Friends as a “Chosen People”

By Chuck Fager

[Adapted from presentations given at Canadian Yearly Meeting,
Eighth Month (August), 1997]

I. People and Peoplehood

I want to explore the idea, the concept, the Quaker experience of being something called a “people.” In this exploration, I’ll make extensive use of the Bible.

A “People” – that’s a self-description you don’t hear much among Friends nowadays, except in occasional mildly self-mocking references to ourselves as a “peculiar people,” peculiar here generally meaning somewhat odd, idiosyncratic, weird, or even a bit bizarre, but quietly so. Looking through a number of current books of Faith and Practice, from the various branches, I found the term almost nowhere outside a few stray quotes from a long time ago.

Instead, I found many references to the “Society” of Friends; our groups were described as “communities” or “families” (in the Quaker Tapestry there’s a panel on the “worldwide ‘family’ of Friends)”; several refer, as Elton Trueblood also liked to do, to the Friends “movement”; and the evangelical handbooks described Quakerism as a “revival” or a “renewal” in Christianity.

Yet as late as 1806, the widely-copied Philadelphia YM Discipline opened with a very different kind of self-identification, namely that, “As it hath pleased the Lord in these latter days, by his spirit and power, to gather a people to himself; and releasing them from the impositions and teachings of men…these have been engaged to meet together for the worship of God in Spirit, according to the direction of the holy Law-giver….”

It may seem at first blush that these terms are all synonyms, and to be sure, they overlap to some extent. But they are not identical.

  • A “Society,” for instance, in my Webster’s is: “A voluntary association of individuals for common ends.”
  • A “Community” is “A body of people having common organization or interest.”
  • A “Family” is “Those descended from a common progenitor; the body of persons who live in one house, and under one head; a household.”
  • A “Movement” is a series of acts and events tending toward some definite end; a trend. We’ll come back to these terms.
  • A “Revival” is Renewed interest in religion, after indifference and decline, a regeneration.

What I want to do is to suggest that these other terms are distinct from the idea of being a “people,” and that the distinction makes a difference.

I’ve done a lot of wondering and reflecting on why I was led to this topic. An “opening” about it came when I was crossing the Canadian border at Ft. Erie, near Buffalo, New York, on my way to Canadian Yearly Meeting in August of 1997. I didn’t realize it til I saw the road sign, but to get to Ft. Erie, you go across what’s called the Peace Bridge. I was delighted to see that span, because it took me back 30 years to a breezy spring day in 1967.

That day I joined a bunch of other Quakers, mostly from New York, and together we walked across that Peace Bridge, to the Canadian side. The weather was quite something that day: we started out bundled up against the cold; but halfway across the bridge, the sky cleared up and the sun started beating down and before you knew it we were all hot and sweaty.

But the weather didn’t bother us all that much. What we walkers were really worried about was that we might all get arrested by the Customs cops or the Border Patrol, or some group of federal cops. We were worried about arrest because we were all carrying medical supplies, which we were taking to the Canadian Friends Service Committee, to send to civilian victims on all sides in the Vietnam War, and doing that was against an American law called the Trading With the Enemy Act.

Actually, all I had was a little box of Band-Aids in my pocket; but it was enough to make the point. And we announced our intention to defy this law and commit this civil disobedience to the border folks and anybody else who would listen. The guys at the toll booth kept us waiting for about an our while they talked on the phone, probably to Washington, and then they just let us go ahead undisturbed.

Well, I must say the Peace Bridge looked rather the worse for wear in 1997; I guess 30 Buffalo winters and the decline of federal funding have been pretty hard on it–and that’s not to mention the vicissitudes any symbol of peace has experienced in those years. But I smiled all the way across the bridge, and I remembered especially the warm greetings of the Canadian Friends who met us.

That was a very special moment in my young Quaker journey. And in reflecting on what made it so special, this word “peoplehood” came back to mind. That walk over the bridge, and the reception we got from Canadian Friends, was the act of a self-conscious people, a group with an identity and a mission; and that day, these realities were clearly in focus for me, if not yet articulated.

