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.

22 Comments:

Pamela said...

Reconciliation by Walt Whitman

Word over all, beautiful as the sky,
Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be utterly lost,
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly softly wash again, and
ever again, this soil'd world;
For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead,
I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin - I draw near,
Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.

Barefoot Friar said...

Thanks for this. I've been trying to say the same, but not nearly as eloquently. May I please reprint on my own blog, the Barefoot Friar (barefootfriar.blogspot.com)?

Brian Gronewoller said...

Kim: I love your thoughtfulness in this post. Thanks for taking time to think through all of this. It seems that, for a short time after the death of Christ, Christianity was not connected with nationalism. Rather, the state was seen as "other" to the Christians. Yet, once Constantine proclaimed himself a Christian, the narrative shifted drastically in this direction (put into written form by Eusebius of Caesarea). Augustine's De Civitate attempted to separate the two (I think Robert Markus' work on this is very good), but the rise of Charlegmane and the development of "Christian" European countries seems to show that his writing was not as influential as some of us may have hoped.

I'm curious why the Christian nationalist narrative is so powerful - not only now, but for at least the past 1700 years. Perhaps something within us simply wants to believe that we are "more special" than others. Or, maybe we are all children at heart and want to pretend that we ourselves are the living nation of Israel in every way - including their theocratic government, which they had, at least, for a time. Whatever it is, the narrative is powerful - so much so that it seems to need a plethora of voices speaking against it.

Foursquarerev said...

We may blame Israel for its mindset, but the truth is that God Himself gave the orders regarding the conquest of their land. It was in fact, due to the sins of those inhabitants "being full". The comparison of that to the treatment of the American Indian is indeed puzzling. It is tragically true that the church was too often complicit in the subject of American slavery, as it also largely missed it during the Civil Rights movement. Yet, happily, is that it was other factions of the church that led the abolitionist movement, not only in the 1800"s, but from the very founding of our country.
One other thought: You call the war against terroism "payback"? Might it be a reasonable repsonse of a nation under attack?

Sharon said...

Dear Avraham,
I'm an American who lives near Roanoke Island in North Carolina on the Atlantic coast. You may have seen the news lately about hurricane Irene hitting the Outer Banks; that's were I'm located.

The first settlers from England to begin America came to this area, to Roanoke Island. They metaphorically considered some of their leaders "Moses," this area "The Promised Land" their leaving England for poor conditions and religion "Exodus from Egypt" and the Native Americans here--some whom they befriended, and others they massacred over time--as "conquest". They were Christians of the Reformation, among others.

At least, this is my take on Kim's sermon, and it's the reason he puts so many of the terms in scare quotes, i.e. "Chosen People" because he isn't speaking literally.

I apologize for this bit of American snobbery regarding the idea they were "Chosen people" similar to the Hebrews; at the same time, the brave souls who stood up against religious and economic oppression and braved terrible and long journeys to sail across the Atlantic in primitive boats--surely they had some of G-d's spirit and courage in them. For that good intention, I give thanks to G-d for them.

The stories and prayers of the Hebrew scriptures strengthened them. I can tell you that I've personally prayed the Psalms 3xs a day for some years now and though I'm not technically a Jew (because I cannot prove it on my grandmother's side, and because I follow Jesus) I do thank the YHWH (blessed be He) for the example and sacred writings of the Jews.

Now, if I'm the one who missed it and you too were speaking metaphorically, well everyone laugh at me. I've been studying Amos for a class and my head is in the clouds.

Shalom.

Israelinurse said...

One of the things I find most terrifying in this world is those people - of all religions - who think they have the answers. The people who are convinced that 'the truth' is on their side, some even believing that they have a direct communications channel to God.

The whole essence of faith is that it is precisely that: faith. In other words, it is something which cannot be proved; something to be constantly debated, reviewed and wrestled with. If it were otherwise - if it were known, constant, unquestionable - it would by definition cease to be faith and become instead science.

