Ethics: The Codes of Chosenness

Cotton Mather | Wikimedia

By Walter Brueggemann

Starting from the identity of ancient Israel as God’s chosen people in the Bible, it was easy to recast Western whites as God’s chosen people. This move was accomplished by an imaginative retelling of the biblical narrative of the “promised land” and “conquest.”

The Puritan minister Cotton Mather provides an example in his 1702 book Magnalia Christi Americana, translated as “The Glorious Works of Christ in America.” Mather rereads the biblical narrative with Western whites as the blessed protagonists. It was an easy interpretive move; at the same time, it was a deeply pernicious move that has become the basis for a long history of exploitation and violence in the service of rapacious greed.

The conviction that Western whites are God’s chosen people is a grounding for white supremacy.

And once such chosenness is affirmed, two claims follow:

  • Whites are “normal” and normative. Consequently, anything other than white is abnormal and sub-normal.
  • Whites are entitled to the most and the best, a claim that has long validated the violent colonization of the West, the forcible seizure of the land and the removal of Native Americans, and then the enslavement of Black people kidnapped from Africa.

This triad of chosenness, normal, and entitlement constitutes the long painful history of the Western world that, wherever and whenever possible, has been extended to the rest of the world through colonization, militarism, and imperialism.

Thus, we can read forward from the chosen people of the Bible to the chosen people of the Western world. We can also, however, read backward from the sorry tale of the Western world to the chosen people in the Bible to see that in both instances a conviction of chosenness creates a sense of monopoly with God and a warrant to seize land violently that is already occupied.

“This triad of chosenness, normal, and entitlement constitutes the long painful history of the Western world that, wherever and whenever possible, has been extended to the rest of the world through colonization, militarism, and imperialism.”

The claim of chosenness that pervades the Bible, the history of the West, and quite specifically the history of the United States is everywhere an impetus for brutalizing self-regard that can readily make a claim to divine sanction.

U.S. “domination” (a favorite word of President Trump) was already expressed by President Andrew Jackson with his policy of Indian removal. He was elected in 1828 with a platform of “Indian removal today, Indian removal tomorrow, Indian removal forever” (Walter Johnson, The Broken Heart of America, 48). It is a slogan familiarly echoed by Governor George Wallace as “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” The same theme was pursued by President Theodore Roosevelt in his expansive American imperialism, with the judgment that the peoples of Asia were incapable of governing themselves and needed U.S. presence and governance (see James Bradley, The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War). The status, warrant, and sanction of chosenness, normativity, and entitlement are carefully guarded, maintained, and legitimated by “protocols of holiness” that we may term “the codes of chosenness.”

The preacher has as her task the exposure, undoing, and dismantling of the deeply held and silently affirmed claims for chosenness that function as a basis for white supremacy and the derivative claims of normativity and entitlement. One text for this dangerous and urgent task is the rich narrative in Acts 10. Peter, the lead apostle, is reported to have had a vision in a trance. Such a vision freely violates and undermines common assumptions that have immense authority in our wakeful hours, but are vulnerable and open to assault in our sleep.

In his vision Peter was commanded by “a voice,” a voice from “elsewhere,” to eat “four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds,” all of which are prohibited as “unclean” by the holiness codes of Israel. They are forbidden to the faithful because such “uncleanness would jeopardize Israel’s access to the holy God. The holiness codes thus separate Israel from other peoples who might be willing to eat such creatures that they might not take to be “unclean.” Deeply grounded in Israel’s holiness codes, Peter refuses and resists the command (10:14). But the voice from elsewhere is insistent:

The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (10:25).

Three times Peter is commanded to break the holiness codes of his people to which he had been deeply committed! But Peter is a quick study.  The next day he shares company with a Gentile, Cornelius. He declares, perhaps wistfully,

“You yourself 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 (v. 28).

He declares his understanding of the mandate from the God of Israel, a new mandate that deeply displaced his previous life and opened for him a new vocation and a fresh vision of his life in obedience to God. He readily goes public with the daring implications of his new understanding:

I truly understand that God shows no partiality (v. 34)!

This in the face of Jewish chosenness! This in the face of white supremacy! This in the face of U.S. exceptionalism! Peter discerns that the treasured codes of his people have been wrong and must be voided. They have misrepresented God’s will for holiness and uncleanness. Peter discerns, in this moment, that he must contradict his education and violate the usual assumptions of his people. In this moment he recognizes that the codes of chosenness cannot be sustained. God wills the full and welcome inclusion of the “unclean” Gentles in the new community of the Gospel that is the wave of the future. The mandate of the Gospel requires a violation of the old codes!

