EXCERPT from “Chosen: biblical texts, group identity and peacemaking.”

Convo talk for Bethel College (Kansas) November 13, 2006 by Rich Meyer

[Rich sent this to me, and not having time to post it himself, I am posting it for him. Here's a few quotes to whet your appetite:]

Part of my concern here is with how we process the diversity of voices within the canon – this collection of books that we today call “The Bible,” (singular) as if it were one book. In Greek, Ta Biblia is plural, it means “the books.” What we call “the Old Testament” (singular, again) Jews call “the Law, the Prophets and the Writings.” Names are important, how we name things carries a lot of freight. We all know that the Bible is a collection, a library, and includes a number of voices, voices often engaged in debate. I think it would help our understanding if our vocabulary gave us that picture. Instead we’ve got it all wrapped up in a leather cover.

I think we have wanted to stop short of talking openly and honestly within the church about the implications of this diversity of voices, and what it means if we want to study with intent to get direction. Because that requires us to commit, to weigh in on the Bible’s internal debates. Failing this, we are stuck defending some really damaging racism and sexism, just because it is between leather covers. Rabbi Michael Lerner names it thus: he says that we have, in the Torah, the voice of God, and the voice of accumulated pain and hurt.

[The full lecture, after the jump.]

For most of my ten years in Christian Peacemaker Teams my focus has been our work in Israel/Palestine; our team has been there eleven years. I spend several months a year in the Middle East, working with Israeli and Palestinian peacemakers. Among these friends and co-workers are members of Rabbis for Human Rights, and Palestinian Christians from Sabeel, an ecumenical Liberation Theology center. In both of these contexts I have heard people agonizing over the pervasiveness of chosen-ness in the texts that their communities hold sacred, and the terrible, literally deadly effect on intercommunal relations that unreflective use of this theological theme and language has had and continues to have. This alone might be sufficient explanation as to why I believe this subject cries out for critical re-examination.

The idea that we, our group, our people, are special, Chosen, loved by our God in a unique way – I wonder if this isn’t a near-universal element of creation stories or origin stories, in ethnic groups around the world. A story about how we were created, as a unique and special people. The creator God loved us, and gave us this, our own place on earth, to care for. I’ve done no careful research on this; I’m aware of the attachment of the Lakota and other tribes to the Black Hills. I lived in Lesotho for six years, in southern Africa, and I know that in Sesotho, only the Batswana the Baswati are with them in the noun class for “us.” All other tribes and peoples are in a different noun class.

Chosen-ness is a powerful Biblical theme, claimed daily by the Israeli settlers in the West Bank as justification not just for being there in occupied territory, but as justification for trying to force the Palestinians to leave, and go somewhere else, anywhere else. (I’ve heard one commentator say that the crime for which the Palestinians are being punished is their refusal to auto-evaporate.) This use of chosen-ness theology is disturbing to many Jews of conscience, who repudiate the actions of the settlers. I have heard them try to deal with this in different ways. Rabbi Arthur Waskow suggests that maybe all of us are chosen, just for different things. Jews were chosen to bring the Torah, what were you chosen for?

Nice try, but linguistically, it doesn’t work. Whether in Hebrew, Greek or English, “chosen” also implies that some are “unchosen.” You don’t use the word “choose” if you take all of what is there. If I offer you a chance to choose some books from my shelf, and you take them all, it is precisely at the moment when you take the last book that we would not describe this as your “choice” of books. If God loves everyone, that is an “embrace,” not a “choice.” Semantically, you could say that God “loves” all people; you would not say that God “chooses” all people. Even if we think of this divine choice or election as a burden and responsibility, it still divides the universe into “us” and “them,” “chosen” and “unchosen.” It did and continues to do that for Jews, it does that for many Christians.

Once when I was in Jerusalem I asked Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom, a former leader in Rabbis for Human Rights, how he thought of biblical texts of chosen-ness. “Well, it’s juvenile,” he said; then he corrected himself: “No, infantile. I mean, when a child is an only child, or thinks he or she is an only child, then it is OK for them to be the most wonderful baby in the world. When another comes along, maybe you can now have the most beautiful boy AND the most beautiful girl in the world. But when there are three, or more, then the kids have to grow up – all can be beloved children, but they have to get past thinking they are the favorite. The texts claiming to be God’s favorite, those are from an early developmental stage.” Trying to hang onto that is arrested theological development.

For children, learning to tell “us” from “them” has important survival value. Children need to be able to recognize friend, caregiver and protector, from foe or enemy. But in adulthood? What happens when people carry the “us” versus “them” polarity into their adult lives, and into the wider world? And what does it do if in addition they add divine sanction to treating the other as less human, with fewer rights than our tribe?

