Being chosen is a wonderful thing. The surprising hit show The Chosen films the feeling wonderfully, most of the time. Everyone who finds themselves chosen by God — including Jesus appreciating his own self-awareness, is thrilled with the pleasant absurdity of being noticed, appreciated and singled out. There is a lot of “why me?” voiced, both in joy and suffering. We see that being chosen is an experience, a relational reality, an undeserved grace, love.
When I think about the delight of being chosen I usually go back to having a higher-than-expected rank, at times, when I was picked for a team at recess. Or I remember the evening I asked a young woman at the jr. high cotillion dance (yes, I did that) to be my partner when she did not feel like she was someone who would be asked. She was surprisingly pleased.
The “chosen people” in the Bible are having the same experience, as far as I can tell. Sarah is chosen to give birth as an old woman and laughs out loud. Her grandson, Jacob is blessed as the second son and is shocked his elder brother does not try to kill him. Jacob’s son, Joseph, is elevated from an Egyptian prison to the highest ranks of government. Moses is called to lead even though he is a stuttering felon. Gideon is told to make a point by collecting a weaker army which can only succeed by relying on God. David is called from the forgotten outskirts to be king and repeatedly restored from utter failure. Then, of course, there is Jesus, the Chosen One, born in a manger in the Roman Empire backwater Israel still is at the time.
The perversion of being chosen
Then there are the people who apparently missed the main teaching. They are proud of being chosen and do not intend to let anyone take that mark of their value away from them. Jesus tells the Pharisees who are restoring and beefing up their identity as Abraham’s offspring:
“Produce good fruits as evidence of your repentance; and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones” (Luke 3:8).
After Emperor Constantine co-opts the Church in the 300’s, Jesus followers generally stopped accepting the main teaching and started living in palaces instead of prisons. After Constantine, being a “chosen one” becomes a badge of privilege and entitlement instead of an experience of surprise and undeserved endowment. By the time Europeans divide us all into nationalities and identities, everyone can have a little sense of being chosen over someone else.
Americans, especially the Evangelical portion, have mostly assumed the privileges and responsibilities of being the chosen people. Even Barack Obama made a point to reaffirm the idea the United States deserves its special place in the world. He, like the rest of us, was taught the U.S., like Israel was given Canaan, was given North America. (Thus we have towns named New Canaan, CT). The myth is, CRT notwithstanding, we kept becoming more deserving of our special place in the world. After WW2 we were chosen to lead the free world. (As if the country had not always had such designs– Thomas Jefferson famously called it an “empire of liberty”). The idea is, the U.S. is chosen to give the world a choice, unfettered by tyrants and tradition. Obama said in his famous “A More Perfect Union” speech,
“I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being. But what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law, it is our willingness to affirm them by our actions.“
He wanted a new kind of exceptionalism, but he did not doubt he is one of the chosen people.
When Biden spoke to the country last week about Israel and Ukraine he asked,
What would happen if we walked away? We are the essential nation… And as I walked through Kyiv with President Zelensky, with air raid sirens sounding in the distance, I felt something I’ve always believed more strongly than ever before: America is a beacon to the world, still, still.
We are, as my friend Madeleine Albright said, the indispensable nation.
The dangers of protecting one’s choseness
Ronald Reagan, of course, was much more directly religious than Obama or Biden about it. He was always quoting John Winthrop calling Massachusetts a “city on a hill” (as in “the light of the world” in Matt. 5:14). He said it again it in his farewell address (here lovingly augmented with background music by the Reagan Library).
At the same time Reagan was preaching, some Christians were writing books about how proud they were to be part of the chosen American people. When my wife took over directing a bookstore in an Assemblies of God church during the Reagan years, she came upon a big display of The Light and the Glory by Peter Marshall Jr., son of the famous Senate Chaplain, Peter Marshall, and the famous author Catherine Marshall. It is arguably the most popular Christian interpretation of U. S. history ever written.
