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Foreign Policy and the ‘Chosen People’ Narrative

I enjoyed reading Sam Goldman’s review of my play [1] Arguing With God. AWG uses familiar stories from the Old Testament to expound a general theory of man. Tribalism (i.e., judging based on tribal membership in lieu of character and accomplishments) seems hard-wired into the species. Every tribe is convinced that its members are a chosen people or a master race anointed to dominate the others, by force and violence if necessary. Unspeakable crimes are committed again and again in the name of a chosen people.

It may always have to be that way, because no one person or persons can alter our DNA. In all places and at all times, people succumb to their lower selves in seeking to gratify cravings for power, fame, sex, money, and certainty. That is why the Bible teaches that what has been done will be done again. There is nothing new under the sun: the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must. All of mankind is made of crooked timber. No person is exempt from original sin. Each of us has the responsibility of managing our lower self as best we can to enable the better angels of our nature to flourish.

The human condition would be the same today even if Moses, David, Solomon, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Pericles, Socrates, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, David Ben Gurion, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Hitler, FDR, etc., had never lived. Graveyards are filled with indispensable people. The only thing that has changed from the beginning of time is that occasionally there is greater opportunity among formerly oppressed tribes to get back at their tormentors and practice a dominance of their own.

Even when justified as benefiting the dominated (e.g., the white man’s burden), the ulterior motive of tribal supremacy invariably crushes justice. A life not dedicated to making power subservient to justice is—despite the ultimate futility of the endeavor—not worth living. The striving for justice is the only thing that distinguishes civilization from savagery. Here and there, civilization may temporarily overcome or domesticate tribalism. As Macbeth said, it prevents man from becoming nothing more than a walking shadow, a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more, a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.

Judaism and Christianity inventively remake Yahweh into the universal God. But Yahweh in the Old Testament speaks and acts as a tribal God and creates a tribal people. In AWG, Yahweh symbolizes limitless power wielded by contemporary presidents of the United States. For three generations, American presidents have conducted presidential wars in the name of the American people. For five generations, Americans have been told that we’re “good guys” who have been chosen to wage war against “bad guys.” AWG shows the toxic combination of unlimited presidential power and the chosen-people narrative. The United States will be fighting endless wars until it breaks with this Old Testament foreign policy and embraces our founders’ understanding that going abroad in search of monsters to destroy will result in ruination. 

John B. Henry’s Arguing With God will be onstage at 7 p.m. November 29 [2] at the Women’s National Democratic Club in Washington, DC.

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10 Comments To "Foreign Policy and the ‘Chosen People’ Narrative"

#1 Comment By Fran Macadam On November 21, 2016 @ 10:12 pm

“The United States will be fighting endless wars until it breaks with this Old Testament foreign policy and embraces our founders’ understanding that going abroad in search of monsters to destroy will result in ruination.”

Not to mention, of late, going abroad in search of monsters to create.

#2 Comment By John Turner On November 22, 2016 @ 8:15 am

Someone (actually a whole lot of someones in human history; I am not necessarily accusing the author of this blog post as I have not read or seen his important play) missed the point that Yahweh was waging not a tribal war, but a war against religious cultures that practiced human sacrifice, even child sacrifice, against religious cultures that misused sex that was made for sealing a covenant love between a man and a woman, a love that was intended to reveal the divine character, misused it as a means for controlling the gods and the harvests (or today as a means of fulfilling one’s personal identity, consisting mostly of feelings and desires). When his chosen tribe indulged repeatedly in the same misuses he made war against them, sending them into exile, before bringing their offspring back for a second attempt.

Someone missed the point that Yahweh might still have some legitimate complaints with human culture.

Someone (by which I mean a whole lot of someones, all but a very few) missed that Jesus (name meaning “Yahweh saves”), came as the fulfillment of where Yahweh was taking Israel in the Old Testament, came to teach a love that transcends tribal enmities, a love that is at once morally disciplined, compassionate, and self-giving. In doing so, he did not invent something new in Yahweh, but unveiled what was central to Yahweh’s heart all along.

Yes, I know that I cannot explain all the intricacies of this in a blog reply, but it just needs saying in order to introduce new questions into the discussion. Jesus, as an expression of Yahweh’s heart, challenges every cultural expression of our times, challenges us all (me included) far beyond our comfort levels. Jesus replaces the questions we have been asking with other, more fruitful questions which his followers must begin raising in new communities of faith, as most of the old communities of faith (and of non-faith) seem to have gotten sidetracked.

