Right now, as Pew research tells us the church in America is shrinking, and church institutions wage civil war over who is allowed membership, the shape and size of the body of Christ is up for debate. My suspicion is that there are two primary narratives at work organizing our communities and defining what it means to be “people” and specifically “people of God.” The first, which I will call “church” (for lack of a better term) is drawn from the testimony of Scripture, which tells the story of Israel’s election as a people through whom which God chose to redeem creation. The second, which I will refer to as “policing,” is not limited to the public institutions known as “police,” but points towards the ways that communities maintain standards of purity and membership.
Through the next three posts I will attempt to open up discussion by first laying out my account of how Scripture describes the formation and identity of the people of God. The next post will address the tension inherent in this kind of identity. The final post will explain how I understand “policing” as a way of organizing communities, and how the church as the people of God can resist this narrative and rediscover a covenantal identity.
The church is firstly those who were not a people, but have become a people by the command of God (1 Peter 2:10). This means that any prior appeals to identity must be called into question in light of the new identity that has been bestowed by God’s election. Though Abraham was of Ur, God summoned him out, and his identity as one chosen by God was revealed in time to be not on the basis of his prior identity as a son of Ur. Furthermore, the command of God placed him on a tenuous trajectory. He neither knew where he was going nor claimed any agency in determining it.
God’s promises to Israel through Abraham were not a matter of genetics. Those who were not sons of Abraham became sons of Abraham, and thus we know that Israel as a people were not constituted simply by an accident of genealogy, but by covenantal participation. The cultural hegemony at work in Egypt was almost strong enough to create the impression that social status, power and identity were the product of ethnic essentialism. This force sorted out people by where they ended up – Egyptians were the ones with power and Israelites the ones enslaved. Moses was the case that called this into question. By birth he was of Israel, but had become known as one of Pharaoh, and had gained the privileges which accompanied that identity. When Moses encountered God in Midian, he was confronted with a new reality. First, God revealed His intention to supplant the existing order in Egypt. Then, God promised to be with Moses, as Moses participated in this direct action. The way for Moses to become again one of the people of God was by participation in God’s saving work. Nothing had been determined beforehand – his future identity was very much hanging in the balance. His obedience (inconsistent though it was) created the possibility for the people whom God had chosen to experience in real history the nature of what it meant to be chosen. And this chosenness flowed beyond those who had known themselves before to be of Abraham – Exodus 12:38 says “a mixed crowd” came up from Egypt. In the wilderness, a people who were not a people began to learn what it meant to be the people of God.
This revelation was made possible by God’s process of election. God has not chosen to reveal himself and his nature to humanity as only a concept, or as a disembodied force which acts outside history. God does not simply say that he is love and leave us to guess at what that means. As Karl Barth says:
He elects the way in which His love shall be shown…He elects creation, man, the human race, as the sphere in which He wills to be gracious. But the existence of creation and of the human race does not constrain Him in the future exercise of grace. He elects even within this sphere. He elects the man of Nazareth.1
The constitution of Israel as ones who were covenantally related to God gave shape to a gospel in which God confronts humanity with its true identity as chosen and beloved. Through the work of saving Israel, and even through the discipline evidenced when Israel failed, the nations were confronted with a witness to the reality of what God was like. The particularity of God’s election was not a limiting factor on His will to save. God revealed himself not to be the property of Israel, but a universal God who was interested in the salvation and redemption of all nations.
God, like the rest of us, had to start somewhere. The particular place where God has historically chosen to reveal himself has been in a people that were not chosen by the organizing powers of human culture. It is because of his concern for all people that he shows himself strong on behalf of the weak. In a world of corruption and oppression, it is not enough for the divine presence to be seen as equally, abstractly supportive of all people. In his particular, active election of the weak, he is concretely demonstrating his power, his character, and opening up the possibility for redemption of the strong. Other gods could be seen as favoring the strong (or in fact, the strong could claim their position as evidence of God’s favor). But Yahweh does not pile on. That is why even as he shaped Israel into a regional power, he continually instructed them to care for the marginalized. When Israel refused, they found themselves in conflict with their own God.
1. Karl Barth, The Doctrine of God Part Two, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance. (Edinburgh: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 1957), 11.