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The Identity Dilemma ©

Two stories highlight the critical issue of Christian identity.  Both come from incidents in my pastoral ministry.  In the first instance a young adult found himself involved with a mission ministry reaching out to the homeless in our community.  He found himself working alongside a woman who was a deeply devout practicing Christian (and church member).  Coming from a stance that dismissed the Christian faith as superstitious nonsense, he took to calling her the “church lady.” The longer they worked together feeding the homeless and reaching out to those in needed the closer the two of them grew.  Despite a considerable age difference (something like 25 years), he was fascinated by her commitment.  He started asking why she did this (meaning the work helping the poor, etc.).  The “church lady” replied by sharing stories like the Good Samaritan and the Parable of the Judgment of Nations (Matthew 25:40 – “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’”)  She talked matter of factly about what it meant to give your life to Christ and follow the Lord Jesus as a Disciple. As the conversation slowly unfolded, their political convictions were shared.  The “church lady” connected her commitment to Jesus Christ with her passion for social justice.  She readily conveyed her conviction social justice called for a support of the Democratic Party in the United States. In time the young man became a Christian and, like her, connected his commitment with a political identity as a Democratic.  As a Christian he was sold out on for social justice issues.  To him, if you were really a Christian, you must be a liberal Democrat in 21st Century America. The second story is similar but with the opposite political identity.  While serving as a pastor, we had a young new mother come to new mothers’ group that was a part of our women’s ministry.  She spoke of a growing conviction that she need to “reconnect with God” now that she had a child.  A friend who was a member of the church invited her to attend the group. Most of those in this particular group lived a nearby affluent neighborhood.  The social context was largely Republican.  As this new mother inquired about the Christian faith, she gradually began to connect her understanding of Christianity with her previous social affinity to the Republican Party.  Through her friendship, almost by osmosis, she connected political commitments of pro-family, pro-life, anti-tax increases, pro-death penalty and the like to her faith.  In time she gave her life anew to Christ and, with her husband, joined the church on the Sunday we baptized their baby. Later I overheard a conversation with a friend.  She was explaining that as a Christian of course she was a Republican.  To her, the two axiomatically went together. I celebrate both of their affirmations that Jesus Christ was their Lord and Savior.  And yet even in my celebration I choke.  Listening to each, I could not escape the conclusion that their primary identity came more to their political convictions than to their allegiance to Christ. To confess Christ as Lord and Savior is to proclaim one’s primary allegiance to Him alone!  the great trinitarian God – God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit – will not accept anything but first place in our lives!  Yet here lies the identity dilemma in our time.  Often, given the current polarization in American culture.  Our identity is formed as a political identity.  In an earlier blog, I remarked, “Painfully we are learning that the Christian faith cannot be subsumed under any political label.  It is not something that adheres to the conservative wing of the Republican Party or the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.  The challenge from the Master cuts across our conventions and finds its own identity in Christ and him alone towering above all pygmied pretenders (be they party, nationality, ethnicity, economic or anything else).” By way of example, I lift up two issues where there is a profound sense of both political polarization and ardent identity – abortion and the death penalty.  Generally speaking in American culture, Republicans are more apt to be anti-abortion [pro-life], and Democrats are more apt to protect a woman’s right of choice [pro-choice].  I am aware that there are plenty of exceptions, but in general this cultural/political identity is accurate.  The flip is also true for the death penalty.  Generally speaking in American culture, Republicans are more apt to be in favor of the death penalty for those convicted of first-degree murder and Democrats are more apt to be opposed to the death penalty in principle. Again, I am aware that there are plenty of exceptions, but in general this cultural/political identity is accurate. As a civil populace tend to accept a package of issues together as a part of our political convictions.  Thus, the combination of abortion and the death penalty operate in a linked way when our primary identity is a political identity.  The link is broken when our primary identity is in Christ. Significantly, the earliest Christians living in a deeply pagan culture did not have their identity shaped by politics.  (Though it should be noted that most Romans of their time did!  Were you for or against Caesar?  Were you in favor of expanding the empire or not?  They had their days version of what passed for political parties.)  Christian instead were convinced that to confess Jesus as Lord meant that following Jesus (what discipleship is all about) above, beyond and regardless of political learnings or persuasion. To complete the example, the earliest Christians were passionately against that day’s version of abortion (which was to abandon unwanted babies at the city dump) and ardently opposed the death penalty (even more the most hardened criminals).  Allegiance to Christ towered above any and all other political convictions.  They refused to link moral positions with one political grouping (that day’s version of a political party) over another’s.  They steadfastly refused to align the nascent Christian movement with any political position! Today our political identity (and our sad contribution to the current state of polarization in the United States) often revolves around the narrative (or story framework) out of which we operate.  More often than not our identity has been co-opted by politics.  In a provocative article entitled “The Missio Dei in the USA: the Challenge of a Baffling Cultural and Political Context” Professor Kenneth J. Collins notes, “Christians take up political rhetoric that is employed both within and without the church and then claim it as their own.” (Note the article is soon to be published in a book with other articles written on the Missio Dei – the mission of the church – by the United Methodist General Board of Higher Education & Ministry.)  Professor Collins offers as simple chart developed by Arnold Kling.  Each of the typologies offered have strengths which need to be acknowledged.  Each also carries with it significant weaknesses which can block reconciliation.  For progressives, history is ripe with examples of those oppressed and those who are oppressors.  The struggle of slavery in America or the horror of the Holocaust are prime examples.  For conservatives, history is like replete with instances where rebellion lead to the imposition of an even more brutal dictatorship.  The horror of Mao Zedong’s cultural revolution in China and the sheer barbarism of ISIS rule both offer evidence of the need for civilization remain ascendant of cultural and political barbarism and chaos.  The French revolution with its wanton excess and resulting reign of terror is the poster child for freedom run-a-muck. In my renewal leave conversations with Dr. Collins I made the following notes on each:
  • If we use “oppressor vs. oppressed” categories as our main framework. It demonizes one side of an issue and fails to see the evil in all of us. (It quickly devolves into a tribalism and which means that we never get to the place of reconciliation.) It fails to take seriously the universality of sin and will inevitably become ideological.  We have to get to a concept of universality in terms of sin and evil which recognizes both good and evil in all of us.
