Back in the beginning of the Christmas season, I wrote about the way the gospel Christmas narratives “roll the credits” by giving genealogical tables that link Jesus to Jewish history. In contemplating Christmas, we should never forget that the first Christmas was first and foremost a Jewish event. Mary, Joseph, the innkeeper, the shepherds, the baby: they were all Jewish. And as the baby Jesus moved toward adolescence and adulthood, it was Jewish religion, Jewish literature, Jewish culture and Jewish history that shaped his personality and his mind.
These facts are so familiar to us that it’s sometimes easy to miss the troubling questions around them. A couplet by the rather distasteful British journalist William Norman Ewer sums up what many have felt as they contemplate these circumstances:
How odd of God
To choose the Jews.
Ewer seems to have been making the kind of slyly anti-Semitic joke that was all too popular at the time, but there is a real question here — not so much about why the chosen people should be the Jews as about why there should be a chosen people at all. Why would a universal God who presumably loves all people equally choose one people with whom to have a special relationship? How does God reconcile the claims of this special relationship with those of universal justice?
For many centuries the question of the chosen people was more theological than political. But with the rise of the Zionist movement in the late 19th century, that changed. The “Jewish Question” is alive and well today in the conflict in the Middle East. There are those, Jewish and gentile, who believe that the Jews have a God-given right to all of the land of Biblical Israel. There are others, Jewish and gentile, who argue that the Palestinians have a natural claim to a land which, until the 20th century, had not had a Jewish majority since ancient times.
Does God love Jews more than Palestinians?
Count me as one of those divided souls who believe that the modern Middle East is one of those places where two rights make a wrong. That is, two thousand years of religious and political discrimination and oppression in Europe and the Middle East demonstrate beyond any doubt that the Jews are a people who need a homeland. As nationalism swept through the lands where Jews had traditionally lived, the position of Jews became increasingly intolerable. One hundred years ago the world of the multinational empires was being carved up into nation states as the German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian empires were torn in pieces. Jews needed a piece of this land in order to live; it had to be somewhere and the concrete realities of Jewish history and culture meant that only the Biblical homeland of the Jews could inspire the passion and sacrifice needed to build and defend a national home.
On the other hand, even if Newt Gingrich thinks they are an ‘invented people’, Palestinians are human beings and also have a right to a homeland — and where should their homeland be except in Palestine? And if a homeland for the Jews was to be created, why must Palestinians pay for the sins of the Germans, Russians, Yemenis, Ethiopians, Poles, Egyptians and Iraqis to make room for the world’s displaced Jews in their own tiny sliver of land?
The “Jewish Question” is just one piece of the much bigger national question that has been killing millions of people all over the world for the last couple of hundred years. The process of sorting out mixed populations into ethnically and religiously more homogenous nation states continues across the world of the Four Empires and beyond. The Balkan wars between the peoples of Yugoslavia in the 1990s were part of this process. So is the Kurdish struggle to build a homeland from Iran through Iraq, Syria and Turkey. The conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, the wars that have ripped through Georgia since 1989, and the hideous wars between the Russian government and restive nationalities in the Caucasus: these conflicts in our day are the latest episodes in the long and bloody story of nationalism that has seen more than 100 million people die.
Looking around the world today, nationalism remains a powerful and even uncontrollable force with the ability to plunge the world into new horrors as devastating as anything in the 20th century. Some of this is hidden from us by racism; in Europe people who are united by language and culture are said to be members of ‘nations’ or at least ‘ethnic groups’. In Africa they are said to be part of ‘tribes’. However in much of Africa the struggles between and among ‘tribal groups’ are flaring up irrepressibly and I fear we can expect more of this rather than less as Africa moves toward development and modernity.
In Asia we see nations great and small rising and contending with one another. It is by no means clear that Chinese nationalism will not, for example, lead to conflicts with Indian, Japanese, Vietnamese and Korean nationalism in the new century. Meanwhile smaller nationalities threaten to rip Asia’s big empires apart. Restless ethnic groups across western China want self determination. Kashmiris are restless under Indian rule. A bloody and destructive civil war in Sri Lanka, marked as so many nationalist conflicts are by vicious atrocities on both sides, has ended for now with the massive defeat of the Tamil minority. “Tribes” in Myanmar seek autonomy at least; the same is true in the Indonesian half of the mineral-rich island of New Guinea.
The bloody legacy of nationalism has not, on the whole, convinced the world’s people that national feeling is wrong. On the contrary; it is more usual to find people believing that their own particular ethnic or cultural unit has a unique and vital role to play in the unfolding destiny of the world. It is not just the Jews who have seen their nation as ‘chosen’. American presidents from George Washington to Barack Obama have often spoken about a unique American role in God’s plans for the world. From Joan of Arc to Charles De Gaulle and beyond, French nationalists (religious and secular) have believed in France’s unique global destiny. Russians and Poles have seen themselves each as the suffering Christ among nations, whose struggles help to redeem mankind. Many Arabs see the role of the Arab people as unique in a similar way; in what language after all was the Quran revealed?