Nor was that walk an isolated event. There was a regular Quaker smuggling ring operating for awhile, Friends bringing medical supplies and money over the border individually, without the hoopla of our public demonstration, but at greater personal risk. They too did it because they were led, as part of the life among this peculiar people.

Now the recollection of that trek across the Peace Bridge was a recent opening about the value of this idea. My initial interest in it, some months earlier, was very much strengthened by a more remote piece of Quaker history: an unsigned early Quaker pamphlet, part of the title of which is as follows: “A Visitation of Love Unto the King, and Those called Royalists.”

It was published in London in 1660, right after the monarchy was restored and Charles II was put on the throne. I found it quite by accident one day when browsing among the stacks of the Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College.

The pamphlet is–as you might expect–a defense of Friends against persecution. But most Quaker writings of that time dealt with persecution to some extent, so that is not why it caught my attention. Rather, permit me to cite a few brief passages from the very first paragraph which will show why it seemed synchronistic that I should have picked it up:

As concerning the Quakers, that are scornfully so called, we are at this day, and have been ever since we were a people, a poor, despised and contemptible People, in the eyes of the world, and deep sufferers under the injustice, and cruelties, and oppressions both of rulers and teachers and people…

and this hath been ever since the Lord raised us up to be a people, though we have not been offensive to any just law…

and what we are as unto the Lord, if I should declare, it could not be believed by many: but we are his people, and he hath chosen us…
and though we have been and may be clouded with the Reproaches and persecutions of an uncircumcised Generation, yet in the Lord’s season it shall be manifest even to the world, and to our very enemies, that we are his people and chosen of him, and he is in the midst of us, whom we serve and worship in spirit, in truth and in righteousness….

I hope it will not be too obvious to say that I was very struck by the fact that Quakers were very assertively described as a “people” no less than five times in this opening paragraph. I’m aware that early Quaker writers were given to repetition, but there’s more than that here.

When Margaret Fell wrote to the king the same year, she used similar language, speaking on behalf of “the People of God called Quakers,” adding that “we have been a Suffering People under every Power and Change…in the Nation these Twelve years, since we were a People….”

This reminded me of one of the key early experiences of George Fox–when he climbed Pendle Hill, the vision he saw there was where there God had “a great people to be gathered” in those parts.

What was the experience of this “gathering” or “raising up” like? The most eloquent evocation of the experience that I have seen was that of Francis Howgill (Trueblood, p.12):

The kingdom of heaven did gather us and catch us all as in a net, and his heavenly power at one time drew many hundreds to land. We came to know a place to stand in and what to wait in; and the Lord appeared daily to us, to our astonishment, amazement and great admiration, insomuch that we often said one unto another with great joy of heart, ‘What, is the Kingdom of God come to be with men…?’ And holy resolutions were kindled in our hearts as a fire which the Life kindled in us to serve the Lord while we had a being….And thus the Lord, in short, did form us to be a people for his praise in our generation.

Not long thereafter, I picked up an 1875 edition of Robert Barclay’s great theological defense of Quakerism, The Apology. I am most familiar with the Modern English version of The Apology, as edited by Dean Freiday, and it has been very useful to me over the years. But in the beginning of this very non-modern edition was a dedicatory letter to King Charles II, which Freiday leaves out. And in it I found Barclay protesting the way governments had persecuted God’s prophets, “and persecuted his people, whom he had called and gathered out from among them…but He raised them up, and armed them with spiritual weapons, even with his own spirit and power….”

By 1694, William Penn published a book confidently titled The Rise and Progress of the People Called Quakers.

But if being a “people” is not the same as being a community, a family or a society, what exactly is it? My Oxford English Dictionary was not very helpful, at least on the first try. In it a “people” is simply ” A body of persons, composing a community, tribe, race or nation.”

The light dawned, though, when I returned to Quaker jargon and looked up “peculiar.” And there it was: “Peculiar people.” But it had nothing whatever to do with the odd or the eccentric; or with Quakers, for that matter. Rather, it stated baldly that it was, “A name applied to the Jews as God’s own chosen people; hence transferable in a religious sense.”

