Friends as a "Chosen People" - Continued -- 2
II. Chosen people, new and old.
Many of us know that the Religious Society of Friends gets its name, from a passage in John 15, where Jesus says, (vv. 13-15): "Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave dos not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from my father I have made known to you."
This is a familiar passage. But what I want to do is to extend our reading just a little bit more, four verses worth, vv. 16-19:
"You did not choose me, but I chose you, and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit...This I command you, that you love one another. If the world hates you, you know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you."
So talk about being divinely chosen is right there, smack up against the part where our name comes from.
Is there anybody else reading this who is made nervous, or uneasy, at this talk of being Gods chosen people? Or as in the earlier passage, about Quakers being called into a royal priesthood? Sounds awfully elitist, doesnt it. And we Quakers hate elitism, right? Were all Democrats, right? Or perhaps New Democrats in Canada, eh? Well come to a scripture passage soon that makes my unease very concrete.
Nevertheless, there it is, all over the foundational thought and writing of our religious tradition: Fox quotes that verse from First Peter about us being the royal priesthood no less than nine times in his Journal. (I know this thanks to a computer-generated concordance, huge, clumsy, but enlightening.) And the idea of "peoplehood" is also central to the Bible. In fact, in large measure, thats why the scriptures were preserved and transmitted over three millennia, as the record of Gods dealings with a specially selected groupor groupsof people, first the Jews and then the followers of Jesus. So lets look at some of what the biblical texts say about this business of being chosen.
Incidentally, if you were thinking that one passage of two verses was maybe not very many, I think youll find that we look at enough here to make up any deficit.
This talk begins very early: It starts in Genesis, with Abraham, when he was still being called Abram. [In fact, its not long after the Bible mentions baseball, which is why baseball is Gods favorite sport. Yeah, its right there in Chapter One, Verse 1: "In the big-inning."]
Lets see, Abram. Genesis 12:1-4, plus 7:
Now the Lord said to Abram, "Go forth from your country and from your relatives and from your fathers house.
To the land which I will show you; And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great;
And so you will be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse.
And in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed."..." And the Lord appeared to Abram and said, To your descendants I will give this land. So he built an altar there to the Lord who had appeared to him."
And this talk of choosing is repeated many times, sometimes in some pretty bloodthirsty contexts, as in Deuteronomy 7:6:
"For you are a holy people to the Lord your God: the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth."
The preceding five verses, by the way, are one of several mandates for genocide against the occupants of the Promised Land, divine orders to the Israelites that they are to exterminate all the inhabitants of Canaan, not only the warriors but the women, the children, the elderly, and all their livestock. no matter what. (Cf. Joshua Chapter 6, etc.) Its one of those passages that strict Bible believers have a hard time reconciling with their notion of a just and loving God, as well they should.
Nevertheless, from these and the many similar passages, it is, I think, possible to discern some of the characteristics of this "election" that will be ultimately important to our understanding of its significance to Friends today. I want to highlight four such characteristics:
FIRST of all, this choosing, this "election," comes about by divine initiative, as a historical event. As Moses tells the people in Deuteronomy 26:17-18, "You have today declared the Lord to be your God ... and the Lord has today declared you to be His people, a treasured possession..."; and Deut. 27:9., when Moses and the priests declared, "Be silent and listen, O Israel! This day you have become a people for the Lord your God."
"This day" was after they had left Egypt, and wandered in the desert for almost 40 years, and were getting ready to invade Canaan.
So the choosing, the election, is Gods idea, not that of the Israelites. Further, the reasons for it are mysterious, lost in the unfathomable divine purposes. It is certainly not the result of a competitive or qualitative process: Israel is not chosen because she is "better" than other nations; indeed, God often complains bitterly about what a sinful and "stiff-necked people" has been chosen. And much of the drama of the Hebrew scriptures is a retelling of just how often and how badly the Israelites failed at being good examples, and the terrible price they paid for it.
Now, second, having made this election, having singled out this people, God goes further, and gives them gifts, or as the text says, blessings." (Deut. 28:1-14) In the case of Israel, this inheritance seems to have consisted of two principal assets: First, the Promised Land; and along with it, the Law or the Torah, which means the whole teaching relationship between God and Israel, and of which the scriptures are the written expression (Psalm 19: 7-11).
Thirdly, along with the inheritance comes a series of demands, the commandments and statutes which run to several hundred in the various books. Some of these commandments can be generalized into broad moral injunctions (e.g., Micah 6:7-8, one of my favorites: "Does the Lord take delight in thousands of rams...? He has told you , O man, what is good, and what does the lord require of you but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?"), while others seem to have no other purpose than to be marks of distinction (e.g., circumcision, not mixing fibers, not cutting your forelock).
Taken together, tho, the discipline and ethos sustained by "walking in his ways" (Deuteronomy 28:9) are to maintain the character of the chosen group as "A holy people," holy here meaning set apart for special purposes, the unfathomable purposes of the divine. Election in this sense can also be considered a vocation, a calling, not of an individual so much as a group, to which individuals are joined.
So fourth and finally, if the chosen people does "walk in Gods ways," the long-term outcome is not clear, because Gods purposes are always ultimately mysterious, but the text insists that this faithfulness will be of benefit to more than just the chosen group, in the form of "bearing fruit," which will yield "blessing" to "all the families of the earth."
