Ezra, Nationalism, and the Toxic Theology of “God’s Chosen People”

I spent much of my life in the Assemblies of God Church, a pentecostal wing of the White Evangelical movement. I was steeped in a theology born of nationalism. Nationalism is in the roots of who they believe God is and who they believe Israel was and now who they believe themselves, and in many cases, America, to be in the biblical narrative of God relating to Their people. I was taught constantly that I was part of “God’s Chosen People”, that of all the nations on Earth, God chose us to be “His Royal Priesthood”, that “He would give the nations in our stead”, that the promises of the Bible for Israel were the promises of the Bible for me. “Though 10,000 fall at your side”, God will protect only you and let the others be demolished. All these “truths” were supposed to make up how I saw myself and how I related to the world around me. I was supposed to root my identity in the knowledge that God picks me over everyone else.

There was also a constant mix of patriotism and Republicanism in the Evangelicalism I experienced, teaching that America is God’s favorite because we are a “Christian nation” and all the other nations and other political parties in the world that would oppose us were opposing God.  Every time that there was a natural disaster or a Republican loss or a violent attack took place, the Church would pull out verses like “If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from Heaven and heal their land”. If God allowed something “bad” to happen to us, “His Chosen People”, it was because we had “allowed sin in our camp” so to fix it, we needed to be more militant about opposing abortion and homosexuality and Democrats and then the Lord’s anger would subside and He’d favor and protect us again.

I know, it sounds crazy, but they had really bad interpretations of scripture to back it all up, taught over and over again in pulpit after pulpit. They took scripture literally and prescriptively, so they taught that God brought the people of Israel into the Promised Land because God wanted Israel to slaughter the people that lived there and take their land, and since America is the new Israel, that is also the reason why a country built on the murder of Indigenous People and the theft of their land could be a “Christian nation” built on what they believe to be a God-ordained act of obedience to the Manifest Destiny that God designed for White Christians, “His Chosen People”.

Pastors used the books of Joshua and Judges and the Histories of the Kings to prove that if God’s people didn’t stay a pure blooded, holy race that separates itself from the unclean pagans around it and if they didn’t kill every last person when they conquered the land, and if they intermarried with them and allowed their evil Jezebel women to steal their hearts from the Lord, then they would end up in exile – banished from the love and protection of God. Complete segregation from “the world” in heart and bloodline was and still is the price that a relationship with God requires according to most Evangelical sermons happening around this country today.

Rather than wrestling with the genocide and racism of the Old Testament, they embraced it and enshrined it in a doctrine of “God’s favor” that allows people to conquer and decimate their enemies and steal land and wealth and power while still believing that they are doing the will of a loving and just God. In fact, it is seen as an act of holiness and faith to expect God to bless you and punish others even to the extent that there are White Evangelicals saying it should be called “White Blessing” not “White Privilege” because obviously any unjust favor they’ve been given in life is the will of the Lord and a reward for their protestant work ethic, not a result of injustice or corrupt use of power by the Church or White people.

The doctrine of God’s “favor” on “His chosen people” being dependent on God’s people disowning and shunning even their own children if they are not “pure” enough is found in the last chapter of Ezra. This passage was always preached to me like this: 

God brought back a remnant of Judah to the Promised Land after 70 years of exile. God favored His chosen people so much that The Lord turned the heart of a pagan king and even made the king finance the return of God’s people to their home. When they got back to Jerusalem, Ezra found out that the people of Israel that had been left behind, the commoners and the poor who were of no use to Babylon when they conquered, had intermarried with their non-Jewish neighbors and had failed to keep the bloodline pure, even having children with these “foreign” women. Ezra tears his clothes and weeps and begs God to forgive them because, in this telling of the story, intermarrying with the nations around them had been the reason Israel was exiled in the first place. It wasn’t because of the injustice or their treatment of the poor or the idolatry they took part in, no, it was the intermarriage. After all, as many Evangelicals teach, men would obviously follow God perfectly if women didn’t keep coming in to deceive them and force them to sin and worship other gods. Eve, Jezebel, Delilah, Bathsheba…all of them supposedly brought down holy men of God with their feminine wiles.

Well, Ezra said, “Not on my watch!” and reminded the people that God only loves Israel and all the other nations are despised by God because they serve other gods, so in order to worship God they needed to divorce their wives and send their children away to starve and, in doing so, consecrate the nation back to God so they could once again be God’s pure and holy people, “chosen” and “separate” from the evil world around them, “the world” that God hates.

I’ve heard this story used to proof text everything from never dating non-Christians, to why men should never interact with any woman who isn’t his wife, to why it was necessary to exile “sinners” from the church so they don’t contaminate it, to why it’s religious liberty to persecute the LGBT community, to why America shouldn’t have to accept refugees. Nationalism and white supremacy and homophobia and patriarchy are all rooted in the same idea…that God loves one group of people more than another group and so the “chosen people” are serving God by oppressing “the enemies of God”.