It’s a puzzle. Human beings need roots and those roots shape them; at the same time human beings have values (like freedom and democracy) and ideas (like the Pythagorean theorem and the laws of thermodynamics) that demand to be recognized as universal. We seem perpetually torn between ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘local’ values: universal ideas and the customs of the country.
The problem is not just connected to nationalism. There is always a question of loyalty to the small, intimate grouping versus the wider one: the individual’s quest for autonomy and freedom versus duty to ones family; the conflict between duty toward ones family and duty toward a wider society; the conflict between ones own region or state and the wider national community; the conflict between ones nation and its neighbors; the conflict between ones own civilization or religion and its rivals or neighbors — and so on. It is difficult for individuals and impossible for groups to get this balance right.
On the one hand, people can put local and personal interests and values ahead of the general good. In much of the world, corruption — the appropriation of government resources and power for private purposes — is endemic. People put the welfare of their families ahead of the larger social good. At the extreme, the well being of the group is elevated to the highest good of all: national and racial egotism gone psychotic was the root sin of Nazism. The moral and physical ruin that resulted still makes the question of nationalism a painful one in Germany today; Hitler’s insane and distorted nationalism discredited the normal and inescapable feeling of collective identity and loyalty that seems indispensable to the effective functioning of a civil community.
In Europe and many other parts of the world today, many intelligent people look back not just on the horror of Nazism but on the whole bloody history of nationalism. They look at the pogroms, incidents of ethnic cleansing, intensely murderous rivalries between ethnic nation states competing over the same pieces of ground; then they look at the increasing need for a globally integrated economy to have global standards and global institutions. They hope to build a transnational or post-national society that rests on universal principles and global institutions more than on the customs and claims of the world’s many peoples.
Again, count me among the ditherers. It is self evidently true that our global economy and the many interests the world’s countries have in common demands more complex forms of international cooperation than ever before. And the more I travel and read, the more I learn about the destructive passions that simmer just below the surface of even the most ‘civilized’ national communities.
But I don’t think the world is going to learn Esperanto anytime soon. That is, the pull of national and religious identity is too strong to be ignored — and the pull of cosmopolitan civilization and universal institutions is ultimately too weak to call forth the kind of economic and political solidarity that some kind of world government would need. Germans don’t want to pay the bill for early-retiring Greeks in the EU; they have even less solidarity with Uganda and Laos.
We are stuck with nationalism and other irrational but deeply held identities and values; we must learn to work through them rather than against them.
The question of the particular and the universal is deeply embedded in Christian history and the Christmas story. Christmas is, above all, the feast of the incarnation. Incarnation is the idea that God became man (from the Latin word for ‘flesh’ as in ‘carnivore’ and ‘carnal’); if the universal God was going to become a human being, he needed to become one person in particular. Human beings aren’t blank slates; as we grow to adulthood we are shaped by the culture that surrounds us. For God to be a man, he had to have this experience as well.
God’s choice was to ground his Son in the history and tradition of the Jews, a people whose history and literature reflected by that time centuries of struggle with the demands of monotheistic, Abrahamic religion. This was not, Christians believe, out of any idea that the Jews were better than other people or the only people in whom God took an interest. (Indeed, the Biblical record is largely a record of God’s disappointment with the all too human failings of the people he chose.)
Although Christians and Jews disagree about many things, they agree that God’s special relationship with Israel was always intended to be bigger than Israel. From a Christian perspective, part of this larger role for the Jewish people is fulfilled through the life and work of Jesus. It was from Judaism and the Jews that Jesus learned who he was and what he had come to do. The long struggle of the Jewish people to understand who this God was who had called them, a struggle that continues long after Jesus and has its own dynamic and features quite independent of Christian thought, helped create a culture that shaped not only Jesus himself, but the band of close associates who took his message to the world.
God’s choice of one people was a necessary part of his love for all. If God intended to rescue everyone, to bring the fullness of both his love and his justice to bear on the human condition, God would have to become someone; this someone would have to be somebody from somewhere, speaking some languages and not others. The person would have a family and friends, would speak some particular language and work with a particular set of ideas. Saving all meant choosing some.
Without those deep roots in Jewish life, there could be no Christian faith; yet the first thing the young church had to do was to spread beyond its Jewish origins, encountering not only the Greco-Roman world of the Mediterranean basin, but the ancient cultures of Iran, the Arab world, Ethiopia, Armenia and beyond. At a very early stage, the written records of the Mediterranean church migrated from Aramaic (the language spoken by Jesus and the Jews of his time) to Greek, the most common language of the eastern Mediterranean world. All or part of the Bible today has been translated into literally thousands of languages, and people from all of the world’s major (and most of its minor) language and culture groups pray to the God of Israel, acknowledge a Jewish savior, and turn their thoughts to Bethlehem at this holy time of year.
