Politics and Identity

bn-qq142_201611_m_20161104105226

Over the past few weeks, I, like many of you, have been following the political developments in the U.S. In such a caustic and antagonistic climate, I would much rather be known for my stance on Jesus Christ and the message of the gospel than for my personal convictions about political matters. That is the drum that I will beat and the hill I will be willing to die on.

Why is it that the political climate is so caustic and people are so divided? According to many sociologists, philosophers and theologians, the issue is one of identity: namely, that one of the most common ways that people create identity is through “the exclusion of the Other.”

According to Zygmunt Bauman, “We can’t create ‘Us’ without also creating ‘Them.’ Social belonging happens only as some other contrasting group is labeled as the Different or the Other. We bolster our identity by seeing others in a negative light and by excluding them in some way.” (Modernity and Ambivalence, p. 8)

In other words: I can feel I am one of the good people because I know I am not one of the bad people. Therefore the “Other” must be degraded, excluded and/or vilified in order for me to have a sense of self-worth.

Croatian theologian and professor at Yale University, Miroslav Wolf, in his book Exclusion and Embrace, says that the reason we indulge in these attitudes and practices is that by denouncing and blaming the Other it gives us “the illusion of sinlessness and strength.”

One great example of this, Timothy Keller points out, is: “If I find my identity in working for liberal political and social causes, it is inevitable that I will scorn conservatives, and the same goes for conservatives regarding liberals. In fact, if the feelings of loathing toward the opposition are not there, it might be concluded that my political position is not very close to the core of who I am.” (Making Sense of God, p. 145)

In order to do this, Wolf says, we must “over-bind” and “over-separate”: To over-separate means to fail to recognize what we do have in common, and to over-bind means to refuse other people the right to be different from us.

This practice is common in many areas, not just in regard to politics.

Keller goes on to say: “If my identity rests to a great degree in being moral and religious, then I will disdain those people I think of as immoral. If my self-worth is bound up with being a hardworking person, I will look down on those whom I consider lazy. As the postmodernists rightly point out, this condescending attitude toward the Other is part of how identity works, how we feel good and significant.” (Ibid.)

Jesus himself gave an example of this:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Luke 18:9-14 ESV

Jesus is describing people who excluded, degraded and vilified others for the purpose of bolstering their own sense of self-worth, value and identity. However, much to their surprise, Jesus tells them that God does not play this game – in fact, he is very much opposed to it, because it is rooted in pride and self-justification rather than humility.

What then is the solution?

The solution is this: we must find our identity not in being better than others, but in who we are in God’s eyes, because of what Jesus has done for us. We need an identity which is centered on the Cross.

The fact that Jesus went to the cross to die for our salvation is both a profound statement of our sin and failure, and at the same time the greatest expression of love and of our value to God. In this sense, my identity and value is not based on me being better than other people – rather it does not allow me to see myself as better than others. I, like them, have sinned and fallen short. My value, according to the gospel, is that God loves me so much that he was willing to pay the greatest cost and hold nothing back; he is that devoted and committed to me.

May we be those who find our identity in Christ, rather than in our political or other affiliations, and may the way Christians express their political views not be a hindrance to the message of the gospel.

Christianity and Singleness

When I lived in Hungary, we used to take our church to a summer conference every year in Vajta, where the group of churches we belonged to ran a Bible college and conference center in an old castle. Every year various pastors from our churches would speak at the conference; I spoke several times.

One of the sessions I remember most vividly, I remember not for good reasons: one year a particular pastor was asked to speak on the topic of singleness for an afternoon session. When he stood up to the platform, he said something to the effect of: “I don’t know why they asked me to teach on singleness. I’m not single and I haven’t been single for a long time. So I decided that I’m not going to speak about singleness, I’m just going to teach a Bible study about something else, since this is the only chance they gave me to speak.” You probably won’t be surprised to hear that this person was never asked to speak at a conference again.