So. Being a “peculiar people” meant being a people chosen, called, and formed by God. Early Friends claimed to be God’s own chosen people.

Which, of course, gets us to the Bible. And initially, to a passage in the First Epistle of Peter, specifically chapter 2, verses 9-10:

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who has called you out of darkness into his marvelous light; for you once were not a people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

This letter was written, my commentaries tell me, to communities of faith that were likely to face persecution from the Roman authorities. And thus it is not coincidental that Fox cited and paraphrased this passage often in his epistles to Friends, as in this one in 1674(#313):

“And so the whole Church of Christ…the believers in the Light, children of the light..all such…men and women, ‘are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people,’ that they should show forth the virtue of Christ, ‘that has called them out of darkness into his marvelous light.” 

(T. Canby Jones, The Power of the Lord is over All,p. 313)

Like most such texts, the writer of Peter’s Epistle is quoting and reinterpreting a motif or theme from the Hebrew scriptures. And for that matter, George Fox is reinterpreting Peter (especially on the issue of male-female equality, which is mentioned several times in Fox’s epistle, in contrast to Peter.)

So the point of calling Friends a “people” is not a matter of lexicography, etymology or philology (or I might add psychology or astrology too…), but rather theology, or rather, the burning convictions from which theological work arises. And of course, when you start talking about a group as “God’s chosen people,” you’re using terminology that is freighted with significance and difficulty. We’ll get into that next.

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 does 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 God’s chosen people? Or as in the earlier passage, about Quakers being called into a royal priesthood? Sounds awfully elitist, doesn’t it. And we Quakers hate elitism, right? We’re all Democrats, right? Or perhaps New Democrats in Canada, eh? We’ll 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, that’s why the scriptures were preserved and transmitted over three millennia, as the record of God’s dealings with a specially selected group–or groups–of people, first the Jews and then the followers of Jesus. So let’s 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 you’ll 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, it’s not long after the Bible mentions baseball, which is why baseball is God’s favorite sport. Yeah, it’s right there in Chapter One, Verse 1: “In the big-inning.”]

Let’s 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 father’s 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.) It’s 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 God’s 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 God’s ways,” the long-term outcome is not clear, because God’s 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 I’m pretty sure there’s 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 you’re not born into it, you’re called into it.

This is a good thing, at least for me, because I’m not a birthright Friend; I have no Quaker pedigree. And at the Peace Bridge, as far as I know, I wasn’t 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. That’s how I felt that day in 1967–this 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 it’s 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, that’s not something you can count on among a chosen people, and it’s 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 fractious–or 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. We’ve 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, you’ll 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 it’s been all downhill from there.).

For that matter, even in Fox’s day, despite periods of euphoria like that recalled by Howgill which we cited earlier, soon enough there were difficulties and separations. Women’s meetings, for instance, were a very tough sell for Fox among other Quakers; and that’s 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 it’s NDP.

But a people made up of those who are called by God is likely to be more “diverse” than a group that’s 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 it’s 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 it’s 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. I’ve seen “people” rendered “race,” in some translations; and when someone starts talking about being a “chosen race,” we know we’re in trouble. It’s 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.

III. Christians, Quakers and Other heretics

This notion of Quakers as being “God’s chosen people” has been troublesome to many in the audiences where I have spoken of it. Such controversy isn’t new. In fact, this issue of particularism and universalism with regard to “God’s chosen people” came into sharp relief very early for the first Christians. They were fine with the idea at first, as far as I can tell from the gospels, and also with the place it had in Hebrew sacred history, because they accepted this history and thought of themselves and Jesus as part of it.

The idea became a problem, though, once it became clear, as it soon did, that most Jews, and in particular their leadership, weren’t buying the Christian version of their history, and in fact wanted nothing to do with it, or with them.

I think it’s important to keep in mind as we look at some of the related New Testament texts that this was not how it was originally supposed to turn out. It seems to me that Jesus stayed largely within the Jewish community and its worldview, and took the basics of the Judaism of his day for granted. In John 4, for instance, when he speaks to the woman at the well, there’s a passage which was a favorite of early friends, but there’s also an important one which is overlooked. Let’s take a look at this, beginning from John 4:19-29:

The woman said to Him, “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you {people} say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.”

Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers.

“God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”

The woman said to Him, “I know that Messiah is coming (He who is called Christ); when that One comes, He will declare all things to us.”

Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am {He.}”

At this point His disciples came, and they were amazed that He had been speaking with a woman, yet no one said, “What do You seek?” or, “Why do You speak with her?”

So the woman left her waterpot, and went into the city and said to the men, “Come, see a man who told me all the things that I {have} done; this is not the Christ, is it?”

Jesus speaks here of the need for Worship “in spirit and truth” (v.23); if early Friends had had bumperstickers or tee shirts, this phrase would have been on them. But right now, I’m more interested in verses 20 and 22:

The woman says, “‘Our fathers (that is, the Samaritans) worshiped in this mountain Mt. Gerizim, and you people (i.e., Jews) say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.’” (Ah, church turf battles. Will they never end?)

“Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, shall you worship the Father. You worship that which you do not know; we worship that which we know, for salvation is from the Jews.’”

In other words, Jesus was Jewish, with a Jewish belief system.

So a few years later, when his followers found themselves increasingly at odds with the bulk of the Jewish community, this created a problem. How do you become part of “the chosen people” when that people has chosen to have nothing to do with you? When this people, to use the venerable Quaker term, has in fact “disowned” you?

Well, the answer to these questions comes down to two options:

  • One, you either give up the idea of being part of that chosen people; or
  • Two, you reinterpret the idea of the chosen people so it does include you.

The early Christians took the second course and set out to reinterpret the idea and the history of the chosen people. Paul took the lead in this, as we shall see. And the gospel writers, or their editors, soon found sayings of Jesus which pointed in this direction. Let’s look at a few of them. Some are, or should be, familiar to Friends who think of themselves as liberal or universalist:

“‘I am the good shepherd; and I know my own, and my own know me, even as the father knows me and I know the father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.

“‘And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they shall hear my voice; and they shall become one flock, with one shepherd.’”

John 10:14-16

Another is just a few pages further, in John 14:2. “In my father’s house, there are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you.’”

This verse always reminds me of the story about heaven, where a newcomer comes in and St. Peter is explaining that here everybody gets their heart’s desire, and takes him down a long hallway which has many doors. And as they pass these doors the visitor hears various kinds of sounds, operatic singing, laughter, smells the aromas of great food, and so forth. Then suddenly, they round a corner and approach a very sturdy but plain gray door, and St. Peter puts a finger to his lips and whispers to the visitor to tiptoe quietly past it.

“Why did we have to tiptoe?” asks the visitor once they’re beyond the door.

“Because that’s the room for the silent Quakers,” says St. Peter, “and they want to believe they’re the only ones here.”

Anyway, such verses as these became part of the basis for the difficult task of reconciling Hebrew particularism with the church’s experience that the Jews largely rejected their preaching of Jesus’ message, whereas they had much more success with the gentiles, who were definitely outside the scope of the “chosen people” as the Jews understood it.

Paul wrote about this whole problem more extensively than anyone else, and he wrote most about it in the Epistle to the Romans. We’re going to sample that, from Chapters 9 and 11.

In Chapter 9, Paul turns to the subject with an emotional declaration, then states the basic thesis (vv 1-8), and follows up in 25-26:

“I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost, That I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart. For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh: Who are Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises; Whose are the fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen. Not as though the word of God hath taken none effect. For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel: Neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children: but, In Isaac shall thy seed be called. That is, They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed.”

“As he saith also in Hosea, I will call them my people, which were not my people; and her beloved, which was not beloved. And it shall come to pass, that in the place where it was said unto them, Ye are not my people; there shall they be called the children of the living God.”

In other words, Paul and the Christians abstracted (a skeptical Marxist might say he “reified”), or spiritualized and — at least potentially –niversalized the idea of the chosen people. Paul says this more succinctly in Romans 2:28f: “He is not a Jew that is one outwardly….” This sentiment is echoed in numerous other places among the various epistles.

