Updated: Aug 30, 2021
-Races, Religions, Nationalities and Genders
Written for all people, non-religious included, this Post is Biblical, offering a framework for dialogue with Jews and Christians regarding inclusiveness. Awareness of a Biblical foundation for inclusive social justice outreach can quicken release of compassion from synagogues and churches. Moving beyond religious support for exclusivism is also important for secularly oriented citizens to understand how American nationalistic traditions and biases have been shaped by religion.
Dialogue supported by a Biblical framework is an important tool for overcoming communication barriers that have created political-cultural divisions walling off many evangelicals from political conversation with others.
Target Constructive Dialogue toward Inclusiveness Rather Than Discussions of Creedal Ideologies
Religion can be a force for peace or war, foster outreach of love or of hate. Creedal beliefs about the nature of God, the nature of people, the nature of salvation or the pathway to get there do not make the critical difference as to whether religion is a force for compassion toward non-members or for negativity. Creedal differences can be respected or fought over, depending upon whether people believe their beliefs are exclusively the best or alternatively live with openness to others with a sense of inclusive equality.
When exclusiveness dominates, religious groups are susceptible to religious Supremacism and a belief that their religion is better than those of others; conducive to the belief that they themselves are better, often implicitly justifying military, social or economic domination. Sectors within Judaism and Christianity have been either exclusive or inclusive in their orientation. Such attitudes have precipitated both war and peace.
Perspectives on the Interpretation of Scripture
Biblical scholars determine authorship by vocabulary, style, and by content references to the chronology of external events. Most Hebrew Bible Books and New Testament Books have several primary authors. Various Books of the Bible have been rewritten and reassembled under different historical circumstances. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Bible contains both divergent and convergent themes. The practice of proof texting, taking one verse and advocating it as the Biblical position is non-respectful of Biblical writing.
An additional problem that is seldom mentioned in scriptural interpretation is what the Hebrew Bible and New Testament refer to as “Principalities and Powers,” that can obstruct or distort Sacred visioning and communication. (Sometimes this phrase is translated as “Rulers and Authorities” or in similar language.) The context of the phrase usually makes clear that the references are to spiritual energy that goes beyond the physical manifestations of rulers. Principalities and Powers are the invisible, spiritual, persistent, identity vibes of cultural/socio-political institutions. Their energies are constituted by constituents and followers, coalescing to emanate what I call, “energy fields.” Known by their impact on behavior and thought, these energy fields emanate from national governments, cities, agencies, corporations, sports teams, etc. that give each an identifiable footprint of “spirit” through time. It is best for understanding and coping, if these influencing-energies are not literally personified as angels and devils. They accompany social institutions and other collective entities but are semi-autonomous from rulers, elected officials and other physical manifestations of institutional entities.
The apostle Paul of the New Testament, wrote to the Ephesians, a letter that was probably delivered to other congregations as well, it included this admonition,
“…our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the Principalities and Powers, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
[Meta--Post comment – if you’re having difficulty understanding the concept of Principalities and Powers, it is important, nevertheless, that you stick with me. You know gravity as an invisible energy that we know by its impact, so this criterion is not new to you. And, in terms of importance, most massacres, genocides, the Holocaust and ideologically motivated executions are influenced by Principalities and Powers gone awry. We need to know how to understand them, engage them, and be alert to how they might be influencing us and political factions within the United States.]
Key to this discussion of scriptural interpretation, is the way in which energies emanating from the institutions of the day, bias thoughts which originate in their context. Imagine that when a writer of Scripture is meditating and doing their best to understand what God is saying or what the Sacred means as a context for living that bias from Principalities and Powers enters in. Prayerful communication with God, a.k.a., the Sacred is not simply a two-way communication, it is a three-way conversation. The prophet, the scribe, the fasting devotee do not have a private line with the Sacred. It is a party line, a line with multiple voices, some of which are from invisible energies, emanating from the institutions of the day, constituted by many voices who have invested their often-selfish interest in those institutions.
