Book Review: “We The People” Israel and the Catholicity of Jesus
Tommy Givens has written a masterful book on God and His people, while dismantling people’s perception of who the true people are as opposed to the false people. “We the people” is a charitable rebuke against personhood and what defines personhood (election). Givens raises questions that seek to shed light on election, God, personhood, Christology, Israel, Church, etc. We live in an age of violence and the modern discourse of peoplehood continues to violate humanities oneness (or becoming one). Humans are exploited and used as machines in a world that continues to claim nationalism. Rather than showing compassion for fellow human beings living dispersed throughout lands, states, nations, and countries clinging with hope while remembering God in distant exilic lands with how little they may know of this God.
“We the people” uses greed and power to exploit the weak and poor, religion against false religion, politics against false politics, and where has the naming of God been in all of this? The typical response has been, lets set up the real thing against the false thing, but who are we to name the real thing? What if our human identities (election) are much larger than we could imagine, and our modern discourses on God, peoplehood, and election are mysteriously bound in Christ' death and resurrection? We live in an age where humans can make their own identity, their own choosing if you will. Givens (2014) writes, “So many of our popular films deliver the lesson we are who we choose to be. We have designated such self determination “freedom,” and we bristle at any suggestion that the shape of our existence is not up to us.” Continuing, Givens (2014) “Identity is now something people can simply choose for themselves. Or it is their sexual orientation or socioeconomic status or profession or political party. All the while it remains their religion or nationality or ethinicity or culture. It is no surprise, then, that readers of the New Testament detect “competing identities all over the place.” The dangers of modern discourse of people/person hood has been our tendency to identify the false people, those who we consider lessor or not elect, Givens (2014) writes, “To resist the supersessionist violence of modern peoplehood, Christians must stop claiming against one another or against others that the people of God is only that people who gets the God of Israel right, for this God has not chosen only those who choose this God.”
“We the people” continues to be humanitie’s banner and flag, and God forbid the mantra of the Church. Givens seeks to show that the election of Israel is not man made, but God made. This election consists of the various people of God who have come to believe (remembering) in the God of Israel/being adopted and adopting the God of Israel (Christians, Jews, Israel the various scattered people in distant lands who remember the particular God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob). In other words, Israel is not a self made people who can claim birthright, ethnicity, faith, and Torah observance against those who seem to be faithless, sinful and Gentile. Givens (2014) writes, “Mythologizing the being of Israel into an ethnicity imagines a false purity and stability into Israel’s identity. It attempts to eliminate the manifold contingency of the births of the particular children that have been born to Israel and then raised as Israelite. It ignores the gracious conditions, circumstances, and practices that shape the birth and formation of those lives. And of course it denies the Israelization of gentiles. Imposing closure on Israel’s identity in this way inevitably serves a violent regime of power, one that cannot wait upon the God of Israel to determine the shape of the people by God’s election in time.” One only needs to look at history to see this violent tendency of “self disclosure” and “self made identities” at the cost of maiming and hurting other human beings; Church against Jews, Jews against Gentiles (Christian and Jewish schisms).
We must remember that God’s redemptive story is that the world would be united as one. After all, was it not the prophets who said the Gentiles would come to know the God of Israel as their own? Let not the Gentiles who have forsaken their gods for the God of Israel get haughty and puffed up (see Rom. 11). Israel’s identity is not up to them, their identity is in the Hands and mercy of God as he continues to shape a people over periods of time. Givens (2014) writes, “The formative, electing activity of Israel’s God, that is, the people itself as made by God, can therefore be remembered, named, and observed only in relation to a particular past.” As Givens (2014) writes, “The only God who exists is the God of Israel. The only people of God is God’s elect people Israel. That God elects this people means that “the people” is not self – made but made by God. Its constituents do not decide who they are. “Israel” is not an identity that can be expropriated or appropriated by human beings. It is not predicated on human adequacy to any standard. Those who claim to be the people of God cannot justify their claim by adducing anything that they do or have done (e.g., believing, being good or faithful).” For Givens, Israel is the various people who have believed in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It is not just any so called god, it is the one who has elected a people and committed himself to them in the flesh (history, past, present, and future as it is unfolding).
Givens writes, “The history of the people that has remembered the God of Israel as its own is what enables us to mean the particular knowable God rather than any god when Christians say, ‘God.’ That is why the difference between the people that has remembered the God of Israel as its own by God’s election and those who don’t is not a banal or insignificant. This is the case, however little such remembrance seems to mean in an age convinced that the true God must be soiled by the contingencies of a history, however little our perceptions can make of that difference in our lust to know good from evil for ourselves and to know the good guys from the bad guys, however unable we are to justify ourselves and our destruction of others.”
Givens argues that God’s faithfulness is stronger than human faith, that God will be faithful towards his covenant, Givens (2014) writes, “The covenant is the creator God’s irrevocable marriage with Israel; Israel bears God’s name for better or for worse. And Jesus’ death is the love of this marriage covenant in its fullness, the Passover of all Israel’s Passovers. It is not blood shed for only some of Israel, not for only those who embrace Jesus as Messiah. All have abandoned him. It is blood shed for the whole people of Israel, the many who are enduring the curses of God’s covenant love. The love of God in Messiah takes up, and is therefore stronger than, the deepest resistance Israel can offer: even when all the people gathers to choose the violence of the lawless way of Jesus Barabbas and call this blood of Jesus Messiah upon themselves and their children (2725), they have found themselves declaring in their defiance their very own coming forgiveness.”
The modern discourse of peoplehood (persons) has taught us that humans are sovereign over who they choose to be, and that empires use people as replaceable items, almost like toys on a shelf that can be taken down and put back when they are no longer needed or wanted (this has lead us to believe God is the same way, erecting and fabricating a god in our own image). But we must guard against our tendency to name the true people and false people; Israel’s Scriptures are more complex than this (see Givens book). We must remember that Jesus bore the covenant curses on the cross, dying for the faithful and unfaithful. Where does this leave us in an age of friction and violence, an age where we are taught to hate the false people we have been taught to name, the people not like us? In an age where the Jewish and Christian schism is still very much a real issue, where countries and borders are divided, where injustice reigns, races and nationalities are seen as superior (inherently better) to other so – called humans with different skin tones, greed and exploitation are seen as pure and holy. Human history is full of naming “we the people,” but we must remember our story, roots, and the human story which calls us to remember our God, the God of our ancestors, the God who created us in his image. Givens (2014) writes, “Let us read the Bible more carefully, so as to tell the gospel as a story of the deepest solidarity rather than violent supersession. And let that story of God’s love inform our ways of mingling our flesh with those from whom our current borders divide us, be they territorial or deeper boundaries, the catholicity of Jesus is not a matter of “truthful” assertions from a safe distance, but the most self-implicating kind of political economic practice, a politics which itself opens our ears to hear the gospel as we not before and to Jesus as we not before. Because the catholic way of Jesus is the politics of God’s election of Israel that culminates in cross and resurrection, we should expect it to be more dangerous than we anticipate, and at once a life of peculiar hope, a life of hospitality that the New Testament calls faith.”
Givens, T. (2014). We The People, Israel and the Catholicity of Jesus. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.