#3 Comment By EliteCommInc. On November 22, 2016 @ 8:16 am

Caveat:

For all of US existence we have been told. we are “good”.

————–

I appreciate the observation on the issue of justice to power.

#4 Comment By Chris Chuba On November 22, 2016 @ 9:55 am

“No person is exempt from original sin.”

This is a foundational tenet of Protestantism. Martin Luther warned that a hierarchical Church led by fallen men would lead to a drift that would drag down all of Christianity. This is why Protestants are so decentralized and embrace individual interpretation of the Bible. I am not lampooning Catholicism but marveling at how Christian Fundamentalists have embraced the notion that America has been chosen to dominate world affairs.

How often have you heard that it is up to us to spread democracy and our economic structure, by force of arms or economic sanctions, in every corner of the planet. We do so without the slightest fear that we are overstepping boundaries, disregarding local sovereignty or are ignorant of the true situation in all of these far flung places. Those who plead restraint are derided as isolationists even as we can point to many examples where chaos and death have ensued.
It is such great irony that Protestants have rejected local sovereignty and replaced it with U.S. hegemony. When countries challenge our so-called right to impose our structure on them we call them evil but do not question our own actions. Instead we chant, America is great because America is good.
Very few people understand the true situation in Libya, the M.E., Eastern Europe, or Asia but we know that the U.S. has to be in charge and not the people who live there.

#5 Comment By Josh K On November 22, 2016 @ 11:34 am

Putting aside the obviously Nietzschean point of view of the author. The quote below is just silly. Feel free to go bang your sticks together in your Hobbesian jungle free from the influence of indispensable men and then tell me the human condition hasn’t changed in six thousand years.

“The human condition would be the same today even if Moses, David, Solomon, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Pericles, Socrates, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, David Ben Gurion, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Hitler, FDR, etc., had never lived.”

#6 Comment By The Dean On November 22, 2016 @ 12:50 pm

Great article Mr. Henry. I look forward to reading (or seeing) your play.

#7 Comment By Adam On November 22, 2016 @ 1:07 pm

Disagree with the connection to OT God versus NT God. The OT contains an inherent contradiction that has been pointed out many times. It is a strong mono-theism (arguably the first but that is another argument), but it is tribal and available only to the chosen tribes. This is the inherent contradiction of Judaism: “We know the one true Path but it is only available to us.”

From a secular point of view, how did Jesus (and Peter, etc.) transform Judaism? They got rid of the contradiction. Christianity also proclaimed a single path and a single God (even in the Trinity), but it was open to all peoples. It was a universal philosophy open to all people and peoples. As well, over time, the Christian Church (esp Western Christendom) made secular moves to reduce tribalism (e.g., celibate priests and rules against consanguinity) for power reasons. And until 1648, Western Christendom still hoped for a full universalism.

US foreign policy (and domestic policy (see Manifest Destiny)) before the 20th Century may have been OT, but it transformed in the 20th Century to both proclaiming the one true way (what we call Democratic Liberalism but what should really be called non-Democratic Technocratic Modern Liberalism) and to asserting that all peoples can follow, nay MUST follow this same path. “Democratic Liberalism” for all! This sounds much closer to the NT than the OT.

I think the author is confusing the blood tribalism (us vs them) of the OT with the one-path-for-all of the NT (and resulting Church). There is a big difference blood tribalism and creating an us-vs-them narrative around who accepts a universal philosophy. In fact, they are opposites in many ways.

#8 Comment By Jack Hartjes On November 23, 2016 @ 7:04 am

Thanks, John Turner. I would add that it’s incorrect to say the Bible teaches that what has been done will be done. Rather, one book of the Bible, Ecclesiastes, says that while most of the Bible illustrates what Isaiah says: “Behold, I am doing something new.”

#9 Comment By PAXNOW On November 25, 2016 @ 7:37 am

The Old Testament probably has a parallel set of stories in Indian or aboriginal tribal lore. We do not go to war for these traditions. Why continual wars for the Old Testament? Why not equal treatment for Arunta or Sioux?

#10 Comment By Brian On May 7, 2017 @ 10:55 am

“Judaism and Christianity inventively remake Yahweh into the universal God. But Yahweh in the Old Testament speaks and acts as a tribal God and creates a tribal people.”

YHWH chose Israel as a testament to the world, using them as an example. In the new covenant, he unifies all through his son. Whether or not you call that tribal, there had to be an example, and he chose Israel to show that example.