Chosen People -- Sightings

For many Christians support for the modern state of Israel isn't just good politics, its an article of faith.  For Christian Zionists, who believe that the presence of this state fits a prophetic timeline that envisions a soon to happen rapture/Armageddon, this is a non-negotiable.  Indeed, there is no need to negotiate anything, especially borders.  Israel needs to expand its borders as far as possible so it can inhabit the biblical territories of the ancient kingdom.  Although there are Jews who agree with their erstwhile allies, not all are so eager to embrace the embrace. 

For those of us who are not Christian Zionists, who don't have a stake in the Armageddon scenarios, but who wish for peace in this region, wanting Jew and Arab (both Muslim and Christian) to dwell together in peace, how should we respond to the questions before us?

Martin Marty, in today's edition of Sightings, looks at Michael Chabon's ponderings on the issue of chosenness, placing it in a broader discussion of chosenness.  I invite you to read, consider, and respond accordingly.


Sightings 6/14/10

Chosen People
-- Martin E. Marty

The grand theological themes don’t fade or disappear from headlines or prime time. “Being chosen,” as in the case of biblical or modern Israel, is the grand theological theme today. My clippings and blog-printout file bulges with records of renewed debates over what it means to be a “chosen people,” and whether Israel today should make use of the concept. Perhaps the most widely-known recent controversy was inspired by Michael Chabon’s “Chosen, but Not Special” op-ed in The New York Times (June 6). Identified only as author of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Chabon spends no time on the biblical concept. His theme is the Yiddish word “seichel,” which, he says, means “ingenuity, creativity, subtlety, nuance.” Seichel has helped Jews as a people to survive, but Chabon thinks it has been lacking in recent highly-publicized actions by Israel.

No self-hating Jew, Chabon does say that “we Jews” are not always comfortable living with the consequences of the myth of “seichel.” Now to the point: This is “the foundational ambiguity of Judaism and Jewish identity: the idea of chosenness, of exceptionalism, of the treasure that is a curse, the blessing that is a burden…To be chosen has been, all too often in our history, to be culled.” Chabon does not mention it, but I recall a grimly humorous or humorously grim prayer by a rabbi who thanks God for having chosen Israel but then, reflecting on “the burden” that goes with this, asks God next time to choose some other people.

Plenty of other people have seen themselves as chosen. Most theologically nuanced was Abraham Lincoln’s word for Americans: “an almost chosen people.” Of course, there are no biblical roots for calling citizens of the United States a “chosen people,” nor were there for the English, from whom Americans, including many of our founders, inherited the myth. Such myths, like Lincoln’s word about the United States being “the last, best hope of earth,” can be empowering and ennobling, but they can also issue in arrogance, imperial swaggering and destruction.

Back to Israel’s issue: We non-Jews do not have to settle the debates internal to Judaism and Israel on this subject. But non-Jews such as the almost-chosen Americans do have much at stake. The Jewish paper Forward on May 21 published John C. Hagee’s “Why Christian Zionists Really Support Israel.” Evangelist Hagee was a counselor to Presidential candidate John McCain’s team for five minutes during the 2008 campaign, until the team leaders caught on to the consequences of any Hageean embrace. Hagee assures Israel that it can count on Christian Zionists, no matter what it does: “Our support for Israel starts with God’s promises in the Hebrew Bible,” which many of this school of thought translate to the idea that the United States must help assure that Israel will own all the land within some boundaries mentioned in “the Hebrew Bible.”

Non-Jews will not understand Jews who have a sense of history unless they understand how central “the Land” is in their thought. But they can chafe – as many of us confess to have done years ago – when chided for not believing that Israel’s chosenness had to be an article of Christian belief today, and that non-belief was anti-Semitism. Chabon repeated the many reasons for identifying with Israel that are political, moral, strategic and empathic. But such identifying does not need to become creedal, as it does in the world of Christian Zionists and their more moderate allies. “Get over it” is part of Chabon’s message, and then “get on with it” implies more pragmatic consequences.


Read Chabon’s piece here:

Read Hagee’s piece here:

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at


This month's Religion and Culture Web Forum features a chapter from literary critic Amy Hungerford's forthcoming volume Postmodern Belief: American Literature and Religion Since 1960 (Princeton University Press, August, 2010). In "The Literary Practice of Belief," Hungerford focuses upon two contemporary literary examples--the novels of Marilynne Robinson and the Left Behind series--in order "to engage (and revise) the current emphasis on practice over belief in our understanding of religion." With invited responses from Thomas J. Ferraro (Duke University), Amy Frykholm (The Christian Century), Constance Furey (Indiana University), Jeffrey J. Kripal (Rice University), Caleb J. D. Maskell (Princeton University), Edward Mendelson (Columbia University), Richard A. Rosengarten (University of Chicago Divinity School), and Glenn W. Shuck (Williams College).


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


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