The Identity Politics of Christianity
Identity politics are unavoidable. For many, identity politics serve double duty as both sacrificial altar and god; for others, they are anathema. Count me among the latter, for the record. However, there is room for recognition that we Christians have a type of identity politics of our own that is deeply embedded in our faith.
The Apostle Paul made it clear in 2 Corinthians 5:17 that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” Being counted a Christian means that we are defined by being in Christ. The outworking of our personalities, opinions, and choices is to be dictated by the reality that our identity is no longer our own. We are called to represent King Jesus, and one of the ways we do so is by allowing his concerns and definitions to determine how we interact with other categories. Unfortunately, many conservative Christians are guilty of the opposite. They allow other categories to provide the definitions for their faith. This is often seen in the realm of politics.
I am a Republican; or, rather, I am a Christian who votes for Republicans. I do so because, as a Christian, my definitions and categories do not allow me to support any candidate who defends the murder of unborn babies. That, of course, takes the vast majority of Democrats out of consideration for my vote. That doesn’t mean that I can pull the lever for all, or even most, Republicans without feeling like my lever-pulling-hand has betrayed King Jesus on one level or another. The appropriate interplay between faith and politics can be very tricky, after all. That, however, does not excuse overt conflations of politics and faith in which political identity is allowed to set the boundaries.
In a recent letter to the editor of The Alabama Baptist, a pastor bemoaned the Southern Baptist Convention’s stance on the Syrian refugee crisis. Concerned about the safety of friends and family, he went so far as to speculate that SBC churches are going to become mosques. I empathize with the fear that can prompt people to put fingers to keyboard, but the letter writer’s rhetorical hyperbole aside, his letter crossed out of the realm of frightened citizen and into wrongfully connecting the words and categories of Jesus with a political position—an action that’s detrimental to the spread of the Gospel.
In the letter, the pastor declared that “my neighbors are the people that value the same standards of life and way of life that I value.”
That statement should raise theological alarm bells for any Christian who has even a passing familiarity with the Parable of the Good Samaritan. When asked by a lawyer who constitutes his neighbor, Jesus told the well-known parable of a man from Samaria who took time from his journey to help a fellow traveler. The very noticeable kicker for Jesus’ first century audience was that the Samaritan used resources to extend charity to someone who was decidedly not an individual with the same standards of living and way of life as his. In fact, the hurting traveler would have most likely operated under the assumption that his helper was worthy of being despised by virtue of the fact that he was a Samaritan. According to Jesus, our neighbors are...well...everyone. Because all humans are made in the image of God, all humans are neighbors according to Jesus, and all humans are to exhibit care and concern for each other, regardless of whether or not standards of living and ways of life are compatible.
To be charitable, I’m operating under the assumption (or at least hoping) that this pastor has preached Luke 10:25-36 in a manner that demonstrates proper exegesis. I hope his past sermons contradict his letter that denies the definition of neighbor provided by Jesus. I understand that this example is low-hanging fruit, but similar to many conservative Christians in America, the words of this Alabama pastor do unfortunately signal that in certain circumstances, at the least, he’s willing to subjugate his faith to the demands of his preferred politics. (To be fair, progressive “Christians” do the same thing. Arguably, far more often with words like justice, love, and sin, for example.)
As Christians, we are commanded to spread the Gospel and make disciples of Jesus. That command should be our first concern, and should drive how we interact with...well...everything. Conflating our politics and faith has the dangerous result of distorting the Gospel. It moves the problem's solution – that the personal sin of humans has ethically separated them from a holy God, and new life through faith in Christ is the only way to bridge that ethical divide – into the realm of social pragmatism. When we place our safety and way of life over and above the clear definitions of the Bible, we tell our neighbors that their eternal souls are of less importance than our comfort.
If a Syrian family, legal immigrants or otherwise, move into the Alabama pastor’s neighborhood, how is he going to maneuver around the statement in his letter in order to share the Gospel with them? And, God forbid, what if that hypothetical Syrian family has read the letter? Chances are, right or wrong, they’ll view whatever Gospel witness that pastor and his church articulate as a jingoistic attempt to Americanize them for the sake of the existing community’s peace of mind. As Christians, we are called to share the Gospel, not the American Dream.
Furthermore, the conflation of politics and faith betrays where our hope is actually placed. For the Christian, the only solution to the effects of sin is found in the Gospel, which includes the return of King Jesus. This country is not the Kingdom of God, nor is any other country, for that matter. All earthly kingdoms are going to disappoint. Thankfully, we Christians serve a perfect king and are citizens of a kingdom that will never disappoint. That reality frees us from needing to conform our faith to our politics. Instead, we have the freedom to conform our politics to our faith.
By God’s grace, my earthly opinions are informed by King Jesus’ priorities. Does my position on the Syrian refugee crisis (as well as any other position) demonstrate a Gospel-focused love and concern for all involved? For Christians, that is not an easy task, by any stretch of the imagination. It requires constant prayer and vigilance to guard against defining and categorizing things by way of politics first, without regard to our identity in Christ.