A few weeks ago I wrote on this blog about the things I have learned from people who frown; a month before that about the joy of living in a neighborhood with people whose customs challenge me. I must be in a diversity mode these days.

Maybe that (plus my arrival in Tokyo for a two-month stay) is what led me to recall an episode of many years ago, when the reverse side of this mode shocked me–and reminded me how much we human beings share even when we’re being self-centered.

I was sitting on a cushion across a low table from my friend Manabe-san, engaging in a conversation about religious things. Our visits were intended to help me learn Japanese, but their primary effect was to stimulate my mind and deepen our friendship.

“I am convinced,” Manabe told me, “that Japan is God’s chosen country.” I think I gasped.

The thing that made his comment surprising was that Manabe was a deeply conservative Christian. Jesus, for him, was God’s only son; failure to believe in Christ sent a person to hell. “God’s favorite nation”–even though fewer than one percent of his fellow countrymen were Christian?

Why was he so sure, I asked, and he provided well thought out answers.

These days, I am less interested in Manabe’s answers than in the ideas his comment has fostered in my own set of beliefs as I have pondered the favorite nation idea across the years.

1. Manabe is simply wrong if he thinks Japan is better–or more “chosen”–than other countries, or if he thinks his land has some “special,” God-given right to power and prosperity. Japan is no more God’s favorite place than Israel is. Or the United States. Or Afghanistan. A universal God does not play favorites.

2. Yet Manabe is right. Japan is indeed God’s chosen land. So is Iraq. And Ireland and Namibia. Just this morning, as I went for a newspaper, I noticed Tokyo’s Olympics slogan stretched across an elementary school playground: Nihon da kara dekiru, “This is Japan; so we can do it!” That’s true, I thought, just as much as it would be true if one substituted Brazil, or Spain, or the United States. If the divine spirit flows through us all, we’re all capable of remarkable things.

3. This equation ought to apply to every area of life, not just to politics and national culture. My faith is special; some days I’d even call it “the best”–just as I would the faith of spiritual seekers in every religious tradition.

My family is wonderful; so are the Blegens, and the Chartoffs, and the Hoshinos, and the Husseins. To love my family passionately need not diminish the equally superlative qualities of other families. Nor should the specialness of theirs lessen the love I have for my own. As with faith and nation, it is not a competition.

The Quakers get my attention when they assert that there is something of God in each of us.

It is easy to see that in my two-year-old grandson Ryu. When he asked his father the other day where poop came from, then declared after hearing his father`s explanation that he must be eating poop, I grinned and saw something divine. That was easy.

That divine spark should be equally easy to see in the woman who comes by each morning and sorts through our neighborhood garbage, to make sure people have discarded the appropriate things for that day. My temptation is to dismiss her as eccentric, but there is a divine brightness in that fastidiousness.

There is that of the divine too in the fifty men and women who show up at 7:00 every morning at the nearby park to exercise loudly. And in the rule-inclined postal clerk who last week sent me home, grumbling, to get the right sized envelope. Even in the right-wing zealots who blare their nationalist slogans from soundtrucks and make me grimace.

I may dislike their views; I may wish them away from my nighborhood; I may even invoke imprecations on them. But I cannot deny that spark of spiritual energy that makes their commitment to something bigger than self wonderful–indeed, divine.

Again and again I am taken aback when I consider how much we human beings share. Even when we think different thoughts and follow conflicting ideologies, even when our customs vary, we nonetheless laugh and love and hurt and smile at the same things. We share a need to serve and a vision of giving ourselves to something beyond and above ourselves. That which joins us is too profound, in my reckoning, to be anything but divine.

So I think Manabe was right, though in ways he might not have realized. The Japanese are God’s chosen. So am I.