Of course, not all of the biblical writers got stuck there. There are strong voices in both the Hebrew and Greek proclaiming God’s inclusive love, God’s eagerness to embrace all people of the earth.

So part of my concern here is with how we process the diversity of voices within the canon – this collection of books that we today call “The Bible,” (singular) as if it were one book. In Greek, Ta Biblia is plural, it means “the books.” What we call “the Old Testament” (singular, again) Jews call “the Law, the Prophets and the Writings.” Names are important, how we name things carries a lot of freight. We all know that the Bible is a collection, a library, and includes a number of voices, voices often engaged in debate. I think it would help our understanding if our vocabulary gave us that picture. Instead we’ve got it all wrapped up in a leather cover.

[I have an idea for a project, you could call it a “publishing” project or maybe some student here could take it on as a class project, for credit. I would like a Bible that I would take to church in a milk-crate or a cardboard box. I would like each book of the Bible to be in a physical form somehow indicative of its literary form. Letters would be just that, letters, several sheets folded and stuffed, each in their own envelope. Some of the prophets might be leaflets like someone might hand out on a city street-corner. Some would be well laid-out with a few eye-catching graphics, others typed edge to edge with no white space, small type, and a lot of shouting caps and exclamation points. I imagine Song of Solomon might be on pink, scented stationery, with the “I”s all dotted with puffy little hearts. There might be some books printed like newspapers – I think that’s called tabloid style? Proverbs might be a stack of index cards with a rubber band around them. I know some of Paul’s writing would be doodling. I imagine the Psalms as a hymnbook, but emphatically, the books would be separate. And I would have room in my box to bring some other inspired materials to church, like maybe King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” I haven’t got this all figured out, but I think if we carried Bibles like this, it would make a big improvement in how we study and use the Bible.]

Separating the books might make it easier for us to see that some of these voices are fighting others for the right to define what it means to be “in” – in God’s family – and to say who is out. To take just one example, the book of Ruth, which tells of a woman from Moab who enters the community and becomes an important figure, directly clashes with Deut. 23:3. It also clashes with the view of the authors of Ezra and Nehemiah, whose influential leadership included ousting foreign wives from the community.

Group identity is a normal and valuable part of identity formation. But as we grow, if we start to see ourselves as part of a variety of groupings, we may see the edges of a group we earlier identified with as blurred – the term “mixed marriages,” for example, is a common, yet very revealing label. What comes to mind when you hear that term? White and Black? Jew and Gentile? Albanian and Serbian? Mennonite and Catholic? Mennonite and MB?

I am troubled by how carelessly we handle the texts of chosen-ness in the Bible. [Comparison of the words of #897, “My soul is filled with joy,” (David Haas) to Luke 1:49b-50. Note esp. “those who fear him,” changed to “the people he has chosen.” In Judaism contemporary with the Gospel writers, “god-fearers” were gentiles who chose to join synagogue worship. The text of this song inserts gratuitous chosen-ness where it is not present in the biblical passage – same problem occurs in three of the five verses. Note textual changes we sing at Benton Mennonite.]

Within the Bible there’s this debate going on over whether God has favorites. But instead of engaging the debate, Christians have mostly just appropriated the language of chosen-ness and decided (or assumed), it must mean us. Never mind where that leaves Jews; in any case, if some are chosen, then others are not.

It was at Sabeel that I encountered Michael Prior’s book, The Bible and Colonialism, where he works with three case studies, looking in each case at the devastating use made of biblical texts to justify and give theological support to colonial conquest: the European conquest of what we often now call “the Americas”; the Afrikaaner conquest of South Africa; and the establishment in the twentieth century of a Jewish state in Palestine. In all of these cases, the colonizers explicitly cast themselves in the biblical role of God’s chosen people, with a divine assignment of killing or subjugating the indigenous population as part of claiming God’s promise to them.

In the preface to the second edition of his book The Land, Walter Brueggemann credits Michael Prior with helping him to see (quote) “a shortcoming in my book [that] reflects an inadequate understanding” of his when he wrote the book, published 1977. He goes on to say that this (quote) “also reflects the status of most Old Testament studies at that time that were still innocently credulous about the theological importance of the land tradition in the Old Testament . . . as it impacted other people as a NECESSARY COST OF THE AFFIRMATION OF ISRAEL’S LAND CLAIMS.” (end-quote) Do you see what this is saying?

