Setting our Stories Straight: A Chosen People

In the most recent post in this series interrogating and dismantling the bad theology used to justify European colonization, I looked at the Doctrine of Discovery, which was a profound failure of the Church’s understanding of what it means to be human, declaring that non-Christians were “enemies of Christ” and their lands were “no one’s land” and therefore free for European ‘Christian’ powers to ‘discover’ and claim as their own. But the Europeans didn’t only carry with them a faulty understanding of who the nations of the world were. They also brought a faulty, inflated, understanding of who they were. They understood themselves to be God’s chosen people, and on this basis to have rights and advantages that others did not. This is the theological narrative I’ll be exploring today.

While the doctrine of chosenness, or ‘election’, is like the Doctrine of Discovery in its lasting negative consequences for the world, it is different in that, where the Doctrine of Discovery had absolutely no basis in Christian theology, election is a legitimate Christian doctrine. What we have in this case is not a false doctrine that entered Christianity from the outside, but a false understanding of an internal doctrine. Therefore this post will have to spend less time on the outer historical context, and more on the internal Christian witness.

But first, what was the doctrine of Christian election, and how did it manifest itself in European expansionism?

The idea of chosenness is a very old one in our tradition. God chose Abraham, and Isaac and Jacob after him, to be the father of a chosen people. God later rescued this chosen people from slavery in Egypt, gave them a Law establishing a unique marriage-like relationship between them and God, and gave them a Promised Land to call home. For Christians, Israel’s election finds its fullest expression in the person of Jesus. At his baptism, a voice from heaven declares, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well-pleased,” echoing language previously used for Israel (Matthew 3.17); and at the Transfiguration, the heavenly voice similarly proclaims, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’” (Luke 9.35). Subsequently, after the resurrection, Jesus’ followers too become God’s elect. And so the First Epistle of Peter refers to Christians as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (2.9). Similarly, Colossians calls them “God’s chosen ones” (3.2), and in 2 Thessalonians, Paul writes, “God chose you as the first fruits for salvation” (2.13). The early Christians understood themselves therefore to have become a part of Israel’s spiritual legacy. This is perhaps most vividly portrayed in Paul’s image of wild branches being grafted onto a healthy vine (Romans 11.17-19).

While we tend to think of the idea of election as being about exclusivity, it’s important to note that this original framing was a way of opening up the doors of who is chosen (who is in, who belongs) to, potentially, everyone. Instead of God’s chosen people being a literal people — a nation, a bloodline, a culture — now it is about common participation in the resurrected life of Jesus, and therefore open to anyone, from any ‘tongue and tribe and nation.’ This was all well and good as long as the Christians were a scattered, powerless, and persecuted group within the Roman Empire. It doesn’t seem that any problem arose with the doctrine until the fourth century, when Christianity became a favoured, and then official, religion of the Empire. For those Christian leaders close to the throne (and, naturally, it was those with the fewest qualms about linking Christianity to earthly power that were closest to the rulers), it proved very easy and convenient to equate God’s election of Israel as a political body in the old order with God’s election of Christians as a political body in the new. This gave divine sanction not only to authority of the Christian rulers, but to the existence of the Christian Empire itself.

I’ll explore this idea of the Christian Empire in the next post, but for now what’s important is that instead of being just one state among many in the world, the Empire suddenly saw itself as a manifestation of the Kingdom of God on Earth. The Christians were chosen, special, uniquely gifted by God, and their enemies were now God’s enemies. Because of the isolation of Western Europe from the rest of the Christian world beginning in the fourth century and culminating with the Arab conquests starting in the seventh century, ‘Christian’ election was often conflated in the European imagination with ‘European’ election. And, when they encountered the peoples of the world in the era of European exploration, ‘European’ became largely identical with ‘white.’ This was the self-understanding that fed into the Doctrine of Discovery. The (light-skinned, European) Christians saw themselves as having a special place in God’s plans for the world.

This common European sensibility was most profoundly and self-consciously expressed in what is now the United States. The famed ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ were Puritans, and Puritans were Calvinists, and it is in Calvinism more than any other Christian tradition that the idea of election has had the greatest impact. Election is in fact a core doctrine of Calvinist Christianity. And so it is no surprise that we see this doctrine operating in full force from the very earliest days of Puritan settlement. In 1630, John Winthrop, the leader of the second group of colonists, preached that the colonists were like the Israelites on the cusp of entering the Promised Land: like them, their colony would show to all the world that they were uniquely God’s people, uniquely favoured and blessed by God. This intentional conflation of the colonists — and later the United States itself — with ancient Israel would have lasting consequences. For the Promised Land, like the Americas, was not uninhabited. In the Bible, the Israelites’ election by God comes with a command to take the land by force. It is not hard to see where this association would lead.

To frame it another way, it is clear from the Bible that killing and theft are wrong. In order to justify the killing and stealing the lands of Indigenous peoples, the European settlers a needed a bold narrative explaining why such laws did not apply to them in this situation. The conflation of their story with biblical Israel provided just such a narrative. As Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah summarize the American understanding:

The American colonies and later the nation of the United States would see their presence in North America as a God-blessed, even a God-ordained event. Over the next several centuries, this thinking matured into an understanding that not only was this new nation to be a city on a hill, but it also had a divine mandate to conquer, occupy, and rule this land from ‘sea to shining sea.’ (Unsettling Truths)

This Puritan self-understanding as God’s elect evolved into the doctrine of Manifest Destiny — the belief that the United States was destined by God to cover the whole American continent. Still later, as Randy Woodley points out, it evolved into the American Dream itself:

America has created a theological narrative based on freedom, equality, opportunity, and fairness. The imagined values even spin a narrative that props up an idea that America is the place where the divine story uniquely comes together and unfolds as divine providence. Together, these serve as a social location of the American Dream. (Shalom and the Community of Creation)

To this day, the United States believes itself to be exceptional, a chosen place and a chosen people.

