Saturday, 10 September 2011

The Chosen People: a sermon for 9/11

by Kim Fabricius

Once upon a time there was a nation that considered itself special, so special that it called itself “The Chosen People”. They lived in a country that had rich soil and abundant natural resources – “a land flowing with milk and honey”. They had not always lived in this land. They travelled to it from another country where they had suffered from oppression. It was a long and arduous journey, and when they arrived in this “Promised Land”, they found that it was already inhabited. Nevertheless, because they felt that they had a special relationship with God – a “Covenant” they called it – and a special mission from God – to be a blessing to the world – they drove out the local tribes by force of arms and set about building a society regulated by a collection of God-given laws, enshrining principles of justice and freedom, which gave their nation a shape and a sense of identity. They believed that as long as they obeyed these laws, their tenure in the land was guaranteed, and that their children, and their children’s children, would also enjoy its safety and bounty.

From time to time social critics came along who criticised the leadership of the nation for not living up to its ideals, and warned of catastrophe if they didn’t repent, but they were either ignored as madmen or persecuted as traitors. But these “prophets” turned out to be right, for one day something terrible did happen, something of such monumental, catastrophic significance that it cast doubt on all the nation’s assumptions about itself and its special relationship with God – its impregnability, its goodness, its sense of vocation and mission – and forced its people to re-examine their beliefs. And this nation was, of course – Israel.

Of course! Who else? It all fits: the exodus from oppression in Egypt and the gruelling journey to the Promised Land; the righteous slaughter of the indigenous Canaanites and the occupation of the land; the establishment of the Covenant and the giving of the Law; God’s promise of homeland security “to a thousand generations”, and the people’s pledge of allegiance; the failure of kings to keep the pledge, and the futile critiques and admonitions of the prophets; and, finally, the terrible calamity of war and defeat at the hands of the Babylonians – the sacking of Jerusalem, the razing of the Temple, and the ensuing exile.

Yes, of course, who else but Israel? You don’t think your resident New Yorker might have a hidden agenda, do you? But as a thought experiment, for Israel let’s substitute the United States and check out our national mythology. To escape religious and political persecution in Britain, we sailed the dangerous waters of the Atlantic to America the beautiful, the Promised Land, lush and fertile, only to find it already inhabited by indigenous peoples. You know what we did to them – systematic pillage and plunder – but that was okay because we had a “manifest destiny” to claim the land as our own “from sea to shining sea”. Besides, we had enlightened laws, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, with which we would civilise the local heathen (the ones we didn’t kill or confine to reservations), and, for that matter, the foreign heathen we imported from Africa and the West Indies to work our fields of gold. Indeed, America would be “a city set on a hill” for the whole world to see, admire, envy, and imitate. Occasionally our own prophets have arisen, pointed out our Original Sins of genocide and slavery, and exposed the moral iniquity of the myth of redemptive violence which has always been the reigning paradigm of American domestic and foreign policy; in return, however, they have been ignored or persecuted as unpatriotic, “un-American”. And even when they have proved to be right in their warnings about the tragedies that ensue from the arrogance of power – the Philippine-American War, the War in Vietnam, for example – they have been airbrushed out of the picture by our court historians. And, finally, the American version of the Babylonians and their assault on our iconic institutions which we had assumed were invulnerable – al-Qaeda and the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

It’s a nice fit, don’t you think? But then the shoe begins to pinch, the analogy to break down. Because the experience of defeat and exile induced Israel to revisit its national script, to re-examine its history, to reimagine its future, and, crucially, to think the unthinkable about God. Indeed, the question “Where is God in all this?” propelled Israel into one of its most theologically creative periods ever, with old traditions collected and edited, and new works written and discussed. Against the lies of establishment cover-up, Jeremiah urged Israel to become a “community of honest grief” (Walter Brueggemann); and against the civic religion that presumes that “God is on our side”, Ezekiel proclaimed a God who cannot be nationalised, who is holy and free. After the exile and return to the land, there were other innovative and radical thinkers: the authors of the books of Jonah and Ruth, for example, who concluded that Israel wasn’t so special as to preclude the God of Israel from being the God of all people and all history; and the author of Job, who had the astonishing insight that even in suffering, death, and grief God might yet be encountered.

But what has the experience of 9/11 done for America? At the time, among the neo-conservative clique in Washington, nothing whatsoever in terms of pausing, reflecting, and achieving moral clarity; only the rush of blood, the pursuit of payback, and the reassertion of the pathologies of angelic innocence, zealous patriotism, and righteous vengeance, exploited with a religious discourse deployed for a geo-political agenda. In contrast to the intellectual fertility in exilic and post-exilic Israel, we had a lethal mixture of sentiment, denial, mendacity, and violence. And Obama? Compared to the burning Bush, there is character and intelligence, a change of style and rhetoric, and a make-over of America’s image. In fact, however, there have been few major changes in foreign policy at all. Ten years squandered in unconscionable military conflagrations inextricably connected to the recent economic meltdown. Yet to most American themselves, the US remains, in former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s modest phrase, “the indispensable nation”.

“The Chosen People”. It would appear to be a concept that, to say the least, is open to abuse. From its origin in Israel to its commandeering by the United States, a nation’s self-understanding as called and blessed by God has resulted in arrogance, complacency, the abuse of power, and an imperviousness to criticism. Is the concept salvageable and still serviceable? Only on three conditions.

First, The Chosen People can in no way be taken to refer to a specific nation-state. To suggest that the United States, or England – or even Wales! – is The Chosen People is sheer hubris based on distorted theology. Even the nation-state of Israel cannot claim the title. No nation-state can. Because after Christ the term no longer refers to a geographical or cultural entity. Because, on the one hand, “being in Christ” has replaced “being in the land”, and, on the other hand, the land has expanded to encompass the whole world. In Christ, all people are Chosen People.

Second, we must carefully define exactly what being chosen means. It means being chosen by God for a purpose. But this purpose has nothing to do with privilege, protection, wealth, power, and defence: it’s got to do with service, self-sacrifice, dispossession, vulnerability, and nonviolence. It’s got to do with the way of Jesus, which is the way of the cross.

And third, for the church, insofar as we may think of ourselves as “a chosen race, … a royal nation” (I Peter 2:9), it cannot mean that we are a club for the nice and the virtuous, a group that likes to do “religious” things, a Starbucks for consumers of the “spiritual”, a haven for the world-weary, or a safe-house where we can stay out of trouble; rather it will be a community of radical welcome, hands-on commitment, indiscriminate compassion, political critique, and unconquerable hope.

In short, a church that refuses to allow its own story to be absorbed into pseudo-sacred national narratives and manipulated by the selective remembering of state liturgies and patriotic commemorations: a church that knows that only one event has ever truly changed the world, an event that happened not on a late summer Tuesday in 2001, but on an early spring weekend around 33 A.D. An apocalyptic event for sure, but an apocalypse of peace.


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