Surprised by the concept of Principalities and Powers influencing Scripture interpretation? Biblical stories support this interpretive challenge. The Book of Daniel, In Chapter 10, provides a Biblical example in which such unseen forces, “Principalities and Powers,” have distorted Daniel’s prayerful experience. Biblical scholar, Walter Wink has highlighted this example; the following description is indebted to him.[i]
Daniel represents Israel in its struggle against all attempts to destroy its fidelity to Yahweh, loyalty that had faltered during the Babylonian exile. Amidst the captivity and exile of Israel in Persia, three years before this story takes place, the Persian king Cyrus, who had conquered Babylonia, freed the Jews from captivity and offered to rebuild their temple at royal expense. Yet few Jews had responded by returning home.
When the story opens, Daniel is in such deep mourning for his wayward people that he cannot eat. After twenty-one days of fasting and prayer, an angel comes. “Daniel don’t be afraid,” the angel says. “God has heard your prayers ever since the first day you decided to humble yourself to gain understanding. I have come in answer to your prayers”
Strange? A mystery? Why was the angel twenty-one days in arriving when the prayer was heard on the very first day that Daniel prayed? Because, the angel continues, “the angel prince of the kingdom of Persia opposed me for twenty-one days.” (The Persian angel is a personification of the Persian state’s invisible energies, that despite Cyrus, wants to keep the talented Israelites in captivity for service to their state.) The messenger angel to Daniel could not even have managed to get through to Daniel at all, except that “Michael, one of the chief angels, came to help me, because I had been left there alone” to contend with the angel of Persia. Now, while Michael occupies the angel of Persia, the messenger angel has slipped through and is able to deliver to Daniel a vision of the future for exiled Israel. That mission completed, “Now I have to go back and fight the guardian angel of Persia. After that the guardian angel of Greece will appear. There is no one to help me except Michael, Israel’s guardian angel.
In this dramatic portrayal of conflicting state energy fields, the angel of Persia can block God’s messenger from answering Daniel’s prayer! For twenty-one days Daniel contends with an invisible war among the institutions of nations each with divergent purposes, one to keep the Israelites in captivity to serve Persia; the other, to liberate them in fidelity to Yahweh.
The lessons of Daniel’s experience are immense for understanding the construction of Scripture. I will apply them to the divergent Biblical themes of chosen nations as exclusive or inclusive. The Book of Deuteronomy begins with attributing to Moses a recounting of Israel, riding on the strength of Yahweh, slaughtering kingdom after kingdom, men women and children, and saving the spoils, so that the promises of Israel receiving a gift of land could be fulfilled. Does this mean that God was a cruel warlord, thug, slaughtering villages to keep the spoils and who was obsessively jealous of other gods? These exploits are not just conceptions of sacred mandates from the ancient past. They were quoted by American pilgrims, by George Washington and by Westward moving Army generals in the destruction of Native American villages. This tradition of exclusively chosen nations has spawned America’s “manifest destiny,” ”America first,” and so-called “American Exceptionalism.” The tradition of being chosen exclusively for God’s most special favor is alive and well.
My interpretation, based upon the influence of the Principalities and Powers of the day, is that this Deuteronomic slant on the early history of Israel represents the needs of their leaders to see their tribes as more special than others and to acclaim themselves as the most powerful warlords around. (Even if they hid these egocentric needs in public acclamation of Yahweh) So strong were these thoughts of the tribal leaders and their followers that the visible statements of their tribal institutions also emanated an invisible energy field that affected their interpretation of their relationships with Yahweh.
But, rejecting the concept of Yahweh as a marauding warlord, and of Israel being more special than other nations, does not discount the importance of the entire Book of Deuteronomy. In it, Israel discovers the ethics of the Ten Commandments, an intimacy experience with the Sacred that they are loved as a special people, that their liberation and freedom have been important to God since their exodus from Egypt, that God keeps promises and that they must regularly repeat the promises of their loyalty to love God with all their heart and might, paving the way for loving relationships with neighbors to love as they love themselves.
A Relationship Ethic
While the concept of Principalities And Powers, the multiplicity of scriptural writers, and the changing historical contexts help explain why there are divergent themes in the Bible, these considerations do not tell us which fork in the divergent pathways to choose. Toward inclusiveness with peaceful upbuilding of others, this choice can be made based on a relationship ethic, that also has biblical roots – What are the impacts of choices on other people, other communities and nations, other non-human beings and upon the planet?