This new interpretation may have sounded good to gentile Christian ears, because it let them in, it legitimated them. But then what about the “original” Jews, the community of actual people, still centered in Jerusalem, who had rejected this Christian heresy? Was God now finished with them, the way a snake might be finished with an outgrown and discarded skin?

Many Christians down through two millennia have answered this last question with an emphatic yes, with chronically tragic consequences.

But Paul, to his credit, couldn’t follow his logic that far. If he was ready to spiritualize the chosen people, he was unable to let go of the empirical Israel. Romans 11:1-5, (and in fact, when all is said and done, v. 26, “all Israel will be saved.”) This is quite a prediction; If Paul is right, obviously we should all become Jewish, because nobody else gets such odds Furthermore, he has advice for his gentile converts about their spiritual forebears: Rom. 11:16-18: “…If some of the branches have been broken off, and thou, being a wild olive tree, was grafted in among them, and with them partakest of the root and fatness of the olive tree; Boast not against the branches. But if thou boast, consider this, that thou dost not support the root, but the root supports thee.”

I always loved that verse.

Now, this is fascinating stuff, and if it doesn’t entirely square the circle of reconciling particularism with universalism, that’s okay, because that paradox is a perennial puzzle. But the basic idea is reasonably plain: the election of one particular group in history, the “people” Israel, which includes an inheritance and various promises, has been broadened to include non-Jews, through the person and work of Jesus, who was Jewish but was also the savior of the whole world and all people, past, present and future. From here it’s a short hop to the passage in First Peter that we read earlier: First Epistle of Peter, specifically chapter 2, verses 9-10:

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who has called you out of darkness into his marvelous light; for you once were not a people, but now you are the people of God….”

How much continuity there is between the concepts of “peoplehood” in the New and Old Testaments is a subject of theological and scholarly debate, which I don’t propose to settle. In any event, it’s clear that the idea has evolved by the time Paul is done reflecting on it. And among Friends the idea has evolved further.

Much of this evolution has occurred in the twentieth century, as a result of the encounter between Christian Quakers and other religions. One distinguished Friend who lived such an encounter was Henry Hodgkin. A British Friend, missionary in China for almost 30 years, went there with quite evangelical views, and then was asked to be the first director of Pendle Hill. Not long before his death in 1933, he wrote a letter to his brother in which he described how his views had been changed by his experience in China. This statement, a cri de couer, was included in the London book of Faith and Practice for many years, and still is in the new one, though shortened”

“When I was at school and college I had some very profound religious experiences which meant much in shaping my life and to which I now look back with the deepest thankfulness….

“I suppose it is almost inevitable that during such a period one should be so sure of the genuineness and value of one’s own experience as to undervalue other types of experience. It is this which makes people eager missionaries or propagandists and it was as such that I went to China, still very sure of the ‘greatness of the revelation’ and but dimly aware that God, in His many-sided nature and activity, was not one whit less manifest in ways and persons with which or with whom I could have little sympathy. Of course in theory I believed that God used many methods and that all truth was not with me. [But] Down deep I wanted all to be ‘such as I’, because I could not help feeling that, broadly speaking, what meant so much to me must be equally good for others.

“By processes too numerous and diverse even to summarize, I have reached a position which may be stated in a general way somewhat like this: ‘I believe that God’s best for another may be so different from my experience and way of living as to be actually impossible to me. I recognize <a change> to have taken place in myself, from a certain assumption that mine was really the better way, to a very complete recognition that there is no one better way, and that God needs all kinds of people and ways of living through which to manifest Himself in the world.”

Hodgkin points toward what has become a new way of reframing the universalist-particularist conundrum:

What if God chose various peoples, for various work, for purposes which we can sometimes get striking glimpses of, but the ultimate character of which can only be guessed at?

Put differently, what if there were more than one divine “election,” more than one chosen people?

More recently, one of our most compelling contemporary Quaker theologians, Jim Corbett of Arizona, took this idea further in his fine book “Goatwalking.” Corbett describes how he came to feel he was discovering the “true church” as a “living, visible people of peoples” during the time in the early 1980s when he was following the leadings to help Central American refugees in what would become the Sanctuary movement. By that he was referring to the cooperative efforts of congregations from many traditions–Catholic, Jewish, Presbyterian, and more–to help Central American refugees and frustrate the policy of the American government which was sending them back to face more terror.

