Recovering a Christian Identity ©

The Oscar winning movie Chariots of Fire captures a crucial aspect of Christian identity over politics, country, race or other claims to be a Christian’s primary identifier. The great Scottish Olympic runner Eric Liddell learns that the trials for the 100-meter heat are to be held on the Sabbath. Living in deep allegiance to Christ as his Lord, Liddell refuses to run on the Sabbath. He is roundly criticized for placing his faith (and Christian identity) above his country based on his understanding of the commandment to “Observe [honor] the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you.” (Deuteronomy 5:12) The young athlete is brought before the British Olympic Committee and immense pressure is placed on him to change his mind. His Royal Highness Edward the Prince of Wales and future King of England challenges him on the grounds of patriotic political loyalty. “There are times when we are asked to make sacrifices in the name of that loyalty. And without them our allegiance is worthless. As I see it, for you, this is such a time.” Eric Liddell responds, “Sir, God knows I love my country. But I can't make that sacrifice.” One of the leaders of the British Olympic Committee of 1924, Lord Cadogan, vociferously affirms the Prince’s challenge to Liddell’s deep identity as a Christ follower. Lord Cadogan: Hear, hear. In my day it was King first and God after. Duke of Sutherland: Yes, and the War To End Wars bitterly proved your point! Ignoring the Duke’s perceptive acknowledgement of the primacy of Christianity identity over country, politics, tribe or clan, Lord Cadogan continues to berate the young runner. Lord Cadogan: Don't be impertinent, Liddell! Eric Liddell: The impertinence lies, sir, with those who seek to influence a man to deny his beliefs! Later in the movie Eric Liddell tells a friend, “Sandy, the Kingdom of God is not a democracy. The Lord never seeks re-election. There are no referenda on which road to take. There's one right, one wrong, one absolute ruler.” (dialogue quotes taken from Chariots of Fire Quotes, ) In a culture where tolerance is routinely confused with indifference and religious conviction is often dismissed as fundamentalist rigidity, the depth of Eric Liddell’s allegiance to Christ and his strong adherence to Christian identity as primary in his life and values is arresting. It is worth noting that Eric Lidell did sacrifice for both faith and country. He went back to China as a Christian missionary. He was imprisoned by the Japanese when war came and died in a concentration camp working with the youth in the camp. He lived his commitment to Christ as Lord and Master. We, 21st century Christians, are challenged by this young man from not quite 100 years in the past. In the name of politeness, tolerance and good intentions, we have given up much, too much. It is time to graciously – without rancor, intolerance or false defense of privilege – reclaim a Christian identity as our primary identity in our fractured and fractious world. I believe we will begin to recover a Christian identity through at least three steps (there are more but let this be a beginning). 1. A lived commitment to Christ as Lord and Master. 2. Recovering the Fullness of the Christian Story (narrative) from creation to fall to Christ (teaching, death and resurrection) and filling to restoration of divine image within us and through us to others. 3. Recovering the practice of spiritual disciplines (being Methodical about the spiritual disciples – hence Methodist!) which anchor us in a Christ centered identity as we relate to the truly triune greatness of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. A lived commitment to Christ as Lord and Master. Back in the 1980s Eugene Peterson wrote a book entitled A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. The subtitle was equally significant, Discipleship in an Instant Society. Besides being a best seller that was reprinted in a 20th anniversary edition, the title teaches us a basic foundational aspect of faithfulness. Reclaiming a Christian identity as our primary identity involves a long lived (that is both believed and practiced) obedience to God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. This means following God’s will and commandments over our preferences and desires. It involves a following of Christ as Lord which takes us far beyond our feelings of the moment or even our ardent aspirations. At one-point writing about worship Peterson notes, “We can act ourselves into feeling. We shouldn’t worship only when we feel like it. The bible never says, worship when you feel like it. Instead it says to worship. The act of worship will bring about the feeling of worship far quicker than the feeling of worship will bring about the act of worship.” Such conviction must be multiplied to all areas of our life in the reclaiming of a Christian identity. I remember being ordained a Deacon in the United Methodist Church back in 1974. Bishop Kenneth Pope (retired and serving as Bishop in residence at Perkins School of Theology) presided over my ordination at First United Methodist Church of Ardmore, Oklahoma with Bishop Wasburn’s (my Bishop as a member of the Northern Illinois Conference) permission. (Working my way through school, I didn’t have the money to fly back to Illinois for the ordination service!) To this day I remember Bishop Pope saying, “We follow our commitments made in the high moments rather than our feelings in the bogs.” This is living a long obedience. It is practical application of a “lived commitment to Christ as Lord and Master.” Reclaiming our Christian identity through lived commitment will by necessity involve a rejection of “Caesar’s” language and framing of issues. Two basic examples. 1) However strongly we may desire secure borders and a reformed immigration policy, Christian identity refuses to let the framing of the ethical issues involved be defined solely by either the Republican or Democratic parties. A Christian identity will see refugees as children of God, people for whom Christ died, and simultaneously recognize legitimate needs for safety and the proper exercise of civil laws. At a minimum this means that in Christian identity people will not be demonized!  2) “Caesar” (i.e. political parties, ruling elites, and cultural convention) often present multiple issues in package form. As I noted in a previous blog (The Identity Dilemma), our political parties (and the larger society/culture) yoke issues in ways that Christians have historically rejected (the example I sighted dealt with early Christians' response to abortion and the death penalty). This is an example of an issue (or issues) being framed by the culture or political identity. Christian framing will reject the power of either culture or party to frame an issue. Framing issues often hinge on our choice of language. The rise of name calling and labeling in politics is a prime example. Christian identity will seek to avoid name calling while simultaneously offering a biblical witness that is unafraid to name sin or injustice. Christian identity will be welded to truth telling in language. The commandment not to bear false witness hasn’t been repealed. (“Do not testify falsely against your neighbor.” Deuteronomy 5:20) Choice of language goes deeper than simply name calling or truth telling. Labels can disguise the truth. Word labeling and spin can hide reality. A lived commitment to Christ as Lord and Master moves us to Christian identity that refuses to hide behind technically not telling a lie or offering only a partial truth. Our choice of language has biblical and theological implications in truth telling. God is not mocked by false labeling or even simply misleading slogans. In a political arena saturated by half-truths and snappy comebacks, Christians should be a people who stand out for their transparent truthfulness. In our current political debates, Christian identity challenges utopian assumptions that often (not always!) lie hidden behind social engineering. Like wise in our current political debates, Christian identity challenges greed and privilege that often (not always!) lie behind tax policy and budgeting. Truth telling is a crucial aspect of Christian identity. Next week …. Recovering the Fullness of the Christian Story (narrative)