So when Kim Fabricius expresses with such utter conviction his above supercessionist ideas, he places himself in the category of those who have abandoned faith, deliberation, questions - and indeed an open mind - and have become theological dictators. Unfortunately, along the way to that religious rigidity, he has also become extremely offensive to people of the Jewish faith. That obviously doesn't bother him a jot, as apparently neither does the fact that he obviously has absolutely no comprehension of the concept of what is termed in English 'the chosen people'.

Antisemites of many stripes throughout the last 2,000 years have tried to associate that concept with some sort of sense of privilege or superiority. That is a fabrication - a deliberate distortion of one rather minor element of the Jewish faith for purely malicious motives.

But of course Fabricius' motives are as clear as the light of day. This is not a religious sermon, but a political one and in using and abusing the scriptures for the promotion of political Christianity, he in fact placing himself in the same moral camp as those who convinced themselves 10 years ago today that their God wanted them to indiscriminately murder almost 3,000 people in the 9/11 attacks.

Surely on this of all days, some human compassion is in order. It should be a day of sympathy for and empathy with the families who lost their loved ones. It should be a day of remembering and honouring the people who lost their lives in such horrifying circumstances due to the toxic combination of unquestioned adherence to a quasi-religious form of extremist politics.

It could also be a day upon which we reflect in general upon the very dangerous phenomena of people who try to influence the thoughts and actions of others, supposedly 'in the name of God': those very scary and dangerous people who, like Kim Fabricius, believe that they have a higher power, a truth, on their side.

Margieintelaviv said...

Kim Fabricius,
Israel is a land of milk and honey only to people who had been wandering in the desert for forty years. Go there and see for yourself as you obviously never have been. You will need to take a hat for wearing instead of talking out of. Jews are the chosen people indeed, chosen to bring the word of the monotheistic view of God to the world, a path as arid and hard as the land they lived in. People who found the rigors of believing in one God invisible and intangible too emotionally demanding attempted to supersede this image with a god with a physical family & friends. They borrowed the writings of the Jews and reinterpreted them in their own fashion and expected the Jews to join them.

To this day, the chagrin remains that the Jews stick fast to their own faith and were not willing to join the rejigged superseders

West Marion said...

Having just read all the other comments, I am beginning to wonder whether they all read the same thing as I did.
Maybe they did, but then their own agendas got in the way of objectively looking at what Kim was actually trying to say.

Phillip Mutchell said...

It was obvious from the first paragraph that this was to be aimed at America's penchant for dressing military action in quasi religious garb, and it's hardly fair to label someone an anti-Semite, simply because they show how a biblical narrative has continued to inform and inspire believers to achieve deeds of heroism and sacrifice. Maybe if Islam's prophet had been a little more inspired by Christ than Moses 9/11 wouldn't have occurred. One thing I do wonder though is why anyone is meant to be pro-Semite, pro-Chinese, pro-German, pro-anything, I mean isn't the whole problem that as groups we are tribal and xenophobic and so remain contained in our select 'tribes'; indeed Judaism made such exclusiveness a core element of her religion, contact with the 'other' defiled the pious Jew, did it not?

Avraham Reiss said...

Dear Sharon, a few points:

1. I was not speaking metaphorically. I meant every word just as I wrote it.

2. I love the American Nation; I toured the USA two years ago for almost a month (my 2nd visit); both the People and the Land are truly blessed by G-d, as a righteous nation. May this long continue.

3. There is a difference between saying "you have written something anti-Semitic", and "you are an anti-Semite". Regarding Fabricator Kim Fabricius, both apply. I say this on the basis of have read his posts for a number of months on a Methodist blog (I won't name it, because it afforded me the hospitality of publishing comments of my own, and I won't repay good with bad), and on that blog I had already told Fabricius that he is an anti-Semite. He is consistent in this.

If he can't sell his wares without forging or debasing those of his competitors, then he has a problem with what he is 'marketing'.

Adam said...

Defending yourself constitutes "payback" or vengeance?

What a disgusting piece. Nothing demonstrates antisemitism, moral confusion and moral relativism better than this sanctimonious garbage.

Adam said...

Mutchell, contact with the other "defiled" the Jew?

Where did you get that?