A fine Jewish writer named Arthur Waskow considers this issue in his fine book, “Godwrestling.” He quotes a member of his religious congregation as suggesting the following possibility:

“The covenant between the Jews and God had two sets of observers….One set was the nations–some of which were stirred to make their own covenants with God. But the other observer was God, who was stirred to make a number of other covenants with various peoples. Maybe Sinai seemed like enough of a success–but also enough of a failure–to justify a range of different approaches.”(p. 158).

There’s an intriguing hint of this in the book of Deuteronomy, at 4:19-20:

“And beware lest you lift up your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and worship them and serve them, things which the Lord your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven. But the Lord has taken you, and brought you out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt, to be a people of his own possession, as at this day.”

This text, which is really a throwaway line, hints at something mind-boggling compared with the usual biblical rhetoric. It suggests that God has made religious arrangements for other peoples, mediated through other beings in the universe. But I believe it is echoed in the sayings of Jesus we looked at earlier:

“Other sheep I have, which are not of this fold…”

“In my father’s house there are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you….”

I believe it is also part of the message of one of the most familiar of Jesus’ parables, The Good Samaritan, in Luke 10:25-37:

I want to highlight two features of this story: First, We tend to have it read as a celebration of compassion for innocent victims, especially of violence, which it is, but that’s not the main point. The real point of the whole story is an answer to the question, “What must I do to be saved?” It’s not about compassion; it’s about salvation.

And the other point is this: There’s no indication that the Samaritan became a good Jew. And remember we already saw in the story of the woman at the well that Jesus considered the Samaritans’ theology mistaken. But that didn’t prevent him from doing what was necessary for salvation.

One of the most persuasive biblical expressions of this idea comes in another familiar gospel passage, this time by omission, By what is not spoken. It’s Matthew 25:31-40, the passage about the judgment and the sheep and the goats. Note first in this passage, that it’s “all the nations” who are before him for judgment. This implies that people from all the nations had a fair shot at being saved.

And second, when he tells the sheep why they are getting into the kingdom, there’s not a mention of being in the one chosen people as a criterion. Nothing. Being Jewish in this scenario evidently meant being chosen by God, sure, but it offered no special advantage as far as getting into the kingdom goes. Jesus differs from Paul here. And the same goes for the goats–they are not rejected for failing to be part of the one chosen people.

For me, this train of thought was summed up best by William Penn, in his fine little book, “Some Fruits of Solitude”: “The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious and devout souls are everywhere of one religion; and when death has taken off the mask, they will know one another, though the diverse liveries they wear here make them strangers.”

I’d love to put that on a tee shirt; it’s one of the great expressions of Quaker universalism.

This puts a different twist on the “universalist” notions widespread among liberal Quakers today. Seen from the perspective of these passages, “universalism” is not really a matter of taking a pinch of Buddhism here, and a slice of Islam there and sprinkling them on a crust of First Nations’ and feminist spirituality to make some sort of New Age spiritual pizza. Instead, it’s a matter of identifying more fully with the roots and core of our own people’s calling, in order to be able to meet and work meaningfully with other peoples who may be pursuing common efforts to which we have all been called, in different ways and at different times.

Such a reframing is built on the sense that we are indeed a people called out by God, with our own identity, our own gifts and heritage, and our own work; but we were not the only such “people” that God has chosen for some mysterious divine purpose.

What might are gifts look like? And what might our work be? We’ll begin to consider that next.

V. The Care And Feeding of Peoplehood

I’ve been reflecting some more on how I came to this idea of studying peoplehoood. I mentioned finding that 1660 pamphlet which spoke of Quakers as a people five times in the first paragraph; but I now think the genesis of this leading came earlier, at Pendle Hill.

