Rediscovering Christ in the Age of Identity Politics

posted in: Culture, Race, Theology | 0

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus

Galatians 3:28 (ESV)

Intersectionality and Christianity

In recent years, the American motto e pluribus unum, Latin for “out of many, one” has been replaced by “out of one, many”.  Identity politics fractures our identity into a plethora of identities based on race, education, sexuality, ability, age, gender, ethnicity, culture, language, and class (among others). 

Gender alone has more than 100 variances, and the list is only growing.  Acronyms like LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) have metastasized into LGBTTQQIAAP (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Transsexual, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Asexual, Ally, Pansexual).

It feels very much like these identities are taking over everything in life.  Jack is no longer just a person, but a privileged white male.  John is no longer just my neighbor, he is African-American. 

The church is not immune to this.  Indeed, in the last couple of years identity politics has taken center stage in the Southern Baptist Convention and in major publications like The Gospel Coalition, led by popular pastor, Tim Keller.  Terms like “white privilege,” “race consciousness,” and “social justice,” once isolated in use to left-leaning fringe groups, are now actively taught from the pulpit in many mainstream congregations.

All of this raises an important question: are we stronger and more united as Christians when our identities are deconstructed into dozens of sub-group identities?

2008: My Political Awakening

The 2008 presidential election was fascinating to watch unfold.  It was an election in which identity politics took center stage.  It featured New York Senator, Hillary Clinton (D), as potentially the first female president; and Illinois Senator Barack Obama (D), as potentially the first black president.  And it included Arizona Senator John McCain (R), who seemed to represent the Patriarchy, the old system run by aging white males. 

During the run up to the election, Hillary Clinton was the front-runner.  The enthusiastic media gushed over Clinton, hailing her as the boulder that would smash the “glass ceiling” for women, and what a wonderful thing this was that a woman was thriving in a traditionally man’s world.  They were ecstatic.  But then two events changed the media’s narrative entirely.  First, Clinton lost in the primaries to Senator Barack Obama.  Second, John McCain nominated Alaska Governor, Sarah Palin, as his vice-presidential running mate.

Instantly, overnight, the media changed their mind about the “glass ceiling”. No longer were they happy that a woman would potentially gain such a powerful office. They relentlessly mocked Palin, calling her stupid and down-home. They made fun of her looks, her intelligence, her style and her family. They were brutal.  They hated her.

I marveled at this.  By all accounts, Sarah Palin was exactly the kind of woman feminists and the media love.  She was attractive – a former Miss Alaska contestant – she had a career and a family, and was a kind of maverick in her home state.  Twice she vetoed pay raises for her office and had sold a private jet that had been part of the Governor’s office in order to save money for her state.  She had seemingly taken on the Good Ole’ Boys club of Alaska and the Big Oil companies, feats which would have typically garnered her high marks in feminist society.  But they hated her.  Not just a minor irritating sort of dislike.  They really hated this woman.  Why?

Primary Versus Secondary Identities

Every person is comprised of numerous identities – Native American, Californian, Baptist, Republican, white, Girl Scout, sales agent, first baseman, the list is endless – and within those identities we have primary and secondary identities.  They explain who we are as individuals, even though they are often in conflict with each other at various times.  For example: an honest salesman runs into conflict when his desire to make an important sale tempts him to embellish a product’s potential.

Our primary identity is that identity which supersedes the rest.  It is the dominant identity we side with whenever it comes in conflict with any of our other identities.

When I understood this for the first time, it was as if a light went on in my head and illuminated everything around me.  I believe understanding this principle is key to understanding nearly everything in politics and even religion.

So, to answer my own question from earlier – why did feminists and the media hate Sarah Palin? – they hated her because the overwhelming majority of feminists identify themselves primarily as Progressives.  They were all about the “glass ceiling” until it conflicted with their Progressive ideology, at which point they were willing to cannibalize another woman who didn’t share their primary identity.  In other words, they are not – and never were – for women.  They are for Progressivism.

Identity politics is full of groups, both on the Left and on the Right, whose primary identity is at odds with how they present themselves to the public.  This is more prevalent on the Left, however, where identity politics reigns supreme.

But there is a simple test one can perform in order to un-mask a person’s dominant identity.  It is not failsafe, but rather should raise a red flag in our minds.  The test is this: look for the modifier.