Evangelicals see their power as the “favor” of God and as proof of who God loves the most…who it is that God has chosen. From that logic, God loves powerful, White, Evangelical, American men more than anyone else in the world or the country or the Church. They see the power that they build on the backs of the people they oppress as proof that God is pleased with them and on their side in this “war”. Symbols of strength and dominance and patriotism are emblems of the Lord’s favor in their lives…their guns, the flag, the troops, the wall, and an authoritarian like Trump…all prove that they are God’s favorite and no one can push them around or steal what is theirs. The insurrection at the Capitol was the logical play out of all of those ideas coming together. This ideology culminates in using strength and violence to take what they believe to be theirs by force and attacking any of the evil, pagan, radical, socialist, enemies of God that would seek to stop them from what was prophesied as the will of God – a second term of the Trump presidency. They saw Stop the Steal as a call for God’s Chosen to rise up and take back the Promised Land that they have a God-given right to control.

It’s terrifying and, sadly, completely understandable that the Evangelical Church has gotten to this point. The question is, “What happens next?” Is this movement redeemable or will they just continue down this path into decline and eventual oblivion?  What can Evangelicals do to get back on track, to “turn from their wicked ways and heal their land”? I believe that the Evangelical Church is at a crossroads and what they do in this moment will determine their future.

Most Evangelical pastors that I know are afraid to “be political” and they don’t want to “cause division” by speaking about the issues of nationalism or racial injustice or wealth inequality or conspiracy theories that lead to violent insurrection and attempted assassinations. They want to focus on “the Gospel” and getting people “saved”. If that is the chosen path that keeps the tithes coming and the Board happy, then they should start there – with their theology and how they read and teach the Bible.

They can start with Ezra and use the “whole of scripture” to kill this idea that being “God’s Chosen People” means that God chooses them and rejects everyone else. Ezra was a priest, his role was to reconcile the people to God and teach people the Law, but in the Old Testament the prophets were the ones who heard directly from God and instructed the people to change when they were not doing what God wanted them to do. Malachi was the prophet at the time of Ezra. He spoke directly to “the priests”, which would have been Ezra, and gave a word of correction to him.

In Chapter 1 of Malachi, he talked about offering God defiled and diseased offerings and how although they were attempting to offer God something they thought God required, God was actually disgusted and insulted by what Israel thought was an act of worship. What Israel is offering God is so gross to The Lord that God describes wanting to take the poop from the intestines of the sacrifice and wipe it on the faces of the priests. So what were they offering God?

In Malachi chapter 2, God reprimands the priests for showing partiality and teaching the people things that are not what The Lord desires and then quotes almost directly from the book of Ezra and his teaching that Judah has desecrated the Temple by marrying women who worship foreign gods and that no matter what offering they bring to seek forgiveness, God will still kick them out of the community of Israel if they don’t divorce and separate themselves from these women and their children. Then God mocks this teaching. God says that the people are flooding the altar with tears and not understanding why their sacrifices aren’t being favored and accepted by God when they are sending their families away as a worship to The Lord. God tells Israel that it’s because God was the witness that joined them to their first wives and breaking that covenant and divorcing their wives is doing violence to the one they should be protecting. God talks about the children of that marriage being an intended reason that God joined them in marriage in the first place, not an abomination that angers The Lord .

God finishes by telling the priests that they have wearied God by teaching the people that by doing evil they are doing good in God’s eyes and that by abandoning their families they are somehow pleasing God. The Lord is angry that they then have the gall to ask “Where is the God of justice?”  when they have just given God injustice as an offering of worship on the altar.

The Bible itself shuts down this racist, self-righteous, “chosen people” theology. Ezra is the bad guy and Israel set themselves against God in their isolationist theology. The New Testament works so hard to break the Clean/Unclean dichotomy, we see it in Cornelius in Acts 10 and the Sermon on Mount in Matthew and all the fights Jesus had with the Pharisees over the people they had exiled for not being holy enough. The god who plays favorites that is being taught in Evangelical churches across the nation is not Jesus and it’s not the God of Justice. God is not on the side of White, Evangelical, American men in a holy war against the rest of the world.

If Evangelicals would like to turn this ship from nationalism back to God, they need to stop teaching their churches that God chooses them over everyone else. They need to begin to teach that being “a royal priesthood, a chosen people” is about reconciling the nations to the God that loves everyone passionately and equally. They need to teach that power is meant to be used to empower others and the favor of God rests on those who love their neighbors more than themselves.

Brenna Zeimet is a mother, a pastor, a mentor, and a speaker. She currently lives in Minnesota with her husband and 4 children and runs a Facebook group called “Not Just Me” for people who are deconstructing and reconstructing their faith. After 20 years in ministry trying to make change in the Evangelical Church from within, Brenna has moved on to seek out those that have been hurt and broken by the Church and help them find what Jesus and faith mean to them outside of the oppressive religious structures they’ve experienced.

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