I had two research interns working with me then on the recent history of the Quaker peace witness, and a comparison of Quaker peace work with that of the Mennonites and Brethren. One of these interns prepared a detailed chronology of all the Quaker peace work we could find out about in the twentieth century. One reason I wanted to have this chronology was that I have often felt discouraged about Quaker peace work, especially with the decline of the 60s style activist movement, and after ordeals like the Gulf War.

But when the chronology was done, we found that it ran to 60 pages, single-spaced, and it showed that the Quaker peace testimony has been and continues to be an amazingly fertile source of, productive, varied, creative work, and often courageous witness. Furthermore, while the Mennonites and Brethren have done some excellent work in this field, our comparison suggested that Quakers, though there are far fewer of us than there are Mennonites and Brethren, have done more peace activities in this century than both of these other peace churches put together. At least so far.

Now this information, which had not been collected before, left me feeling more encouraged about Quaker peace work. But it did more than that. It was a key in sparking my suspicion that there was more involved here than just a worthy tradition. It persuaded me that there was something living here, something beyond and underlying individual achievement.

Maybe I can compare it to a fertile plot of land planted with hardy perennial flowers. When winter comes, a particular plant may wither; but when spring returns, a new stalk of the same variety will appear, different and yet similar. (Or think of Paul’s root that supports us in Romans 11:18.).

That’s a pretty good metaphor; but the main biblical image for what I thought I was perceiving here was the experience of a chosen people, or “peoplehood,” so that’s the concept I felt needed to be explored further.

Now, if my notion that Friends are one of God’s chosen peoples has any validity for Friends, and let’s suppose for the moment that it does, I’d like to spend this last section looking at some passages which relate to the care and feeding of a peoplehood. Because if the story of the chosen peoples of the Bible shows us anything, it is that these people can’t take their condition and success for granted.

So first I’d like us to look at Psalm 119. Psalm 119 is the longest psalm, with a section for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet, for a total of 176 verses. But don’t worry–we’re only going to look at one section, for the letter Mem, from verses 97-104:

“Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long.

Your commands make me wiser than my enemies, for they are ever with me.

I have more insight than all my teachers, for I meditate on your statutes.

I have more understanding than the elders, for I obey your precepts.

I have kept my feet from every evil path so that I might obey your word.

I have not departed from your laws, for you yourself have taught me.

How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!

I gain understanding from your precepts; therefore I hate every wrong path.”

This passage doesn’t lay down any rules, but it expresses an attitude that I’m trying to get at, an attitude that I think is very important to the survival and health of a chosen people, and that attitude can be summed up in two words:

Heritage matters.

The Law, remember was part of the heritage, the gifts that God gave to the Israelites when they became the chosen people. And the law was not just rules, which is why this passage uses so many different words for them.

Now the biblical heritage is also our heritage too, but we have our own special inheritance as well; Quaker history, Quaker ways, Quaker testimonies. These are worth meditating on, too. Their meaning and application change with time and circumstance and continuing revelation. To stay vital, they need to be both celebrated and reexamined, as well as lived.

Next are two pieces of advice from Jesus, in Matthew. First, 5:13-16:

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by men. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

Or to summarize: Don’t hide your lamp under a bushel.

Doing so is one of the besetting Quaker sins. In too many places we are, de facto, the Secret Society of Friends. And as we work to put our lamp on a lampstand, the other advice comes from considering the public activity that Jesus did most of as recorded in the gospels. Anybody know what that was?

He told stories. We Bible scholars call them parables, makes them sound more important and weighty. There’s a list of Jesus’ parables in my study Bible, and the total is 51. They have another list of his miracles, and there are only 33 of them.

Now I haven’t found any place where Jesus actually commands his followers to tell stories. But it says in Matthew 13:34 that Jesus never missed telling a story when he was speaking to the multitudes. If Jesus’ example has any value for us, and I believe it does, I also believe that this is a big part of it: tell our stories!

After all, this is a part of Jesus’ work that’s within our grasp. I don’t know how to work a miracle. But I can tell a passable story. And so can you.

And so should we. Because if Quakerism is rich in anything, it is rich in wonderful, compelling, witnessing stories. And so many of them, shamefully, are untold. This is another contemporary Quaker vice. Most of us have heard a few tales about George Fox, or Elizabeth Fry visiting prisoners or Levi Coffin and the Underground Railroad, and maybe a few others.