The problem historically wa that most contact with the "other" as you put it meant violence against the Jew.

Margieintelaviv said...

'...contact with the 'other' defiled the pious Jew, did it not?'
It did not. For instance, the great-grandmother of King David was a convert, Ruth the Moabite.
In the years of wandering and persecution Jews were often forbidden to live among the local inhabitants and made to wear special clothes that marked them out from the citizens. The word ''ghetto'' was originally applied, very strictly indeed to Jews, places where they lived in cramped quarters, apart from the others, in case they defiled them.

Avraham Reiss said...

Speaking of "defilement", there are just two types of Jewish Laws which relate to this subject. One, is designed to prevent Jews from becoming involved with or benefitting from idol-worship in any form. (Kim Fabricius, for example, bowing before a piece of wood, is regarded Judaically as idol-worship).

The second type of law is designed to prevent inter-marriage. And since the subject has been touched upon, I'll add that a Jew is either one who has converted orthodoxically to Judaism, or one born to a Jewish mother. A jewish father has no relevance in determining belonging to Judaism. And this goes back thru all preceding generations.

Sharon said...

Hi Avraham,
Thanks for clarifying for the listening audience the genetic requirement of being a Jew. I had only touched on my non-Jew status for your benefit.

As for bowing to a piece of wood. Oh come now let us reason. This is an oldie, endlessly refuted with the idea that the Tabernacle is full of symbols and relics which the Hebrews venerated, and that Jews and most people around, enjoy symbols i.e. photos of their family. I can't speak for Kim or all Christians but I can speak for many and tell you it's not idolatry. In fact when I've attended Shabat I saw quite a bit of veneration of cloth, paper and wood scroll, that is, the Torah and I found that very similar to so-called "bowing to wood." Obviously, YMMV.

But maybe by now you're baiting me. I'll shut up now, wanted to clarify a few things for those reading along.

Shalom, Sharon

Avraham Reiss said...

Hi Sharon,
In the course of normal discussion with Christians, I would never write what I wrote here about bowing before a piece of wood - I respect other peoples' forms of worship, even when they negate my own. But in this case it was intended as a barb for Kim F., who should begin to understand that the defenseless Jew no longer exists. If he attacks Judaism - by distorting scripture, which he has done at least twice so far, or by any other means - then retaliation follows.

No act of veneration that you ever saw in a synagogue can be attributed to worshipping the presence of G-d. We show reverance to the Torah because its words are holy, but no more than that. I would probably also bow before a King or Queen, but that would not indicate that I was worshipping a god.

Avraham Reiss said...

Sharon, let me add that I am NOT baiting you! I take you seriously, and reply with full respect.

Paul Tyson said...

It is clear that Christianity is a radical departure from Judaism and yet, Christianity has, from the beginning, appropriated Jewish sacred writings. After Constantine, Christianity became entangled in the political and then military power of the Greco-Roman empire, lost its radicality as a church of martyrs (save in the deserts and in continual reform movements there after), lost its cultural marginality in the West, syncrotized itself with the pagan cultural reflexes of Greco-Roman civil life, and the long and tragic history of Western anti-Semitism of the respectable Christian status quo to the marginal Jewish ‘other’ has been with us ever since. But does Kim’s reflection on 9/11 illustrate anti-Semitism?

When Kim speaks of biblical Israel in relation to modern America he does so legitimately in that the origin myths of modern America have expressly Christian roots tied up deeply in a Christian and post-Constantinian reading of the Hebrew scriptures. Here it is persecuted Christians who see themselves as the chosen people of God, America is the New Jerusalem, and they are pilgrims on a mission of manifest destiny to be a light to all the nations of the world. They struggle against the oppression of the “Pharaoh” in England (this use of scare marks is to indicate the narrative origins of this trope and is not a mark of anti-Egyptianism), escape across the sea and come into the land of promise by the hand of God. Over time this origins narrative grows and evolves so that America is Israel, her enemies are the enemies of God and the unity of the cross with national and imperial power - as per the modern rendition of the medieval memory of European Christendom – is assumed to be just and necessary. Given this narrative appropriation, reminding the US of what the biblical narrative actually says about imperial power and culturo-religious pride with Israel as a sign of warning rather than of unilateral affirmation, is fully appropriate. This in no manner speaks to Judaism at all. Kim is speaking to America with its Christian reading and appropriating of certain themes drawn from the Hebrew scriptures. Within a Christian reading, Kim’s comments are entirely appropriate and strongly uphold the weak and the oppressed against the logic of empire, religious bigotry and all forms of violence and marginalization of the ‘other’. For a Christian, such a message can only be pro-Jewish and penitent in relation to the West’s history of anti-Semitism.