But even as the church looks to Bethlehem, it looks beyond. The liturgical calendar (the church calendar used, with some variations and differences by Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans and Methodists among others) makes sure we don’t forget the universal mission of the church as we celebrate Christmas. December 26 in the western churches commemorates the death of St. Stephen, one of the first Greek-speaking Christians who was also the first person to be killed because he believed in Jesus.
In the English speaking world, the “feast of Stephen” is known mostly because of its connection with the “Good King Wenceslaus” carol; it was “on the feast of Stephen” that Good King Wenceslaus looked out and saw that the snow lay “deep and crisp and even.” The multiculturalism goes on; Wenceslaus is the patron saint of the Czech Republic. For thousands of years the Catholic and Orthodox churches have worked to find and celebrate ‘national’ saints and festivals that will help the people of each country and region find something of their own in the Christian faith.
The imagery of the Christian faith similarly changes around the world to reflect local traditions and tastes. In Cuzco Peru there is a painting showing Jesus and his disciples at the Last Supper; the main dish is the local favorite of roast guinea pig. Christianity has generally tried to ‘incarnate’ itself in the world’s different cultures and traditions, using familiar language and ideas wherever possible. This can be controversial. In the famous ‘Chinese rites’ case, St. Francis Xavier’s attempt to allow Chinese Christians to continue observing certain traditional Chinese rites commemorating their ancestors was condemned by Pope Clement IX in 1715. At other times, it’s non-Christians who object. In Malaysia, a Catholic newspaper won a court case allowing it to use the world ‘Allah’ to describe the Christian God in its pages against the objections of some Islamic clerics who feared this use of a familiar Islamic term could aid Christian efforts at proselytization. (In Malaysia, it is against the law to attempt to persuade Muslims to change their religion.)
Ewer’s nasty couplet set off a flurry of debate and response. “How odd of God/to choose the Jews?” ran one. “It’s not so odd; the Jews chose God!” The authorship of my favorite response is disputed; it’s been attributed to Ogden Nash.
It’s not so odd
As those who choose
A Jewish God
And spurn the Jews.
The record of Christian anti-Semitism should not be forgotten, especially at Christmas. How many Jewish families over the millennia have been driven from their homes by mob violence or by royal decree? How many Christian Herods have issued edicts to persecute the nation whose faith and whose culture gave Christianity its scriptures and its savior?
The Christian understanding of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity has changed several times over the last two thousand years. For many centuries the dominant view was that the Church was the New Israel, and that once the Jews had rejected Jesus’ claim to be Messiah, they dropped out of God’s plan. They had a duty to repent and believe in Jesus, but otherwise, God was done with them.
For the last four hundred years, more and more Christians have come to the view that the Jewish people still have a special role in God’s plan (though there is a lot of disagreement about what that role entails). At the same time, a growing awareness of the developments in Judaism since the time of Christ and a deepening understanding of the theological importance of the Old Testament in Christian history have made Christians more aware of the debt that their faith owes to the oldest of the Abrahamic religions, even as the Holocaust unforgettably revealed the unspeakable evils to which anti-Semitism leads. As a result, although sore points remain, Christian-Jewish relations are probably better today than at any time since the first century of the Christian era and it seems likely that future generations of Christians will continue trying to atone for the past and building better and more respectful relations between Christians and Jews.
Interestingly, the twentieth century saw more than the beginnings of a new Christian understanding of Jewish history and culture. It also witnessed the extraordinary rise of locally-based and locally-led churches in ‘mission territory’ around the world. In China, sub-Saharan Africa, south and south-eastern Asia, the twentieth century (and especially its last half) saw not only the greatest numbers of conversions to Christianity in world history; it witnessed an unprecedented flowering of locally based leadership developing forms of worship and organization that adapted the old faith to new cultural milieus as never before.
Where all this is leading one does not know; in Europe, its traditional heartland, Christianity sometimes appears to be on its last legs even as it flourishes in parts of the world where it was almost unknown just a century ago. Just as Europe’s political domination of the world ended in the twentieth century, its cultural dominance in world Christianity has faded away. A little more than two thousand years after the first Christmas, Christianity is both more universal and ‘cosmopolitan’ than ever, and more deeply rooted in more cultures than ever before in its past.
To Christians, the changes and renewals sweeping over the Christian world mean that the Christmas event isn’t over yet. The mysteries of Christmas and the Incarnation continue to unfold before our eyes. The world’s cultures are being transformed by their encounters with that mysterious Jewish rabbi and the universal message he carried, but while people all over the world turn to one Lord, they turn to him in hundreds and thousands of tongues and traditions.
The Christmas story doesn’t tell us how to reconcile the virtues and the vices of universal cosmopolitanism and local loyalty. But it suggests that we can somehow try to be true to both ideals: to be loyal members of our nations, our families, our tribes — and also to reach out to the broader human community of which we are also a part. One baby in one manger, from one family and culture, but bearing a message that would reach the whole world in the fulness of time. That is, Christians think, how God arranged things.
And if some Christians today eat guinea pig, others turkey, and others dim sum as they celebrate the birth of the child, that is pretty much how it is supposed to be.