Contemplating the fact that the Christmas story is one in which all the main characters are Jewish, Walter Russell Mead explores the problem Jewish particularity poses for Christian theology:
New Year’s Day has long been celebrated [by Christians] 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. . .
[The] real question here [is] 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 [purported] commitment to universal justice? . . .
So when we speak of God “choosing” the Jews, the most perplexing problem is less about the specific people God chose than about why God would contribute to the formation of these national and cultural identities that have been responsible for countless wars.
These reflections lead Mead to address the modern problem of nations and nationalism in today’s interconnected world:
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. . . . But I don’t think the world is going to learn Esperanto anytime soon. 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. We think of the tradeoff 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.
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