For many Christians, January 1 is the eighth day of Christmas and thus also a commemoration of Jesus’ circumcision—that is, of the rite that confirmed his membership in the Jewish people. The occasion prompts Walter Russell Mead to reflect on the meaning for Christians of the Jews’ biblical status as the chosen people, and to ask not “Why did God choose the Jews?” but “Why did God wish there to be a chosen people at all?” In turn, this question leads him to the age-old tension between the universal and the particular:
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. . . .
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, [in short,] stuck with nationalism and other irrational but deeply held identities and values; we must learn to work through them rather than against them. . . .
[In Christians’ own view, God grounded their religion] 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. . . . 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.