The Christmas story suggests that we can somehow try to be loyal members of our nations, our families, our tribes—and to reach out to the broader human community of which we are also a part.
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. As Adam Garfinkle reminds us, New Year’s Day has long been celebrated as the Feast of the Circumcision, the day on which the baby Jesus underwent the traditional rite that, from the time of Abraham, was seen as proclaiming the special relationship between the Jewish people and God.
These facts are so familiar to us that it’s sometimes easy to miss the troubling questions around them. A regrettable couplet by the British journalist William Norman Ewer sums up what some 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 Jews were chosen 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 can we reconcile the claims of this special relationship with God’s commitment to 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 nineteenth century, that changed. As Jews from Eastern Europe and the Middle East immigrated to Palestine, a new Jewish state rose up on territory last controlled by Jews almost two thousand years ago.
The rebirth of the state of Israel has turned theological questions into political ones. 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 that, until the twentieth century, had not had a Jewish majority since ancient times.
Does God love Jews more than Palestinians? Do the promises God made to the ancestors of today’s Jews as reported in the Hebrew Scripture have any relevance to the problems in the Middle East today? Should they?
This is not the place for a political analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute; for the record, I have always believed in a two-state solution so that each people can live in a state of their own with safe and recognized frontiers. I only wish such a seemingly commonsense but actually very complex and contentious result was easier to achieve. But these days, we often forget the context in which the state of Israel was founded. The “Jewish Question” was just one piece of the much bigger national question that inflamed European and Middle Eastern politics in the past two hundred years and led to countless riots, revolutions, massacres, ethnic cleansings, genocides, and wars. In 1800, Central and Eastern Europe and the Middle East were essentially divided between three multi-ethnic, multi-confessional empires: the Holy Roman Empire, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire. By the year 2000, none of these empires existed, and the territories they once controlled were divided into dozens of ethnic nation-states. Tens of millions of people were killed in the political struggles and global wars that this process unleashed. In Europe, the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s (with the characteristic mix of vicious warfare, ethnic cleansing, and episodes of genocide that marked the entire process) were, hopefully, the last outbreak of this madness. In the Middle East, the Palestinian-Israeli struggle is left over from this process; so are the struggles for independence among the Kurds, and from Afghanistan through Syria to the Maghreb, unresolved ethnic and sectarian tensions continue to stoke conflicts.
Conflicts in former Soviet territories like the Armenian-Azerbaijani struggle, the wars that have ripped through Georgia since 1989, the hideous wars between the Russian government and restive nationalities in the Caucasus, the murderous conflict in Syria: these appalling eruptions of communal hatred in our day are the latest episodes in the long and bloody story of religious and national identity wars that have done so much to shape recent centuries of world history.
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 twentieth century. In much of Africa and Asia, ethnic conflicts and quarrels over boundaries between angry nation-states are constantly simmering; any random incident can produce huge crises or bloody wars from Korea to the Congo.
So, when we speak of God “choosing” the Jews, the most perplexing problem is less about the specific people God chose than a question about why God would contribute to the formation of these national and cultural identities that have been responsible for countless wars.
The Jews are not the only people who think they’ve been chosen. American presidents from George Washington to Donald Trump 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 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. The Serbs cast their history in the heroic light of defending the gates of Christian Europe against the Muslim Turks. Many Turks believe that God has called their country to play a leading role in Islamic and ultimately in world history. Many Arabs see the role of the Arab people as unique in a similar way; in what language, after all, was the Koran revealed?
People seem pulled in two directions. On the one hand, we form strong group identities, and these identities are the basis of our political loyalties; on the other, we recognize universal values and acknowledge a duty, at least in the abstract, toward people everywhere regardless of their race, language, color, or creed.
It’s a puzzle. Human beings need roots in a particular culture and family, 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.
This tension plays out in politics all the time. 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 elsewhere, many intelligent people look back in horror not just on 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.
They’ve got a point. It is self-evidently true that our global economy and the many interests the world’s countries have in common demand 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. The pull of national and religious identity is too strong—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.
We think of the trade-off between local identities and universal values as a modern problem, but it is deeply rooted in human experience. In the ancient world, where tribal and family affiliations were very strong, many cultures shared a strong belief in the moral duty of hospitality to strangers, whatever their tribe. Day-to-day life revolved around your own group of close associates, but the duty of hospitality required a willingness to look beyond these limits to recognize the common humanity and worth of all people.
This is where we still are as a species; our lives are bound up and committed to those around us who share our language, our culture, and perhaps our blood—but we know that this is not enough and that when the opportunity comes, it is our duty to rise above these limits and act on our duties to the whole human race.
The question of our divided loyalties between the particular and the universal is deeply embedded in Christian history and the Christmas story. Christmas is, above all, the feast of the Incarnation. The 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 become fully human, He had to have this experience as well.
God’s choice was to ground His Son in the life of the Jewish nation, 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 of the Jewish Scriptures is largely a record of God’s disappointment with the all-too-human failings of the people He chose.
But neither the designation of Israel as the “chosen people” nor the birth of Christ into a Jewish family was intended to limit God’s concerns to one people. 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.
The relationship was with Israel, but it wasn’t ultimately about or at least only about Israel—God was working to build a people through whom He could reach out to the rest of the world. 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 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. And when Jesus then through His ministry of teaching and healing, and above all through His death and resurrection, set out to change the world, the work that He did for people everywhere was a fulfillment of the purposes, Christians believe, behind God’s establishment of a special relationship with the Jews.
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. The person would have a family and friends, would speak some particular language, and would work with a particular set of ideas. Saving all meant choosing some. God’s choice of one people was a necessary part of His love for all.
Without those deep roots in Jewish life that sustained Jesus and the first Christian believers, there could be no Christian faith; yet the first thing the young church had to do was to spread beyond its Jewish origins. As it grew, it encountered not only the Greco-Roman world of the Mediterranean basin, but also 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. The words of the Bible have 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; St. 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 to Christian appropriation of words or concepts they consider their own. In Malaysia not so long ago, a Catholic newspaper fought a court case in an effort to use the word “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.)
The twentieth century saw an explosion of Christian missionary activity and Christian conversions outside the old Christian heartlands of Europe and the Americas, and explosion that continues today. The century also witnessed the extraordinary rise of locally based and locally led churches in “mission territory” around the world. In China, sub-Saharan Africa, and South and Southeastern Asia, the twentieth century (and especially its last half) saw not only the greatest numbers of conversions to Christianity in world history; it also 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, 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 yet it is also 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 at the same time 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 in the fullness of time would reach the whole world. That is, Christians think, how God arranged things.
And if some Christians these days eat guinea pig, some falafel, others turkey, and others dim sum as they celebrate the birth of the Child, that is pretty much how it is supposed to be. A child born to one nation grew up to be a savior for all. In going from His very particular and individual roots to reach out to the whole world, Jesus gives us all a pattern of how being deeply embedded in one culture and one nation can lead to a universal vision and mission. That part of His work is perhaps more important today than ever before; as the New Year begins, we should reflect on the need for people who are grounded in their own culture but capable of reaching out beyond it.