And yet, if a modern Jew finds global American military power – and particularly America’s support of Israeli military power in the Middle East – valid and just by definition, and an instrument of God’s providence by definition, and if such a modern Jew finds any questioning of the justness and validity of Israeli military and political power anti-Semitic, then Kim’s essay is indeed anti-Semitic.

dannya54 said...

Interesting sermon Kim, thanks. Since we're in a sort of 'once upon a time' mood take a look at this book below.

“Comanche Moon,” a novel by Catherine Anderson’

You all gotta see this cover for yourselves!

“Orphaned after her parents were killed by Comanches, Loretta Simpson still lives in terror that the warriors will return, her fear so powerful, she is no longer able to speak a word.
Hunter of the Wolf believes that Loretta is a woman of ancient prophecy whom he must honor. But Loretta can only see him as the enemy who has kidnapped her, and she refuses to succumb to his control—or his touch.
Despite the hatred between their peoples, Loretta and Hunter gradually find their enmity changing to respect and care. In the midst of such conflict, it will take all the force of their love to find a safe haven.”

Wow, looks like a good read, one of those ‘alternative history’ novels I reckon. I have done a bit of study of the Comanche though, and I am not sure which ‘prophecy’ Anderson is referring to. Maybe the prophecy by Wovoka assuring the Comanches of their invincibility to bullets at the battle of Adobe Walls? That’s the one where the great Quanah Parker refused to believe Wovoka because he was burned badly by the Comanche prophet Esa-Tai years earlier who had also promised his warriors their underwear were bullet-proof (a belief that would contribute to the tragic massacre at Wounded Knee 16 years later). Of course most of the inside info about this comes from Herman Lehmann, a young captive of the Comanche who wrote a book about his experience. Herman was born to Prussian immigrants who were part of the ‘Adelsverein’ movement to create a “New Germany” in Texas. Alas, that movement along with the “Free Soil” movement and so many others, died out without much left to show for their efforts. More successful was the ‘Galveston Movement’ at the turn of the century to settle Jews in Texas rather than the east coast (almost as many as went to Palestine at the same time period!). There are still 2 thriving Synagogues in Galveston as a result (although, for years now there has been quite a bit of friction between them concerning Gay and Lesbian rights, Women Rabbi’s, treatment of the Palestinians etc., you know the kind of stuff I am talking about, I don’t know how that’s going to settle out). I think both sides could benefit from the example of that great Jewish Heroine Rosanna Osterman who took care of both Union and rebel wounded soldiers on Galveston Island during the civil war (hmm...maybe ‘rebel’ sounds a bit perjurious? perhaps‘confederate?’ is more objective? one has to be careful about such things in Texas, better yet, let’s just call them Northerners and Southerners?). Obliged Daniel.

p.s. isn't all history alternative history?

dannya54 said...

Oh, pss, and since its 9/11, and I wrote of the civil war above here is a poem by Walt Whitman that i hope resonates with the occasion:

"Reconciliation" by Walt Whitman

"Word over all, beautiful as the sky,
Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be utterly lost,
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly softly wash again, and
ever again, this soil'd world;
For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead,
I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin - I draw near,
Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin."

obliged.

Ben Myers said...

Yes, I'm sure Kim would be glad for you to re-post it.

Ben Myers said...

I've been away all weekend, and only just got back to see all these comments. It's a shame Kim's sermon had to get hijacked by a completely different discussion (which has, I take it, spilled over from another blog). So I'm closing this comments-thread now.

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