While American history provides the clearest example of Christian election at work in the colonizing experience, it has also played a significant role in Canadian history. We see it especially in the paternalistic, ‘white man’s burden’, attitudes that have governed the colonists’, the Crown’s, and the Canadian government’s policies towards Indigenous peoples.

In European colonial contexts, Christianity — not as the Gospel, but, thanks to the myth of Christendom, conflated with European civilization — was seen as the hallmark of human achievement. To be civilized, to be educated, to be saved was to project the trappings of European culture. A Congolese theology professor once referred to this as “‘Get Pants on that Man’ Evangelism.” Whiteness was next to godliness. Assimilation into white culture, or failing that (since dark-skinned people could not ‘pass’ as white), mimicry of it, was the only option presented to Indigenous peoples.

But, all this was built on a fundamental misunderstanding of what Christian election meant and means.

The basic theological flaw of this understanding of Christian election (to say nothing of the moral and ethical disasters it created!) was its assumption that Christians were chosen and called in the same way, for the same purposes, and on the same grounds as Israel. To put it simply, Israel’s covenant with God was a land covenant: They were given land and a law to govern their life in it. The blessings of that covenant were tied to material life in that land: security, fertility, and wealth. Such ideas, however, are completely foreign to the covenant with God initiated in and by Jesus. For Christians there is no land covenant. There are no promises about land or governance, about security, wealth, or fertility. In fact, quite the opposite. In the Christian covenant, which Jesus called the Kingdom of God, blessing looks like poverty of spirit, peacemaking, and grief over what needs to be grieved. It is not a covenant of land, but a covenant of Shalom, peace, fullness, relationship. Its mission is not about possessing and filling a land, but about healing broken relationships. Furthermore, the very purpose of the idea of ‘being chosen’ is to remind us that all of this is only by God’s grace: We have not earned our place in this Kingdom because there is anything special or notable about us. It is grace from start to finish.

One could argue that even this self-understanding of ‘chosenness’ could also be problematic and lead to the patronizing ways European Christians interacted with Indigenous peoples throughout the world. And so, if we’re doing to do this properly, we also need to interrogate the idea of ‘chosenness’ itself. Simply put, does ‘chosen’ equal ‘superior to’? What do the Scriptures have to say about those who are not ‘chosen’?

On this, in all honesty, the Scriptures are a mixed bag. On the one hand, they tell us that God commanded a genocide of the Canaanites (see the whole and horrifying book of Judges), and that God “hated Esau” (Malachi 1.3). But on the other hand, there are hints that the story is far more complicated than that. God chose Abraham, but Abraham lived peacefully among the Canaanites, who continued to prosper (and who, even when the Israelites returned in full force, were not in fact eliminated). God chose Isaac over Ishmael, but Ishmael is granted his own covenant with God: he too would be the father of many nations. Even Esau, whom God purportedly “hated” is shown as having every wealth and success an Ancient Near Eastern pastoral nomad could want. The story of Jonah shows God caring enough for Israel’s enemy Nineveh to send that city a prophet so they might repent. And in what is one of the most wonderful, if overlooked, prophetic oracles, God tells Israel, through the prophet Amos:

Are you not like the Ethiopians to me,
O people of Israel? says the LORD.
Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt,
and the Philistines from Caphtor
and the Arameans from Kir? (Amos 9.7)

Israel may be God’s chosen people, but that does not mean the other nations of the world — even their enemies — are outside of God’s loving providence. In fact, this oracle (somewhat snidely) implies that the Philistines, who arrived in the Promised Land after they did, have the same right to be there as the Israelites do!

These stories and texts suggest that, even under the ‘closed’ covenant with Israel, ‘chosen’ does not mean ‘superior to’. Not being the protagonist of the main plot of God’s story does not mean that they don’t have their own important plotlines in that story. In the New Testament, as we saw in the last post, there is no such thing as a ‘Godless’ people, for God is “not far from each one of us” and in God “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17.27f). And Jesus himself chastised his disciples for trying to stop someone from healing, saying: “Whoever is not against us is for us.  For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward” (Mark 9.40f). Elsewhere, he says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10.16).

And of course, as Christians, everything we do should be soaked in the humility of the Beatitudes and in the wisdom of the Golden Rule: to treat others as we would like to be treated — and that no doubt includes being consulted about what if any ‘help’ is wanted.

To summarize all of this:

  1. To be ‘chosen’ is about humility and the grace of God; to be ‘chosen’ does not equate to ‘better than’.
  2. In our stories, God’s generosity and blessing is shown to be with those ‘not chosen’ as much as with those ‘chosen’, just in a different way. There are no Godless peoples.
  3. Christianity has no land covenant; there is no ‘Christian Promised Land’ or Christian exceptionalism. Instead, Christians are ‘chosen’ for life in the Kingdom of God, whose ways are about Shalom — whole and healthy relationships.

This paints a very different picture of Christian election from the one that was manifested in European colonialism and which continues to influence attitudes and policies to this day. It was a distorted vision of election that was rooted in the myth of the Christian Empire — Christendom — to which we will turn in the next post.

For works referenced and further reading, please see the series bibliography and reading list.

4 thoughts on “Setting our Stories Straight: A Chosen People

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