Chosen People

I’m teaching the undergraduate Introduction to Religion course at Carnegie Mellon University this semester, where we’re looking at a number of traditions—Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim—and reflecting on the kinds of issues raised by religion in general. When we came to Judaism, one thoughtful student from another country asked about the idea of a “chosen people.”

The Hebrew Bible focuses on the Jewish people as chosen to live in a special covenant with God, but the student wanted to know whether this means that God loves Jews more than everyone else, or that Jews are somehow superior to other people? I had a rabbi friend as a guest in the next class session, and the rabbi explained that the idea of being chosen means neither of those things. God loves all people, and Jews are not superior to anyone else, he said. It’s simply that God has chosen to work through the Jewish people in a particular way, and God’s gracious dealings with them point to the grace and goodness of God that are available in principle to all people.

The student was relieved, along with many of his classmates, not because anyone in the class believed for a moment that God loves the Jewish people above all others, but because if the answer had been yes—God loves one people more because they are inherently superior—it would have further undermined the credibility of religion in general. Any bright college student can see how claims of chosennness are more likely to reflect the collective egoism of a particular nation or religion than a genuine preference in the heart of God.

Abraham Lincoln famously referred to the United States as an “almost chosen” people. The evocative ambiguity of Lincoln’s phrase points to the perennial tendency of Americans to think of ourselves as uniquely favored by God, if not exactly God’s favorite people; though more than a few have suggested that America is great because America is good, and God is impressed.

This line of thinking is dangerous, for lots of reasons. The combination of great power and a superior attitude can lead people to act in ways that are unhelpful or even harmful to others, which in turn can generate a backlash that makes things worse for everyone. The Bible warns against this sort of attitude repeatedly, and Jesus himself tells a little parable about a man who goes up to the temple and prays, “O Lord, I thank you that I am not like other people.” That man was not the hero of Jesus’ story.

One short summary of God’s will for people, as individuals and as a nation, is found in the Old Testament prophet Micah: “God has shown you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?” That’s the sort of thing God expects from all people, whether they think of themselves as chosen or not.

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