The relational question highlights the impact of pathways chosen, whether talking about conflicting scriptural interpretations or behaviors. In the Hebrew Bible, the Exodus of Israel from Egypt exemplifies the values of liberation and freedom, a saga whose impact inspired the abolition and civil rights movements in the United States and anticolonial movements around the planet. Consistent with these impacts, to choose one interpretation over another, ask the relationship question, “what is the most liberating impact upon others?” The answer is obvious, God’s readiness to include many nations as special is the most liberating pathway. It is also the most peace building pathway.
In the New Testament, Jesus is asked a trick question by the Pharisees, “which commandment is the greatest?” They reasoned that no matter which commandment Jesus chose he would be in conflict with other commandments. But Jesus chose the relational pathway, simply, what is the most loving impact? Jesus spoke,
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. (A passage we previously cited in discussing Deuteronomy.) This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments.”
The exclusiveness of Israel as a chosen nation dominated Deuteronomy. But later in the Hebrew Bible, prophets corroborate an inclusive interpretation of chosenness. About 500 years later, it took a long time, many battles among the Angels of Principalities and Powers, before the sacred specialness of many peoples could be announced. So strong are the needs of collectivities to see themselves as more special than others, that even now the prophets’ railings against chosenness as exclusive are often overlooked.
Inclusive Themes of Chosennes in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament
Highlighting the scriptural tradition of inclusiveness is critical to productive dialogue with Jews and Christians about releasing inclusive compassion from synagogues and churches. In the inclusive-chosen tradition everyone is understood as God’s people; or in secular terms, all people, all collectivities are given positive regard as special.
THE ISRAELI PROPHETS ARE THE FIRST SCRIPTURAL VOICES TO ANNOUNCE THAT GOD’S CHOOSING OF PEOPLES AND NATIONS IS INCLUSIVE AND THEY RAILED AGAINST EXCLUSION. AMOS GIVES VOICE TO YAHWEH AS PROCLAIMING AN INCLUSIVE CHOSENNESS, 9:7:
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?
Hebrew Bible scholar, Walter Brueggeman, comments,
The initial question in this text would likely evoke a response of “no” from Amos’s listeners. No, we are not like the Ethiopians because we are chosen. But Amos intends a yes.
-Yes, Israel is like the Ethiopians, thereby subverting the claim of chosenness as exclusive.
-Yes, God “brought up” Israel from Egypt; - Yes, God “brought up” the Philistines from Caphtor;
…Israel is regarded by God just like the other peoples, just like the others in dependence upon YHWH. …Amos asserts that God has many chosen peoples, including Israel’s adversaries.
In Micah 4:1–5 and Isaiah 2:2–4 the prophets offer an anticipatory vision of a coming drama in Jerusalem. In the vision “all nations” and “many peoples” will come to Jerusalem to be instructed in the ways of peace and justice.
Micah 4: In days to come the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains and shall be raised up above the hills. Peoples shall stream to it, and many nations shall come and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.”
… He shall judge between many peoples and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken. For all the peoples walk, each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God forever and ever.
The Jerusalem temple will no longer be a place for exclusive worship of an Israelite God. Now it is envisioned as a place where all nations will worship the God of all peoples. Especially telling of inclusion is Micah 4:5. This verse characterizes the procession of people’s coming to Jerusalem as each purposing to learn the ways of peace, as having many different faith affirmations. Each people in the procession will have its own faith commitment and be motivated by “it’s God,” who is not perceived as the God of Israel. That is, Israel’s conception of God has no monopoly on the pilgrimage of peace. Other people with other perceptions of God can join the parade.[i]
THE PROPHETS ARE CALLING ISRAEL TO PERCEIVE THEIR CHOSENNESS AS SHARED WITH ALL OTHER BEINGS AS ARTICULATED IN THE COVENANT STATEMENT THAT FOLLOWED THE STORY OF THE GREAT FLOOD. GOD ESTABLISHED THE INCLUSIVENESS OF DIVINE PRESENCE AND LOVE, SAYING, “I HAVE SET MY BOW IN THE CLOUDS, A SIGN OF THE COVENANT BETWEEN ME AND THE EARTH AND EVERY LIVING CREATURE.” (GEN. 9)
Many Native Americans would describe this covenant as One with “All Our Relatives” – "miitaqouyasin” – a Lakota word that has become intertribal because of its shared meaning. Often it is spoken at pivotal places in ceremonies and after individual prayers, as a reminder that the concerns of our hearts are to be for all beings, not only other people and tribes, but also other species and aspects of Mother Earth. It is also a foundation of the Judeo-Christian tradition (albeit a theme that is often overlooked.) The following quote from a vision experienced by Black Elk, describes the unity of all peoples.