  • Looking at “civilization and barbarism” as the primary framework of how human life is understood can (often does!) result in a slowness to change or correct injustice (or even refusal to change by way of protecting privilege). (And yet multiculturalism has decentered western civilization; it puts us under an abstraction – a mainly a utopian vision.)  Common language, institutions, traditions, customs, worldview, etc. are important to a healthy functioning free and open society.
  • Libertarianism can easily descend into a “might makes right.” Without boundaries sin (both personally and corporately) can rein.  “It doesn’t recognize that for some people the freedom that you allow in area X (imagine drug abuse or violence as examples) can do some people great harm.”  Positive law has an education function.
The Wesleyan scholar Richard Heitzenrater notes that “The twenty-first century manifests the results of the politicization of the problem into a social obsession often largely out of touch with any religious or theological sensitivity. (Richard P. Heitzenrater, ed., The Poor and the People Called Methodists, p. 9.) I contend that a renewed Wesleyan church, a renewed Christian movement across denominations for that matter, must take on the hard work of tackling the identity dilemma.  This will start in places as common as our Sunday School class and parking lot, bumper-to-bumper pickup gatherings.  I have tried to show why I think our current political identities all (emphasis on all!) fall short of a Christian identity anchored in the creedal claim that Jesus is Lord.  However well the intentions each of them are, they are founded on a narrative that is foundationally unchristian. A Christian identity is founded on the great narrative of God’s love for all people; of the Creator Lord God coming to us in the person of Jesus the Christ and engaging us still this day through power and presence of the Holy Spirit.  Finding our driving identity anchored in the great triune God – God in Christ through power and presence of the Holy Spirit – will cut across all other clawing claimants for rule over our lives. We need to build (or more properly, rebuild) a church that is consciously counter culture in values and behavior based on doctrine, discipline and mission.  Given that the moral law promulgated by the Lord God is a part of our heritage, we at times may embrace those outside the church who share some common commitments, but we should never align so closely with them as to lose our primary identity in Chris.  We should be open to alliances in love, mercy and justice but remain unwilling to marry secular viewpoints no matter how attractive. I am reminded in a recent blog by Professor Kevin Watson on Wesley’s advice to Methodists: [caption id="attachment_3025" align="alignright" width="183"] (Image from Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library)[/caption] “You will give offence to the bigots for opinions, modes of worship, and ordinances, by laying no more stress upon them; to the bigots against them, by laying so much; to men of form, by insisting so frequently and strongly on the inward power of religion; to moral men (so called) by declaring the absolute necessity of faith in order to acceptance with God. To men of reason you will give offence by talking of inspiration and receiving the Holy Ghost; to drunkards, sabbath-breakers, common swearers, and other open sinners, by refraining from their company, as well as by that disapprobation of their behaviour which you will often be obliged to express. And indeed your life must give them continual offence; your sobriety is grievously offensive to a drunkard; your serious conversation is equally intolerable to a gay [note: Wesley means lighted hearted or carefree] impertinent; and, in general, that ‘you are grown so precise and singular, so monstrously strict, beyond all sense and reason, that you scruple so many harmless things, and fancy you are obliged to do so many others which you need not,’ cannot but be an offence to abundance of people, your friends and relations in particular.” (Taken from Kevin Watson, Blog “Deeply Committed”, 073118; https://vitalpiety.com/) Professor Watson goes on to comment:  The conclusion to his [Wesley’s]” ‘litany of offence’ is pretty straightforward: ‘Either therefore you must consent to give up your principles, or your fond hope of pleasing men.’”     I invite the reader to pause here.  In a hyper politized culture where most people get their identity based political identity or cultural convictions (the realm of what we tend to call “identity politics”) centering our identity on Christ is both difficult and strange.  It is “out of kilter” with the common culture and will raise angst and ire.  This is what Methodism did in Wesley’s day.  This is what it will do in ours.  We will not please those who seek our political, social and cultural embrace regardless of our faith commitments.  Professor Watson continues, “I’m not sure I could come up with a piece of advice from the founder of Methodism that would cut harder against the grain of contemporary Methodist sensibilities, at least in my part of The United Methodist Church. Here is what I understand Wesley to be saying: Being who you are will be offensive to others. You can either strive to please them, or you can be true to who God has called you to be and save your own souls and, God willing, theirs as well.” (Kevin Watson, Blog “Deeply Committed”, 073118; https://vitalpiety.com/)   To be continued ….blessings, Bishop Lowry