The culture of identity politics has infected the church. Thirty to forty years of a gradually coalescing movement in the culture is threatening to replace, or at least supplement the identity that God’s people are given in Christ Jesus.
Christians are in danger of allowing this cultural phenomenon to become their primary boundary markers when it comes to their relationships with fellow believers, and the people with whom they choose to do church. Worse still, they are in danger of judging fellow believers on the basis of secular and ungodly paradigms.
Of course I would say that, wouldn’t I?, being a white, middle aged, middle class Anglo-Saxon Protestant and all, the epitome of all that is privileged.
But therein lies the point. My primary identity is in Christ. If those things are benefits in the Western context (though ironically they’re increasingly seen as liabilities as identity politics takes hold in the public square) they mean nothing to Jesus. He is the one who calls us and gives us a new identity. It’s a point not lost on the Apostle Paul as he grapples with a church in Corinth that is smitten by the identity badges that the culture holds out to it.
The Corinthian church is so wrapped up in the wisdom and identity of this age that Christians are bringing law suits against other Christians, and that before the secular courts:
Paul sweeps all of their secondary – and now former – identities aside when he says in 1Corinthians 6:
7The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? 8Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers and sisters. 9Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men 10nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
That is what some of you WERE. Paul makes it clear that in Christ the old identities and life practices have been swept away by the redeeming and renewing work of Jesus. And note that Paul includes identities that we would not wish to celebrate in our culture today (swindlers, greedy etc), with many our culture is pressing us to celebrate (those practicing homosexuality, adulterers [we DO celebrate the fact that people should be true to themselves when they leave a spouse for someone else don’t we?]).
Of course the majority of the church culture does not celebrate such identity markers, though sadly some do. However we have certainly fallen into line with the identity politics markers in terms of Left and Right, of gender and race. There is a serious fracturing among God’s people in these areas and, it seems to me, an inordinate amount of ink, time and money spilled in Christian versions of each of these, as if somehow extrapolating them and celebrating them will bring God’s people closer together.
No. The scandal of the gospel is that it subsumes cultural identity politics under God’s cosmic identity politics. Who we are in Christ is our primary understanding of ourselves – and each other.
And it’s not as if Paul ever called people to do as he said, not as he did. This is the man whose identity was wrapped up in his exclusive, privileged Jewish upbringing, one that ticked all the boxes of cultural power in his setting. And he gave it all up, not mournfully and with a sighing resignation, but joyfully:
What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ, counting it as rubbish, for the sake. (Phil 3:8)
Unless you really get what a privilege it is to have your identity wrapped up in Christ then putting aside all other cherished identities will be a chore, not a delight.
Identity politics in the church has the pernicious habit of becoming a “gospel-plus” issue. Gospel-plus issues are sneaky. They come to the gospel with a soothing promise to be subservient to the gospel, to be the unimportant, innocuous add-ons. But here’s the rub. A wise man told me that whenever you add to the gospel, you subtract from the gospel. And before long whatever you add to the gospel becomes the thing that counts.
Don’t believe me? Then read Paul’s letter to the Galatian church. Their gospel freedom was under threat from an identity politics that assured the Galatian believers that they had nothing to lose by adding on Jewish identity politics – circumcision and food laws – to their new-found faith. Paul, on the contrary, declared that they had everything to lose. Everything.
Of course we wouldn’t fall for that, would we? Except St Peter did. Peter the man who had been with Jesus from the beginning. He fell for it, hook, line and sinker. He didn’t see it until Paul shamed him publicly for it, pointing out his inconsistency with the gospel.
We need to take that to heart. We are not adding to the gospel by pouring time and attention into the identity markers and the identity politics that the secular framework of late modernity is pressing upon us. When a church or community acquiesces to the culture’s narrative in these areas, it is holding up its hands to the culture and saying “You know what? We’ll let you set the agenda. We’ll let you determine how we view ourselves. How we view others. How we relate to those who agree or disagree with us on these matters.” That’s not a supplement to the gospel nor is it a solution for the church. It is a rejection of the gospel and poison for the church.
Refuse it all. Reject it all. Let the culture refuse and reject us on the basis that we won’t play its identity politics games. As the culture presses the church in the coming decades to define itself more and more by its rules, let’s buck that system and identity ourselves with the One who is not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters by his calling (Hebrews 2:11). He is completely confident in our identity. We should be too.