Identity Politics Revisited

(previously published January 19, 2019)

I haven’t been watching a lot of news lately. I find it necessary and infinitely more beneficial to keep my focus on Scripture, worship, work, and what I sense the Spirit is saying each day.

Even so, none of us can escape the reality that the political and social landscape is not pretty. That’s an understatement. Referring to our eternal, reliable source of knowledge and wisdom leads us to understand how the cultural climate ought to affect us within our own spheres of influence.

There is a prevailing hostility and divisiveness in our culture. People are defining and aligning themselves with others according to some aspect of their identity—skin color, ethnicity, language, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, or some combination of the above. Their specialness is purported to entitle them to some distinct, ordained audience or influence upon social policy, without regard for how this impacts society as a whole.

I believe the pundits call this “identity politics.” It is “us-and-them-ism,” to coin a phrase. The Bible speaks of this social phenomenon in many places.

In his letter to the Philippians, the Apostle Paul lists the markers of his identity, his special-ness. He was:

circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless” (Phil 3: 5-6).

For a Jew of his day, he had an outstanding pedigree. It set him apart from others who were not like him. But instead of boasting about or standing upon these markers of his status, Paul remarkably calls it all a big pile of dung, or garbage, or manure, or worthless trash, depending on what translation one is reading.

How can Paul proclaim this? For the answer, we can look at some turning points found in the Acts of the Apostles.

Before his conversion, Paul was called Saul. He was a zealous Pharisee, a self-righteous defender of the Law of Moses and rabbinic tradition, ruthlessly pursuing followers of the Way. He was determined to do his part to put a stop to a gospel message that seemed to be spreading like a virus throughout the Roman Empire.  Saul saw Christians as a threat to his own beliefs and way of living (sound familiar?), so he sought to snuff them out.

But something happened along the way. He encountered the risen Christ himself.

Saul heard the voice of Jesus calling to him. He was knocked off his horse and struck blind for three days. God sent a humble disciple to lay hands on Saul, restore his sight, and communicate his calling as an apostle of Christ.  After this, he got a new name and a new assignment.

Paul tore up his old resume. His Jewishness and religiosity didn’t count for a thing anymore. His training with the rabbis only mattered to the extent that he could cite Scriptures proving that Jesus Christ was the Messiah they had been waiting for.

As a missionary, Paul went first to the Jews because they were his people. When in a new town on his missionary journeys, he started his preaching in the synagogues. But he soon realized that God had commissioned him to bring the good news to the Gentiles. In Antioch of Pisidia he rebuked the unbelieving Jews, saying,

We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:46).

Before encountering Jesus, he wouldn’t have considered defiling himself by keeping company with Gentiles!

At around the same time, Peter was experiencing his own turning point. While lost in prayer on a rooftop, the Lord showed him a vision of all sorts of creatures considered unclean for Jews to eat.  He commanded Peter to kill and eat them.

Peter protested, defending his religious purity. (This seems a strange way to communicate, but the Lord can be as strange toward us as he likes). The revelation to Peter was, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (Acts 10:15).

The application of the revelation was soon understood when messengers knocked on the door, summoning Peter to minister to a Gentile centurion and his household. When they readily received the word and the Spirit, Peter reported to his friends, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism” (Acts 10:34).

There it is.  God does not show favoritism, or as the King James has it, he is “not a respecter of persons.

In the cultures of this world, all the things that make us appear different to one another are used to justify our hostility and defensiveness. But these attitudes are invalid in the kingdom of our Lord. God doesn’t play the game of identity politics. God is high above in his perfection, and as the preachers say, we all stand on the same level ground at the foot of the Cross.

To be imitators of our Lord and God, we mustn’t play favorites either. We must love without partiality, without hypocrisy (James 2:1-9; Rom. 12:9, 18) those who are like us, and those who are unlike us. It is only our love for our God that sets us apart as one family from every tongue, tribe and nation.

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith,for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

(Gal 3:26-28).

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