We preachers might linger over the notion that Gentiles are “unclean.” The codes by which we whites live have often held that Blacks are “lazy,” “sexually dangerous” (rapists!), and above all “unclean.” Just now a congressman from Ohio opines that Blacks may get more of the coronavirus “because they do not wash their hands enough.” Blacks who are lazy, dangerous, and dirty are on all accounts unlike whites.  Because they are so unlike whites, they are abnormal, without any entitlement, and therefore subject to exclusion (redlining!), not “deserving” of good schools, or good housing, or good jobs. It all follows from “chosenness”!

We preachers might linger over the codes that are mostly tacit but nonetheless immensely powerful. The most obvious of such codes is “whites only,” and the most familiar of such codes is “We reserve the right to refuse service….” In my growing up in a small town that upheld the codes, my teacher “explained” to me that “Blacks like to live in unpainted houses,” and “Blacks are offended to be called ‘Mr.’ or ‘Mrs.’” My teacher, I have no doubt, simply took the codes for granted.

The codes then and always seem like givens; they function to maintain and legitimate by regular reiteration in the familiar liturgies of state, church, and market. Because the codes are so closely treasured and so deeply trusted, it takes a risky daring extremity like a dream or a trance or a vision to see differently, to see that God is no respecter of persons but is evenhanded to all and not partial, not even to those who claim to be chosen, normative and entitled.

It will not do for the preacher simply to speak of “equality” or our need to “love each other.” The preacher may and can assert that the God of the gospel refuses to be contained in the codes that are enunciated in the name of God. Thus, Peter is summoned in a trance to move outside the codes of his people that he had been taught were the “codes of holiness.”

I have come to think that the narrative in Acts 10 is the most important text for the way in which God breaks open our codes that skew the reality that God would have us live. The inclusion of Gentiles into the early church radically changed the nature of the Church, its message, and its life. In the same way serious full inclusion of people of color into our common life changes everything and requires whites to move beyond our comfort zones of control and privilege. God’s expansive reach and intent are beyond our preferred chosenness, normality, and entitlement. Peter is a model for the disruption of our comfort zones, as is Paul on his way to Damascus. The force that broke the codes of the early Church was staggeringly demanding; it opened to the Church a vision concerning the new world of God’s intent.

When the preacher takes up the code-breaking narrative of Acts 10, she has behind her the Pentecost narrative in Acts 2. In that dazzling moment of the rush of God’s Spirit, all the old delineations are transgressed:

Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to  Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs — in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” (Acts 2:8-11)

Note: The preacher, in reading this paragraph, should not skip any of these names, but sound them all because the effect is cumulative, surely intended by the author to be so.

The Spirit does not respect our social arrangements. The vision of Paul and the trance of Peter are instances of the Spirit’s work of code busting. The Spirit that shatters the codes makes a new community possible.

The preacher who lingers with Acts 10 has in front of him the grand vision and anticipation of the coming world that God will bring that will displace the weary empire of Rome and every other human contrivance of deeply coded entitlement. We may for that reason sing a new song —

From every tribe and language and people and nation
you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God (Rev. 5:9).

The grand inclusiveness of “every tribe, language, people, and nation” is like a recurring mantra in this vision of the coming world (see 7:9, 13:7, 14:6, 17:15). This envisioned world is not to be governed by our codes of fear, but by the self-giving of the Lamb. The result of this lyric is a radically altered human community. It is this reconstituted human community that stands before us as we face a move beyond our racist delineations of human reality.

The preacher, situated in Acts 10 with Pentecost behind her and the coming new world of barrier crossing in front, has the hard work of de-coding to do. That work includes the discovery that the Gentiles are also chosen for participation in normality and entitlement. Among us those excluded by the old codes are now fully participant in the new world of normality and entitlement. It is no wonder that the Book of Revelation teems with doxology. The singing of the new world is a powerful echo of the singing of Miriam as the newly freed slaves “saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore (Ex. 14:30). The stubborn adherents to the old codes are left behind!

Now to finish with a poignant note of humor. Joseph Lowry, the great Methodist advocate for social justice who died recently at a ripe age, was once at a sit-in at a lunch counter. Finally, the waitress said to him, “We don’t serve colored people.” Lowry responded, “I did not order colored people. I ordered chicken salad.”

The Rev. Dr. Walter Brueggemann is professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary. A version of this essay first appeared on the weblog, Church Anew,


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