At least some representatives of all political stripes would agree that our political polarization is in part the result of proliferating identity groups (whether based on ethnicity, sexuality, nationality, religion, or socio-economic class), each wanting recognition from the others. Clearly, many people did wrong to others in many groups in the past. Christians should think carefully about how best to respond. To make matters worse, dominant cultures often respond by circling the wagons. They act by asserting their own shared identity and articulating their own felt grievances. This is evidence that many people from both sides actually define themselves by the group to which they belong. This kind of back-and-forth between competing identity groups in politics has even threatened to divide many churches.
Whether on the right or on the left and in both minority and majority groups, many people have failed to notice that every person from every group has grieved God, both by aggression and neglect. God is the most important aggrieved party of all. Yet in the gospel, he put his own Son to unspeakable grief—in our place and for our sins—so that God’s grievances against us might be satisfied once for all by the blood and justice of the cross.
The Gospel in Identity Politics
The gospel, then, relativizes identity politics. This is not by denying our group identities or our grievances against one another. Rather it is by putting them in divine perspective and calling us all to repent. The gospel identifies every person of every group as either in Christ or not in Christ. If we are not in Christ, then we shape and even distort our identities. We misshape our identities by casting them in the mold of our own sinful perceived uniqueness.
But if we are in Christ, then . . .
. . . he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility…. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets…being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Eph 2:14-15)
Unity in Christ
Being in Christ—united to Christ by faith in him and repentance from our sins—relativizes our old identities and even gives us a new identity that we share with everyone else who is in Christ, regardless of our differences.
Where “There is neither Jew nor Greek, [where] there is neither slave nor free, [where] there is no male or female,” identity politics become passé, “for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, [fellow-equal] heirs according to the promise” (Gal 3:28-29). Each Christian is in the same Christ. And this same Christ is the one who, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself [temporarily set aside, not his divine identity, but many of the rights and privileges of his divinity] by taking the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in him in form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:5-8).
Since this is the Christ we follow, his gospel not only removes God’s grievances against us; it actually dwarfs our grievances against each other, and teaches us to lay down our rights and trust him with our resentments—to “do all things without grumbling or complaining, that [we] may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Phil 2:14-15). When our shared identity is in Christ—rather than in our own ethnicity, gender, status, or nationality—a few things begin to follow in our local churches.
Destiny Overshadows Dynasty
Our perspective lengthens to eternity and our concerns broaden to all humanity. Our own political or ethnic tribe does not limit our horizon. We realize that God is redeeming for himself a people from every tribe, tongue, and nation. We can welcome political, racial, and economic diversity among our congregations because we share Christ in common. This gospel perspective also enables us to follow Paul’s injunction to Timothy:
First of all then I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgiving be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Tim 2:1-3)
When our identity is in Christ, we can pray for all our leaders, even those with whom we disagree—even when they’re neither good nor wise.
Citizenship in Heaven Overhauls Nationalism
Paul says in Philippians 1:27, “Only let your manner of life be (politeuomai, live publicly together) worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents.” We fight for the faith of the gospel, not merely for governmental policy initiatives; and we do so primarily as churches, not as political action committees.
Our politeuomai, our way of living out our public life together, happens most importantly as church members. Our public life is by representing the city of God in the city of man. That’s because “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the lord Jesus Christ…” (Phil 3:20-21). If we are citizens of heaven, then the drive toward self-exalting nationalism can be tamed and transformed into a proper love for country that loves and serves our neighbor. Our secure identity in Christ frees the church to preach the gospel to sinners. This stance, rather than yelling for the government to hear, is much more healthy.
Participation Replaces Dominance
God said to the Judean exiles in Babylon, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer 29:7). Grounding our identity in Christ rather than in a group grievance culture frees Christians to express civic concern for the city of man as such. This grounding, rather than seeking our significance in trying to re-create Babylon into a New Jerusalem. Individual Christians can and should work in non-Christian political administrations—witness Joseph in Egypt, Nehemiah in Persia, Daniel in Babylon.
All three felt free to serve pagan administrations as such. Even though they were each party to a nationalized covenant applicable only to the theocratic Jewish state. How much more then are we, as members of the new covenant in Christ, free to work for the state, so long as it doesn’t lead us into sin or false worship.
Principles Overrule Identity Politics
Since God’s covenant with Noah is an everlasting covenant with all creation, it is still applicable now. So we can use its articulation in Gen 9:1–7 to glean at least three principles that all political administrations should still apply today.
Be fruitful and multiply… Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you…. From his fellow man, I will require a reckoning for the life of man.
Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed,
for God made man in his own image.
And you, be fruitful and multiply, increase greatly on the earth and multiply in it.
From this text, we can say that secular governments can and should protect, promote, and facilitate a culture of human procreation within the context of heterosexual monogamous marriage, which would include valuing the unborn as created in God’s image. We can also affirm the rectitude of punitive justice—and even capital punishment—for murder. And we can affirm responsible development of the earth’s natural resources.
Beyond these principles, dogmatism becomes difficult. We can certainly affirm the right to religious liberty and civil (!) disobedience from Acts 4:19-20: “But Peter and John answered them, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.’” In view of Rom 13:1ff, only the state wields the sword, so Christians should never view themselves as vigilantes. We are to do what is good, honor every human authority, and obey in all things that don’t lead us into sin (1 Pet 2:13-17); so we’ll need to think carefully about legitimate reasons for civil disobedience. Our faith should never be a cloak for sin.
Light Outshines Darkness
When the church does all things without grumbling and complaining—when we lay down our rights, even our lives, for the sake of the gospel and its good purposes in the lives of others, in stark contrast to the purveyors and practitioners of identity politics—the light of Christ shines through us, the darkness is dispelled, and the word of life is held out to do its reviving work. It’s time to rise and shine.