But I want to suggest to you that not all the best, most renewing Quaker stories are about people who lived two or three hundred years ago. Next time you’re in meeting, look around you – unless you’re alone, I guarantee the room is full of valuable, uplifting Quaker stories. Many of the others in the room will be there because they were trying to bear a Quaker a peace witness. Others were there because they have been through great personal suffering of one kind or another and found healing and hope through the working of the spirit.

These are not only personal experiences, they are stories. And telling these stories, to each other, to our children, to newcomers, and as way opens out in the world, is one of the most important ways of keeping the people called Quakers alive and well.

There’s more to this, which we really don’t have time for. But I want to quickly point to a couple of the passages which I believe offer important insights about the care and feeding of peoplehood:

This next one applies especially for our public witness; it’s Matthew 10:16

“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore, be wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”

To me, this is one of the most important pieces of counsel Jesus offered, and it has special relevance to Friends. I know many Quakers, and many meetings, who concentrate on the second part, trying to be harmless as doves, to the near-total exclusion of the first, being wise as serpents. I could give lots of embarrassing examples, because I did investigative reporting about Quakers for eleven years, and never ran out of material.

My experience confirms that Jesus knew what he was talking about: if you don’t pay attention to being wise as serpents in preparing for your individual and corporate witness, you don’t get to be harmless as doves. You can even end up doing more harm than good.

And next, there’s the one of Jesus’ statements that may be the hardest for many liberal Friends to hear, and you’ll find that in Matthew 16:24, though it’s repeated in lots of other places as well:

“Then Jesus said to his disciples, if anyone would come after me, he (or she) must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Now, I’m not a literalist about this, so if you have trouble with the crucifixion and resurrection and all that, fine, I’m not here to insist that you “believe” all that. In my experience, the cross works just as well as an archetype, an analogy, or a pattern of existence: You can even substitute for it a phrase like, say, “Deal with your problems,” and that’s close enough.

What I think is relevant here, though, is that the cross comes to us not only individually, but as part of our peoplehood too. The history of the Jews provides the most vivid example of this: for two thousand years, people have been hated and persecuted and killed not because of any personal deed or misdeed, but simply because they were part of this people. The same has been true of Friends in the past, and we shouldn’t forget that. I don’t see such persecution on the near horizon, but you never know. After all, in the summer of 1990, I never expected that we’d face the Gulf War by year’s end, and that was a cross indeed.

In the meantime, there are lower-order crosses to bear, some of them specifically Quaker ones. The work of keeping our meetings going, especially without a paid professional clergy to look after all the machinery, is one. Organizationally, I think Friends must hold the record for reinventing the wheel. (I’ve heard it said that you could get a liberal Quaker meeting to try anything, even human sacrifice, provided that it’s described as only an “experiment.”)

So today a Quaker’s cross may look more like an endless string of committee meetings. And when you hear of a monthly meeting paralyzed for months or even years over an issue like same-sex marriage, that’s one way the cross is coming to them.

So as far as the cross is concerned like I say, I don’t bother much about whether we “believe” in it or not; I just hope we’ll get ready to carry ours when it comes because it will.

And finally, I believe it’s important for us as a people to keep our eyes on the prize. Jesus said it in Matthew (Maybe Matthew is really the Quaker gospel…) at 6:33: “Seek first God’s kingdom and its righteousness….” And what’s the prize? What does the kingdom look like?

One of the most haunting evocations of it is in Isaiah, 11:6-9, which begins: “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”

One of the most appealing visions of this Peaceable Kingdom is that of Edward Hicks, the Quaker painter who couldn’t stop seeing it and trying to make it visible. There’s something quintessentially Quaker about these works: they’re at the same time both impossibly naive, and to me at least, utterly convincing and irresistible, and I’ve seen almost all of them.

Well, there’s more of this that we could explore profitably, but this is enough advice-giving for one essay. However you slice it, the care and feeding of peoplehood is an ongoing task and one which I believe will mold our future as Friends.

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