To Nations: Isaiah, 19:24–25, in this passage declares that shared worship is a part of inclusiveness. He imagines a new map of the Near East where there will be free passage between the several nations and shared worship between Assyria, the northern power, and Egypt, the southern power (v. 23). Then, in verses 24–25 the prophet goes further and imagines God constructing a new regime of chosenness:
On that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.”
In the New Testament, inclusiveness again echoes through the words of the prophet, Isaiah, whom Jesus quoted when he cleaned out the temple: “...all who hold fast my covenant, these I will bring to the holy mountain; and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar, for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” (Isaiah 56:7)
A deeply rooted aspect of the human psyche wants to be the “most special.” Perhaps it is seated in our DNA? Or perhaps it is rooted in the necessary specialness of infant to the mother, required for the care necessary to thrive? Across cultures, it is a challenging developmental task to balance the need to be special, to have self-esteem, with family and community needs for resonance and inclusiveness. The psychological challenges are intertwined with cultural challenges to groups and nations. Instinctual enthusiasm is generated within an experience of a group or a nation that is felt to be most special, be it an athletic team or at a larger scale, being a part of nationalistic fervor. The formidableness of this challenge is what necessitated the prophets to repeatedly say “woe unto you and your people,” whenever chosenness became exclusive.
Looking at American socioeconomic political divisions, we have noted some of the destructive consequences of exclusive chosenness, as in manifestations of racism, as in the United States’ sense of “Manifest Destiny,” and we could add “Christian Supremacism,” “White supremacy,” all forms of excessive Nationalism and such racist movements as neo-Nazism and anti-Semitism.
Going back to the New Testament, it took Peter being shaken up in a trance state for him to be pulled out of his needs for religious exclusiveness and to embrace religious inclusiveness.
Acts 10:9 ff. reads,
About noon,…Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.
Soon Peter’s revelatory understanding was tested by an invitation to visit the home of Capt. Cornelius, a Gentile. Arriving at Cornelius’s home, Peter stated:
“You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. … “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. …While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles…
In the New Testament, the admission of gentiles into the fellowship of the church was the decisive shattering of old exclusive notions of chosenness Now, in the United States, we continue to face the central value issue as to whether we utilize our chosenness, our exceptionalism, to exclude ourselves from the common interests of the planetary community, or do we undertake to do our part in addressing world problems of climate change, extinctions, bondaged labor and poverty?
A New Testament Threefold Relational Ethic
Articulated by the apostle Paul, he used the word “oikodome” in his letters to congregations to call for:
1) the building up of one another as persons, 2) the building up of community, and 3) building up of the Queendom/Kingdom of God.
These three criteria are considered simultaneously. If individuals are built up at the expense of community, the context for actualizing loving relationships will be lost. If the community is built up at the expense of individuals, freedom is lost. And communities need to realize that their health depends upon contributing to a larger sociopolitical context marked by inclusive love and justice.
Differences in creedal beliefs, within a synagogue or church can be respected. But, when it comes to inclusive relational ethics, consensual affirmation needs to be the goal. Exclusiveness among nations, among races, among religions, welcoming strangers, and in the welcoming of persons of differing gender identity drive conflict and in the impact upon migrant and LGBTQ persons can be directly cruel, an egregious violation of the relational ethic of inclusive love.
The concluding bookends of this scriptural exploration echo words of loving inclusion exclaimed in the Hebrew Bible Book of Deuteronomy and in the New Testament teaching of Jesus,
“Love God, (a.k.a. the sacred foundation of life) with all your heart, mind and soul and love your neighbor as yourself. All of the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments.”