Now Im pretty sure theres nothing new in this summary of the meaning of "election," or chosenness in the biblical context. But by now we ought to be able to see better how being a "people" is different from being some of the other things we more commonly describe ourselves as.
With these in mind, let me go back for a moment to my story of the walk across the Buffalo Peace Bridge in 1967.
Were we there as a "family"? Well, a people certainly includes families, and may even be largely a kinship group. But a "people" is not coterminous with a family or a clan, because ultimately youre not born into it, youre called into it.
This is a good thing, at least for me, because Im not a birthright Friend; I have no Quaker pedigree. And at the Peace Bridge, as far as I know, I wasnt related to anybody else there, on either side of the border. But I was still supposed to be there as much as someone whose Quaker pedigree stretched back to Fox and Fell.
Similarly with "Society": a "people" is not simply a voluntary association of individuals who gather around some common agenda that they have set out, like a chess club or a baseball team. More like a group that has been drafted, pardon the military metaphor, or called together for jury duty, summoned by a higher power. Thats how I felt that day in 1967this was not a lark; we had been led to that place, and to the risks it involved. And this fact points to a difference from
"Community": A "people", because its selected and formed by divine initiative rather than human preference, may include lots of persons whose names would not have occurred to me, or to you. And while I enjoy the warm fuzzies of loving community feelings as much as the next person, thats not something you can count on among a chosen people, and its presence or absence is not the measure of their authenticity.
In other words, a "people" is likely, sooner or later, to become rather a motley crew, and a fractiousor as we more politely say these days, a "diverse"one.
History certainly bears this out. Despite periods of early euphoria, we have just about all of the biblical and Quaker record as evidence that this is the case. Weve already heard that about the Israelites. In the New Testament, the Book of Acts in Chapter Two describes a blessed primitive Christian community; this is the primitive Christianity that Fox and the First Publishers were so sure they were reviving. And if you keep reading, youll see that the blessed community of Acts lasted exactly four chapters. By Chapter 6:1-5, you have the appearance of factional/ethnic complaints, and the apostles pulling rank and announcing that they were too good to take turns waiting tables (And its been all downhill from there.).
For that matter, even in Foxs day, despite periods of euphoria like that recalled by Howgill which we cited earlier, soon enough there were difficulties and separations. Womens meetings, for instance, were a very tough sell for Fox among other Quakers; and thats just one example.
True to form, in Buffalo in 1967, we American Quakers had not one but two leaders, representing different tendencies or factions in New York YM, and these two persons spent a great deal of time negotiating with each other about what we were going to do and how we were going to do it. Civil disobedience was a tough sell for a lot of American Quakers then, even in the face of the enormity of the Vietnam War.
And so it goes with "Movement": a "people" may get caught up in various movements or trends, especially those associated with the social and political backgrounds of its members; thus we have in the United States today a lot of what I call NPR Quakers, people share certain demographic traits, and who relate to the world through the medium of National Public Radio, a network carefully shaped to their tastes. A Friend at Woodbrooke last month told me that there were many BBC Quakers in Britain, and perhaps there are CBC Quakers in Canada. Or maybe its NDP.
But a people made up of those who are called by God is likely to be more "diverse" than a group thats gathered around a political program, a social "movement" or a cultural trend, because God in her infinite and unsearchable wisdom has been known to choose even Republicans and Tories and anti-abortion folks and even people who have trouble with same sex marriage.
And besides, movements, like trends, come and go. We used to say in the Vietnam era that there was almost nothing that the peace movement could not get done if it only took ninety days to do it. And likewise, there was almost nothing that it COULD get done if it took MORE than ninety days. We could only hang together effectively about that long. And certainly, the American peace movement of 1967 is long gone, as surely as Elvis and John Lennon are gone.
So being a "people" is its own thing. But once we can see this notion with some clarity, we can also see that along with it certain issues are likely to come up, and come up they do, in both the biblical and Quaker contexts.
Perhaps the most persisting and troubling issue is that of particularity vs. Universal concerns. It is one thing to develop a theology of election which regards your group as specially selected by God but not necessarily better; and its something else to live that out distinction without slipping into the attitude that equates "chosenness" with "superiority."
We see this soon enough in the biblical texts, in places like Psalm 135: 1-4, 8-21. We also find it in Ezra, Chapters 9 and 10, when he insists that all the Israelite men who had intermarried with "foreign" women, get rid of their wives and the children of these mixed unions.(10:3) We are not told what happened to these abandoned women and children, in a world where such rejected persons were essentially nonpersons. Scholars are divided about the actual significance of that event, but its easy enough to see where such concerns are headed.
And of course, we can see this same tension working itself out in Palestine today. And I got a vivid reminder of this when I spoke about peoplehood at an international Quaker theological consultation earlier this summer. After our session a Friend from Germany came up to me, looking very exercised, and told me that, however useful it might be in English to talk about being "a people," it would be absolutely unacceptable in German, because the equivalent German term was "Volk", which had unmistakable Nazi associations.
Clearly this Friend had an important point, and not just a linguistic one. Ive seen "people" rendered "race," in some translations; and when someone starts talking about being a "chosen race," we know were in trouble. Its good to remember in this connection that, there was an eloquent reaction in the scriptures against such ethnocentrism, in the book of Jonah, Chapters 3-4. Read Jonah, last verse of 3, first verse of 4, and last verse of 4.
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