Calling and chosenness
In an episode of the most recent season of House of Cards, when U.S. President Francis Underwood has a late-night spiritual crisis, he summons the bishop and heads to church. The bishop tells Underwood – the protagonist and villain of the show – that there’s no such thing as absolute power. “You weren’t chosen, Mr. President,” he says, pointing at the altar crucifix. “Only he was.” After, left alone for a few minutes of reflection, Underwood stands in front of the statue and stares it down. “Love. That’s what you’re selling,” he says, and spits in Jesus’ face.
It’s a powerful, horrifying scene. But after moving past my desire to leap from the couch and defend my saviour – and recovering from the satisfaction I felt when the crucifix throws itself to the floor rather than let Underwood wipe up his mess – I was most troubled by the bishop’s words. Only Jesus was chosen? That doesn’t sound biblical.
And it’s not, really. The good book has numerous references to being chosen. On one hand, Christians can claim chosenness with great confidence: Matthew speaks of “the few,” I Peter tells of a “chosen race” and Ephesians looks back, before creation, to tell of being “chosen in him.” On the other, I think there can be danger in knowing how chosen we are.
No softer alternative
House of Cards is a character study of Underwood’s hubris and total ambition – in this poignant scene, religion is employed as a counterpoint to those aims. Not that I’d hang my salvation on the words of a fictional TV clergyman, of course, but I think the bishop’s words still carry weight. Step back. You’re not as chosen as you might think you are. Look around.
We tend to use the word “called” when we speak about our gifts and goals as a softer alternative to being chosen, but there are times when the words carry the risk of being used synonymously. Regardless of whether the speaker uses Called or Chosen, how often have we heard fellow Christians speak about their theologies, vocations or opinions with biblically chosen language?
I’ve been called to . . .
I believe I was chosen to . . .
I’m the only one who can . . .
How often would we eye those statements – and perhaps those who utter them – with a dose of healthy skepticism? Not very, I’d say. We tend to accept our contemporaries at face value when they talk about Calling, which is, thankfully, correct and just: the majority of work and discourse pursued by Christians in the name of Calling is true, noble and right.
It’s easy to point at the fictional U.S. President in House of Cards and identify his failings, but we tend to shy away from critiquing failings of Calling within our communities. It’s difficult to challenge a fellow believer – or an institution, for that matter – even when we might suspect that the nature of that calling might have been corrupted. Even when over time, as beliefs and activities initiated under the banner of Chosenness and Calling gather momentum, hubris, stubbornness, apathy and even unbiblical misdirection become more than merely invisible, but part of the fabric of long-accepted norms.
Do we . . .
But question we must. Here are a few examples:
Do we regularly evaluate our in-church ministries to assess their ability to answer the biblical mandate to love neighbours outside our congregational walls, or do we maintain favourite ministries to keep people happy and fulfill ministry quotas?
Do we pass our collection plates intentionally and prayerfully, or do we collect non-budgetary money for the same charities and initiatives again and again, regardless of how those institutions have evolved?
Do we regularly interrogate our organizational and denominational structures to reflect the changing needs and realities of our communities and people, or do we follow the same protocols and procedures regardless?
Do we evaluate our finances as dynamic and ever-changing, or do we cut-and-paste our spreadsheet details year after year?
Do we send missionaries out with a constant eye on social justice and fiscal responsibility, or do we assume that “Ministry” means “Overseas Ministry,” simply opening our wallets to denominational coffers and the flood of individual “partnering” requests?
While Ephesians 1:4 certainly provides assurances of God’s call to us, it says we are chosen for the goal of being holy and blameless in the sight of God; a charge far higher than anything we could imagine or create. “Mr. President,” the bishop might say, “it’s not the word Chosen we’re supposed to focus on at all.”