But that wasn’t the only memorable part of his session. Half-way through his session, the speaker got annoyed at some people who were whispering to each other while he was speaking, and he stopped everything and proceeded to call them out, and kick them out of the session, making them take the walk of shame past over 100 people who were gathered in the hall for the study. I admit, I was kind of jealous that they got to leave…

This session should be contrasted with the one on singleness which had been held at the previous year’s conference, at which a younger pastor had spoken about singleness in a message that was so well presented and so encouraging to me (I was single at that time), that I still remember his opening lines: “You are in a race!” He then went on to teach about the biblical perspective on the goodness of singleness from 1 Corinthians.

It was a hugely different perspective: the first man I mentioned had disdained the thought of teaching about singleness – he clearly saw it as unimportant. The second man taught in a way that was encouraging and edifying to the single person.

The other day I posted some thoughts about the topic of gender roles in marriage and how the biblical view on this is based on theological views about the relationship between the persons of the Trinity. I got several comments on it from a single person who expressed feelings that Christianity tends to over-emphasize marriage over singleness. There is some validity to this point – however, statistically most people will be married at some point in their lifetime – and, just because some people are not married does not mean we should not talk about marriage, just like the fact that some people are not airplane pilots doesn’t mean that we should never talk about airplane pilots.

However, these comments did lead me to look into some things about Christian teachings about singleness, and what I found was significant.

Stanley Hauerwas, one of the great theologians of our age, argues that Christianity was the very first religion to hold up single adulthood as a viable way of life. This was a clear difference between Christianity and all other traditional religions, including Judaism, all of which made family and the bearing of children an absolute value, without which there was no honor.1

In ancient culture, long-term single adults were considered to be living a human life that was less than fully realized. But along came Christianity – whose founder was an adult single man and whose great theologian (the Apostle Paul) was also single and advocated for the value and goodness of singleness.

Timothy Keller points out that in Christianity, “single adults cannot be seen as somehow less fully formed or realized human beings than married persons because Jesus Christ, a single man, was the perfect man (Hebrews 4:15; 1 Peter 2:22).”

He goes on to say that, “Paul’s assessment in 1 Corinthians 7 is that singleness is a good condition blessed by God, and in many circumstances is actually better than marriage. As a result of this revolutionary attitude, the early church did not pressure people to marry and institutionally supported poor widows so they did not have to remarry.”2

Keller points to Rodney Stark, a social historian, who states, “Pagan widows faced great social pressure to remarry; Augustus even had widows fined if they failed to marry within two years. In contrast, among Christians, widowhood was highly respected. The church stood ready to sustain widows, allowing them a choice as to whether or not to remarry, and single widows were active in care-giving and good deeds.3

As opposed to societies which idolized family as the only means of giving a person significance, the Christian gospel offers a greater hope and a greater source of significance.

Singleness, according to Christianity, is not Plan B – it is a viable option for those who choose it.

In our modern pop culture, it is not family which is idolized so much as romance. Think about Hollywood and even Disney narratives: they begin telling the story of a person seeking true love, and once two people do come together, the story ends! The message is that what matters in life is finding romance, everything else is only leading up to that, and what happens after that is not worth spending too much time on. This is also reflected in the huge amount of focus which is given to weddings in our culture.

The Christian church provides the space for single people of different genders to worship, serve and study together, to know and be known by each other, without the pressures of our romance-driven culture.

Churches don’t always do a great job at making single people feel that they belong and not pressuring them to get married and treating them as if until they are married, they are incomplete – however, it is in the design. At our church, we have purposefully sought to change the language we use away from always speaking of “you and your family” – so that we don’t communicate the wrong thing to single people who call our church their home.

Interestingly, Timothy Keller, who pastors a church in NYC which is majority single people, points out that single people and married people alike need good teaching about marriage and relationships, so that marriage is held to its biblical place of honor (Hebrews 13:4), without idolizing it as the end-all be-all of human existence.

 

1. [Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character, p.174]
2. [Timothy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage, pp.222-223]
3. [Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders Historyp.104]