The Church & The Politics of Identity

The politics of identity has been with us since the fall of mankind.  The Book of Genesis tells us that man and woman were created in the image of God. (Genesis 1:26-27).  In the beginning, their identity was rooted entirely in their intimate relationship with God as His image-bearers.  But when Adam and Eve rebelled against their Maker, their identity as image-bearers of God was shattered, driving them to a crisis of identity and to the genesis of identity politics in human society.  This new politics of identity would find its primordial expression in sexism and the struggle for power between the two genders: “Then [God] said to the woman, . . . “[Y]ou will desire to control your husband, but he will rule over you.’” (Genesis 3:16b) (NLT).

In the generations that ensued, the politics of identity would expand from sexism to encompass, inter alia, clanism, tribalism, ethnicism, racism, classism, nationalism, and religionism.  Man became obsessed with finding a way to unify his now fractured and fragmented identity.  He desperately sought a unifying reality that would: (i) restore an integrated understanding of self; (ii) recreate a meaningful (even eternal) sense of purpose; (iii) and reestablish a functional paradigm that (re)conceptualized and (re)defined his horizontal relationship with the temporal and his vertical relationship with the transcendent (assuming there even were such a thing).

Unfortunately, Man’s efforts to repair his fractured identity could not restore what had been broken.  The politics of identity did not lead him closer to the peace and unity, much less the comprehensive sense of self and the clarity of meaning and purpose, that he enjoyed before the fall.  Instead, identity politics drove Man even farther from Eden — it led to an increase in conflicts, wars, misunderstandings, and confusion.  Jesus Christ, however, came to restore what had been lost.  He came to re-integrate Man’s identity as an image-bearer of his Maker, and to restore Man’s relationship with God through His sacrifice on the Cross.

In so doing, Jesus established a New Order whereby Man’s identity could be fully re-integrated with his Creator through Jesus Himself.  Specifically, by placing our faith in Jesus to reconcile us with God, and to fully reestablish us as His image-bearers, we become one with Jesus, and His identity becomes our own.  His Spirit comes to live within us, and we begin to share in His purpose, destiny, and divine inheritance. (Cf. Matthew 28:18-20; John 14:12, 17:20-22; Romans 8:17; 1 Corinthians 12:27; Galatians 3:28).

Under Jesus’ New Order, all who place their faith in Him experience a rebirth and renewal of their identities as perfect image-bearers of their Creator.  In this New Order, Man (re)discovers a holistic sense of self; (re)gains an understanding of his transcendent purpose; recovers his inheritance as a child (and image-bearer) of God; and, through God’s written Word, receives divine revelation for understanding and processing his relationships with the horizontal and vertical elements of his existence.  As a result, Man now has the potential to live at peace with his Creator, with himself, and with others.

Jesus established the Church to be both the herald and the embodiment of His redemptive and restorative work in a fallen world.  Unfortunately, however, the politics of identity have threatened the Church’s witness since its inception.  From the moment it was conceived by the Spirit of Jesus, the Church has struggled to live according to its new identity in Him, as opposed to the fractured and divisive politics of identity in this world.

The Apostle Paul recognized the danger of identity politics in the early Church, and spoke forcefully against it.  He reminded the Galatian Christians that, in Christ, “[t]here is no longer Jew or Gentile [i.e., neither racism or ethnicism], slave or free [i.e., no classism], male and female [i.e., no sexism]”; rather, they all were “one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)(NLT).  Paul also warned against a form of religionism that threatened to compromise the Corinthian Church — denominationalism.  In 1 Corinthians 1 and 3, Paul lovingly corrected the Corinthian Christians with these words:

One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? . . .

[S]ince there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings?

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul?

. . . So then, no more boasting about human leaders! All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.  (1 Corinthians 1:12-13a; 3:3b-5a, 21-23)(NIV).