If you are looking for a starting point that ends in the Trump cult, peopled greatly by Evangelicals, this engaging book could be it. In the intro, Marshall and his co-author David Manuel summarize their thesis with this rhetorical question:
“Could it be that we Americans, as a people were meant to be a ‘light to lighten the Gentiles’ (Luke 2:32)—a demonstration to the world of how God intended His children to live together under the Lordship of Christ? Was our vast divergence from this blueprint, after such a promising beginning, the reason why we now seem to be heading into a new dark age?”
Their answer is “Yes!” And they proceed to make an historical argument that the U. S. came into being as a Christian nation; it had a special calling from God to be a light to the world, and had fallen away from God, forgetting the Lord’s “definite and extremely demanding plan for America.”
These thoughts have been developing since then. When Catholic, Supreme Court “originalists” ask “What would the Founders do?” it becomes a proxy for “What would Jesus do?” Pastors all over the country impute this kind of moral authority where God has not granted it. That is idolatry. But idolatry or not, many people thought they were taking back the country for God on January 6. I suspect some Representatives think breaking the House is a small price to pray for returning America to its “calling.”
Biden and Netanyahu: a meeting of the chosen peoples
Equating the state of Israel and the United States with the Bible’s description of the “chosen people” is not only heretical, it is dangerous.
Nevertheless, the idea is laced into the country’s thinking and maybe yours. Dallas Jenkins, the writer and the director ot The Chosen says, when it came time to give the show a title, he decided on the name because of the term “Chosen One” is used when referring to Christ.
“We look at and use the term for Christ as the ‘Chosen One. ‘ So, it refers to Christ in many ways. The Jews are God’s chosen people. Even as an Evangelical, I believe that. And the people that Christ chose to follow Him and be on his team – as we like to say – it’s a little bit of a nod to that.”
What if you take that farther and apply Israel’s Old Testament, land-based assumptions to preserving a Christian nation-state?
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations. (Isaiah 42:1)
For many Evangelicals, the U.S. is Israel 2.0. The countries are team mates making sure history turns out right.
The state of Israel translates its choseness as a right to exist, which Hamas decries. Radically religious Israeli settlers are willing to risk their lives to secure Abraham’s patrimony. The mostly-secular states of the U.S. and Israel are absolutely committed to securing the safety of the Jewish state, even though it has a diverse population that includes Palestinian Christians, both in Israel, and the occupied West Bank and Gaza.
The religion involved in all this political turmoil is ancient and complex. But the sense of chosenness is clear. Biden promoted his “arsenal of democracy” as an expression of the obligation of being chosen in his speech. He spoke of the “iron dome” protecting Israel as if it were sacred.
Reclaim being chosen
Psychologically and spiritually, we need help to be sure we are chosen, which always needs to be metered by our desire for the Chooser. Like with sex, we can settle for pleasure and never make the vulnerable connection of love. Being chosen can stay dangerously superficial, attached to whoever has enough power to protect their special status. But that quest for power never satisfies our desire to feel chosen, which requires an ongoing experience of mutuality. We wake up every day wondering if we are wanted, together, and safe. Against our best interests, we might defend our chosenness against anything that threatens our status, but that usually leaves us alone behind our defenses, insecure about being chosen.
The powers that have corrupted God’s gift of being chosen cause us great misery. I keep pondering the irony of the “great Christian nation” firmly supporting Israel’s recent bombs on the Christians of Palestine. The dissonance flabbergasts a doctor at the only Christian hospital in Gaza, which provided shelter to people until it proved unsafe. [Link in case the embed does not show up]
In the aftermath of the devastating airstrike on Gaza's al-Ahli al-Arab Hospital, a doctor on the ground describes the horror, stating, "This is really a genocide."
Reports suggest hundreds are dead, with as many as 5,000 having sought refuge in the hospital prior to the strike. pic.twitter.com/5lXC98zn1X
— Middle East Eye (@MiddleEastEye) October 17, 2023
In the middle of the power struggles of the world the upstart, crowd-funded TV series The Chosen reasserts what it means to be chosen over and over. It is an obscure, overtly Christian show that doesn’t deserve to get made or be popular itself! But there it is. When it depicts Matthew chosen by Jesus to become his disciple (in the following clip), it gives me hope that many, if not most, Christians understand the Bible and feel the truth about being chosen in their very bones.