Brueggemann says that (quote) “Prior has most fully and explicitly considered these matters,” yet from all I can determine, no Mennonite publication has ever reviewed his book. I have found it on one bibliography of one professor at EMU. Other than that, I have never heard it mentioned by any Mennonite college or seminary prof; not that they ignorant or unaware. Perhaps it is that Prior was too quick, at least for Mennonite taste, to relativize the biblical texts of promise. Brueggemann is able to say that these texts of land promise are “not an innocent theological claim, but . . . a vigorous ideological assertion on an important political scale.” He further recognizes that the “traditions of land promise and land violence [are] twin claims that are decisive for the tradition and cannot be separated out,” but in another context I have heard Brueggemann says regarding what he calls “difficult texts,” we must “wrestle with them until they give us a blessing.” Brueggemann’s high view of scripture is surely more acceptable to most Mennonites.

Prior seems to be more willing to simply acknowledge that these scriptures are written from and for one tribe. When within the texts we find ethnocentric nationalistic ideology described as God’s will, we could simply note that people WILL do this, and these texts can join many others that we do not in fact consider authoritative for our life and practice.

Now, that phrase by itself may be provocative, but it is incontrovertible fact. Even the most passionate fundamentalists do not take all scripture as authoritative for themselves, whether or not they say so. Sometimes we explain this decision in language that borders supersession – “interpreting the Old Testament through the New Testament,” or “letting the prophets critique the Law,” or “reading the Bible through our understanding of Jesus as the fullest revelation of God.” That’s the approach taken by an article in “The Mennonite” this week. In another phrasing, pastors and Bible teachers often describe what they see as a “trajectory” through the Bible. I have heard all of these phrases in our churches and in our college classrooms, and for my purpose here I don’t want to debate them. I simply want to point out that however it is stated, it means that there is a passage there that we do not want to defend as reflecting the will of God. A trajectory, after all, goes AWAY from every point it passes. These are all particular ways of describing an interpretive decision that removes some of the authoritative weight of a specific passage of scripture.

I want us to be clear about this, because part of the problem we have in dealing with the destructive force of passages supporting violent enforcement of exclusive claims of God’s favor is a certain duplicity. We want, after all, to be “biblical.” (A seminary near my home in Elkhart County has “biblical” as its middle name.) The Anabaptist tradition is a biblical tradition if nothing else, and I don’t think that our increasing appreciation for the diversity of early Anabaptism even remotely challenges that.

I am afraid that sometimes this takes the form of a double-standard: during the week, or with people who have an understanding of dates and context of authorship, and of different literary genres, the church leader or teacher can be open about the influences and events surrounding the writers and editors of the text, but then we are afraid that with folks in the pews this commentary might be seen as faithlessness.

I think we have wanted to stop short of talking openly and honestly within the church about the implications of this diversity of voices, and what it means if we want to study with intent to get direction. Because that requires us to commit, to weigh in on the Bible’s internal debates. Failing this, we are stuck defending some really damaging racism and sexism, just because it is between leather covers. Rabbi Michael Lerner names it thus: he says that we have, in the Torah, the voice of God, and the voice of accumulated pain and hurt.

When Lerner names it that starkly, the reaction of many Christians is that this is a slippery slope. Once we acknowledge that our interpretation goes so deep as to discern that certain texts are not authoritative for us, are we making God in our own image? Is each of us then just deciding for ourselves what Bible to read, instead of being willing to be read by the Bible, to be challenged and changed by the word of God?

I believe in discerning the word in community, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And I do not think we are aided in that by an often-anachronistic and binary application of a pretty uninspired verse from 2 Timothy about inspiration. We need the spirit’s guidance in figuring out how to deal with oppressive material in the Bible, and we can’t do that if we can’t see the need. Our sacred texts were in large part forged in contexts of polarized, entrenched violent conflict. Well, what do you expect will characterize those texts? Rigid group identity, turned into dogma, with claims of divine preference, claims that God hates our enemies and wants them dead! I will forever be grateful to J. Denny Weaver from Bluffton College, who had the courage to say this during Q & A after giving a lecture at Goshen: “My wife told me not to say this because it will get me in trouble, but sin entered into the writing of scripture.”

John Paul Lederach has listed four characteristics he notes in people who are able to break out of cycles of entrenched, polarized violence. First he describes the ability to imagine relationship with, or that somehow you are connected, lives intertwined with the enemy. A second is curiosity, interest in seeing what more there might be out there to learn. Imagination, imagining new options, is third, and willingness to take risks is fourth. Lederach defines this last as taking actions where you don=t know what might happen – you are not in control.

In contrast, when intergroup conflicts take on a religious overtone, they become MORE polarized, and there is less room for compromise. If God is involved, then compromise is seen as faithlessness, perhaps apostasy. Secondly, truth is seen as finite, something that can be possessed, owned by one side, and there is no reason to hear or listen to the other.

