing of itself as “elect from every nation.” After these traditional claims are reiterated and regarded by many as decisive and definitional, we may still ask afresh: Who are the chosen among us? Who are those chosen as the special object of God’s love and compassion, mercy and justice? Who are the chosen as the preferred recipients of our common social resources? When we ask at the same time about both the object of God’s love and recipients of our common social resources, we may be pushed toward, in the parsing of Liberation Theology, “God’s preferential option for the poor.” This we can readily conclude, given what we know of the Torah, and the prophets, and the witness of Christ, that the chosen are not those with power and resources, but precisely those without power or resources.
In the Torah and the prophetic tradition, the triad of such persons are “widows, orphans, and immigrants,” those without social standing or property, and without advocacy in a patriarchal society. To these three are sometimes added a fourth, “the poor,” because in such a patriarchal society, “widows, orphans, and immigrants” are likely to be poor and without resources or social power. In the narrative of Jesus, those who are recipients of his special, transformative attention are the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the dead, and the poor (see Luke 7:22). Jesus went about “choosing” such folk to receive his restorative mercy and compassion.
So now we may conclude, in the wake of the Torah, the prophetic tradition, and the witness of Jesus, that the chosen are all those “left behind” by the calculus of the market, all those who do not “qualify” as insiders to the capitalist system who are left behind in health care, housing, and education. It is for good reason that when Jesus responded to the question of John the Baptist with his catalogue of the chosen, he added:
And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me (Luke 7:23).
The validation of such folk is indeed an offense. It is an offense to imagine them as recipients
of God’s special love. It is an even greater offense to think that such folk should and must receive the resources of the community for the sake of their wellbeing. But this conclusion seems unavoidable, given the tradition. It is the business and the responsibility of the communities of this tradition, synagogue and church, to be advocates in the public domain for these “chosen.” It certainly never occurred to us back in high school. It never occurred to us, because the church has not been a good teacher of this claim and the problematic of chosenness. But now we are without excuse. We can no longer exercise the violent exploitation of the status of chosenness wherein we have dared to imagine that those with power and wealth could be “the chosen.” The tradition tells us otherwise, in quite unambiguous terms!
August 27, 2022
My title phrase is from the hymn, The Church’s One Foundation,” Glory to God (321). The complete second stanza goes like this:
Elect from every nation, yet one o’er all the earth,
her charter of salvation;
one Lord, one faith, one birth.
One holy name she blesses, partakes one holy food,
and to one hope she presses, with every grace endued.
The verse offers a summary of the claims and bases of chosenness:
…chosenness as verification of salvation;
…one Lord and one faith as attested in the two great creeds of the church;
…one birth, that is, baptism;
…only the name of Christ in whom we are chosen;
…the holy food of Eucharist;
…hope that is grace-propelled but that entails obedience.
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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