Part of our church conundrum can be traced to the belief that we’re a unique people of God. It’s a conviction that’s held in common by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The fact that there are negative aspects of believing we’re God’s chosen people hardly needs to be mentioned. Its wreckage is littered throughout history. I’ll write more about that in a later post. Here I want to lay out the positive, life-giving aspects of such belief.
All three faiths trace our belief that we’re a chosen people to the same source. It’s God’s call to Abraham and Sarah to leave their homeland in Mesopotamia and live as sojourners in the midst of other peoples in Canaan. There was no notion of conquering and subjecting other tribes; instead they were to live peacefully among them as an expression of God’s hospitality. God, in turn, would bless them and their descendants, and through them all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen. 12:1-3).
This call becomes a thread that weaves its way throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. God’s people are called to live as sojourners, welcome strangers, and care for the most vulnerable. In stark contrast to the brutality of the men of Sodom, Abraham welcomed the messengers of God when they arrived at his tent in the desert (Gen. 18-19). From the beginning, there were failures in living out of this covenant with God; ancient tribal conflicts sometimes raised their heads in ugly ways (Gen. 34). Nevertheless, a new paradigm for human relationships had emerged.
Moses’ call to deliver God’s people from Egypt was a further development of the Abrahamic paradigm, as was the giving of the law and the formation of the Mosaic community at Mount Sinai—now clearly in opposition to empire. However, the subsequent brutal conquest of the land of Canaan breaks with the paradigm in significant ways. And the establishment of a royal monarchy in Israel must be understood as a betrayal of the covenant with God. (Sam. 8:1-11).
The Hebrew prophets understood the link between monarchy, imperialism, and exploitation of the most vulnerable as a betrayal of the original vision. They kept calling their people back to their covenant with God. The prophet Micah gives one of the most familiar calls to return to what God requires, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).
A striking prophetic articulation of the vision of living as vulnerable sojourners is found in God’s instructions to the Jewish exiles in Babylon through the prophet Jeremiah. They are told to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile . . . for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer. 29:7). It was a bold strategy of transformation in the very heart of the Babylonian Empire.
Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann describes the imperial consciousness, “Empires live by numbness. Empires, in their militarism, expect numbness about the human cost of war. Corporate economies expect blindness to the cost in terms of poverty and exploitation. Governments and societies of domination go to great lengths to keep the numbness intact” (The Prophetic Imagination, 85-86).
In contrast, God’s call to Sarah and Abraham consists of being a faithful people of God that creates communities of hospitality and economic sharing in opposition to the dominant imperial structures of violence and exploitation. It has served as a powerfully transformative vision in human history.