In the English language, an adjective is a word associated with a noun which either explains or modifies the noun. 

Regarding identities, when you place an adjective in front of a noun it modifies its meaning and takes precedence.  The adjective signals the primary identification.  For example, African-Americans place more importance on being black than on being American.  Gay Christians claim to follow Christ until it conflicts with their primary identity, homosexuality. 

Whenever you add an adjective to a word you fundamentally change its definition. When you add “social” to “justice” you are modifying the word “justice” to mean something other than “justice”.  Similarly, when Christians add a qualifying adjective to the front of their name – i.e. I am a “Gay Christian” – they are signaling a fundamental shift in primary identity.

Baptism Into One Body

For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and all were made to drink of one Spirit.

I Corinthians 12:13 (ESV)

This verse summarizes the biblical teaching on identity.  Baptism symbolizes Christ’s death on the cross for our sins and His subsequent defeat of death by His resurrection on the third day.  We are baptized to announce to the world that we share with Christ in His death and resurrection.  From that point forward, we are choosing to shed our former identities in order to join together in one Spirit.

It’s important, I believe, that Paul never says following Christ negates all of your other identities (i.e. Jew, Gentile, American, black, Californian, male, etc.).  After all, he writes letters to different churches grouped by region (i.e. Corinth), and clear gender roles are outlined for the church.  Following Christ does not stop you also being a man or a woman, rather it places all of your secondary identities under submission to your primary identity in Christ so that being a man means being a godly man and being a woman means being a godly woman.

A Divided Christ

This proper view of identity is, however, under attack in the church today.  For example, during The Gospel Coalition’s 2018 women’s conference (TGCW18), white women were barred from a “Women of Color” gathering with the following rationale:

TGCW18 will hold a special Women of Color (WOC) gathering because of those shared, distinct experiences. I understand that many white women attending TGCW18 deeply and sincerely desire to participate in an event like this so they can learn. Praise the Lord! May their tribe increase! However, we run the risk of the audience growing so large (and perhaps even resulting in our sisters of color being the minority at an event specifically designed for them to be the majority) that the goal of cultivating a space for more honest discussion and direct encouragement for women of color would be compromised.

Legacy Disciple

May your “tribe” increase…so long as your tribe stays over there.  One can only imagine the outrage and media attention were a session dedicated to “cultivating a space for more honest discussion” for white women only.  Be that as it may, notice how color of skin became the superseding identity at a conference for Christians who are women. And notice how the word “tribe” was used.

I love the church, but I love black people more. Black lives matter to me. I am not confident that they matter to the Southern Baptist Convention.

Lawrence Ware, “Why I’m Leaving the Southern Baptist Convention, New York Times

Again, one can only fathom the response were this quote about whites and not blacks.  But Lamar Ware  illustrates the larger issue of identity in the church today.  These examples are the modern version of what Paul preached against when he said “What I mean is that each one of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ.’  Is Christ divided?” (I Corinthians 1:12-13 ESV) Do we create and foster unity by subdividing Christ into so many different identity groups? 

I am convinced the answer from Scripture is a clear “No.”  If there are disputes within the church let us deal with them as unified Christians, not as “African-American” and “Privileged White.”

Someone will ask: “Okay, but what of real issues of race in the church?”  Again, can we not deal with each issue as Christians giving rebuke, grace, forgiveness and love in appropriate measure?  I do not see any biblical support for fighting one injustice by creating another.  To fight racial stereotypes by fostering other racial stereotypes leads to division not unity.  All of these separate identities serve only as a distraction to the Gospel.

This, I think, is the essence of I Corinthians 3:3-4 when Paul writes “…For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?  For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not being merely human?”

Paul’s antidote for division is found in his opening words to the church at Corinth: “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.”  – I Corinthians 1:10

We are saved by grace through faith in Christ alone.  We are of the same Spirit.  Why, then, should Christians divide that Spirit by modifying our identity into sub-groups that bicker with each other?

May it never be!

Follow Micah Hershberger:

Micah graduated from The Master's University with a degree in Communications. He is an avid book reader and audiobook listener with a special love of biblical pre-Flood history. Micah lives in Montana, where he pursues his interests in writing and photography.