For centuries, however, the Church has continually been seduced by the politics of identity.  Indeed, it was the politics of religionism and denominationalism in England that catalyzed the colonization and, ultimately, the founding of the United States of America.  As America’s founding fathers began to develop new communities in a new world, they theorized that perhaps the solution to the divisive and destructive politics of identity was to ground Man’s identity in a principle, rather than in a polity or political institution (which the Church in Europe had become).

And so, our founders proposed a novel philosophical solution to the politics of identity — they invited their fellow American colonists not to unity behind a particular party, polity, or prelacy, but rather to unity behind a singular, comprehensive, and transcendent principle that was articulated by Thomas Jefferson, a leading apostle of the nascent American Experiment: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  This American Experiment was creative, inspiring, alluring, and provocative.  But it, too, has failed to resolve the seemingly intractable problem of the politics of identity, because the answer to the problem cannot be found in a principle, it can only be found in a person — Jesus.  This is a truth that the Church often has neglected and/or forgotten over the centuries and, as a result, it: (i) has left Man vulnerable to continue seeking ways of mending, comprehending, and defining his fractured self through the politics of identity; and (ii) has become increasingly vulnerable itself to the divisive and destructive nature of identity politics.

Today, the politics of identity is threatening to tear both our nation and the Church asunder.  Politicians, pundits, propagandists, professors, and, yes, even pastors serve as proponents of identity politics, increasing and expanding the destruction it engenders.  Indeed, rather than bringing unity and clarity to human relationships, our identity politics is fomenting division, misunderstanding, confusion, and even hatred.  The racial escalations that followed the Ferguson and Baltimore tragedies; the media’s irresponsible and inflammatory hype and insinuations surrounding the church arsons in recent days; the elevation of sexual orientation to a position of primacy in defining identity; the argument that a person who is genetically male may legitimately self-identify as female, or that a person who is genetically female may legitimately self-identify as male (cf. Genesis 1:27) — all of these reflect the division, confusion, and destructiveness attendant to an obsession with identity politics.

It saddens me that rather than offering the clarity, unity, freedom and peace that grounding our identity in Jesus brings, the Church in America instead has largely adopted our culture’s destructive and divisive mindset — it continues to divide itself along denominational/theological lines, along ethnic and racial lines, and even along gender and political lines:

  • Baptists and Reformed Christians continue to deride Pentecostals as theologically shallow, and Pentecostals continue to dismiss Baptists and Reformed Christians as unspiritual.
  • White Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and African-Americans often cloister themselves in congregations with members of the same race or ethnicity.  And denominations (including my own) often institutionalize these divisions by organizing themselves into districts (groups of churches) that are divided according to race and/or ethnicity.
  • Socially conservative churches disparage socially liberal churches as heretical, and socially liberal churches vilify socially conservative churches as intolerant and bigoted.

By succumbing to the politics of identity, the Church in America is compromising its witness and its ability to serve as a transformational agent of redemption and reconciliation in our culture.  We possess the answer to mankind’s millennia-long quest to rediscover its true identity and to re-experience the horizontal and vertical peace, unity, and clarity of purpose Adam and Eve enjoyed in Eden.  Our answer is found not in a political ideology, nor in a psychological assessment, nor in a philosophical principle, but rather in a person — Jesus Christ.  If the Church (re)embraces that truth, and if it chooses to live in a manner that is more consistent with that truth, then the politics of identity will lose its grip on the Church and on our society, and it will be replaced with the only identity that truly matters — the identity available to every human being through Jesus Christ.

In the Book of Revelation, the Apostle John describes the eschatological fulfillment of Jesus’ redemptive work. It is a new era in which gender, race, nationality, class, party affiliation, and denomination no longer matter, a time when an innumerable multitude of people from every nation, tribe, and tongue will worship Jesus together, and in unity, before His throne. (Revelation 7:9-10).  John’s prophetic vision is a hope-filled reminder to the Church that it already embodies and represents the potential of this future eschatological reality.  It is a reality God intends not only for tomorrow, but for today!  And He has created His Church to be the bridge between the now and the not yet, to be the means by which He invades our present circumstance with this future hope.

Shall we begin?