It may be that chosen-ness is not too much of a problem within a mono-cultural society. In a multi-cultural society it will break down or cause problems. In a polarized conflict it is deadly.

It makes some sense to me that if Lederach has done a good job of identifying characteristics of people who can become peacemakers from within entrenched, polarized violent conflicts, then some of those same characteristics might be important in third-party intervention, in those of us who have the temerity to think that we can contribute something to peacemaking coming from outside. We also need to be able to imagine relationship with anyone – and I think that has to include seeing everyone as equally, fully loved by God. We need to be curious, interested in what more we can learn or what new truths may come into our lives through listening to others. I have another Lederach quote where he says that becoming a peacemaker means becoming comfortable with ambiguity. We need to be creative, imaginative, ready to try new things, and willing to take risks.

(Story: Neal Loevinger overnights with the Al Atrash family)

I probably could have stayed on safer ground today if I had just told you inspiring stories of brave CPTers doing peacemaking work in conflict zones. But you know, it is in the character and discipline of Christian Peacemaker Teams to look for trouble and head toward it, so here I am. And we cannot be peacemakers in conflicts loaded with religious baggage if we aren’t willing to confront our own religious baggage.

Comment (1)

  1. Neal Loevinger

    Hello Young Anabaptist Radicals, this is a young-middle-aged Conservative rabbi speaking- I’m the guy whose story is skipped over in the parentheses. I found this blog post through a Google alert- Rich, it’s great to hear your voice again, even only in print, as you struggle with deep and real challenges of spirituality and religious committment. My time with CPT and the Al-Atrash family was a marvelous and transformative experience, one that I am grateful for, and truthfully, I don’t disagree with much of what you’ve written here, though I think you aren’t giving Arthur Waskow’s ideas quite as much credit as they deserve.

    What I would caution against, however, is a kind of endemic problem in contemporary Jewish-Christian dialogue, especially anywhere such dialogue comes anywhere near the politics of the land of Israel. That problem is this: without meaning to, sometimes Christian critique of Israeli policies feels an awful lot like ordinary, typical Christian theological supersessionism, the kind which has been literally and figuratively “putting down” Jews (and Judiasm) for centuries.

    You know what I’m talking about: Judaism is the ancient law of the “Old Testament”, which is vengeful and tied to tribal lands and ancient custims, as opposed to the universal, loving God and Bible of the Christians.

    In NO WAY do I suggest that you, Rich, hold such views- I know you don’t. But it’s just so easy to talk about Israel- which has and creates all kinds of problems- in a way that slips into certain ways of thinking which feel all wrong to the Jews reading or hearing it. For example, quoting a book which lumps the European conquest of the Americas, the Afrikaaner regime in SA, and the Zionist enterprise of Jewish resettlement has the effect of saying to me: you Jews don’t even know or understand your own history, you don’t even realize what you were doing, and we, the nice Christians of European descent, who possess a greater truth than you can see, are going to tell you.

    Here are some facts which make the “Zionism= Colonialism” equation problematic: Jews have had a more or less continual presence in the land we call Israel for about 2000 years, and had a continual history of oppression and slaughter in the Christian and Muslim countries in which they lived- including many bad years in the USA- prior to 1947.

    Since before 1947, and right up until today, there are Muslim leaders who declare on a regular basis that every Jew should be killed- not every Israeli, but every Jew. Thus, to me, it’s impossible to see the Israel-Palestinian conflict outside the wider context of Islamic sense of “chosennes”, to use your words, which usually denies Jewish rights or realities.

    What one person calls a colonial enterprise, we call a desparate attempt to find a place where the world won’t kill us, and the only real place were that could be was the place we’d always been.

    That doesn’t make every Israeli policy right, it doesn’t justify nasty irredendist settler violence, it doesn’t mean Palestinians don’t also have rights to and in the Land, it doesn’t mean that hard compromises aren’t required on all sides, it doesn’t mean that anybody who criticizes Israel is anti-Semitic, it doesn’t mean that people of all faiths shouldn’t be calling attention to the human rights abuses which indeed happen in any situation of military occupation.

    It does mean that imagining the reality of both sides includes really learning more about the Jewish historical experience and the history of Zionism, and talking about Jews in ways that does not presume to name the Jewish historical experience from the safe haven of the American midwest. We ALL have our work to do in learning to probe the nuance of conflict, which might include not being hasty to judge complicated, long conflicts through an incomplete (note, not wrong, just incomplete) set of conceptual lenses.

    Well, this is more than I intended to write, and I’ll be happy to respond more later, but in any event, Rich, I applaud, now as always, the valuable work that CPT does.

    be well,

    Rabbi Neal Loevinger

    Reply

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>