The basic thesis that I’m working with in this post is that Jesus calls us to transcend the sociological identities that we are forced to shoehorn ourselves into and pursue something greater, someone great.
Be it black or white, gay or straight, man or woman, introvert or extravert, white collar or blue collar—we’re called be one in Christ and to find our identity in him. But it is worth acknowledging that there is a difficulty that comes with such a countercultural statement when it is spoken by an individual who is otherwise blind to his so-called self.
In other words, it is easy for a white person to tell a person of color to ignore his or her race for the sake of the Gospel. Or for a man to tell a woman to do the same thing. For an extravert to tell an introvert she is more than that. For a so-called straight person to tell a gay person to find their identity first in Jesus.
It’s easy to do that because the dominant ones don’t necessarily have to acknowledge their identity as much as the dominated do, and so I want to acknowledge that pain and that difficulty. It is worth being greatly sensitive to the pain that sociological categorization has caused individuals and to be conscious of the fact that pride around our identities is often a remover of that pain.
Ultimately, though, it is a lie and our fullest, truest, and fullest identity is with Jesus. He is the one who will heal our wounds.
More often than not, it is the dominators coming up with these categories to subjugate the marginalized as it were.
And you can clearly see the inconsistent, albeit humorous results, of the dominated trying to self-identify. Have you seen this book called “Stuff White People Like?” The author makes amazing generalizations that prove his myopia (in example, he lists Barack Obama as the eighth thing White people like, when 70% of White men didn’t vote for him in the recent election), The author can’t actually distinguish between class, culture, and race, even though he attempts to (it would be appear, he’s really talking about postmodern, college-educated, twenty-somethings living in an urban area). The generalizations his makes are prejudicial and inaccurate—whereas the generalizations that individuals make with regards to the oppressed have deadly and incredibly costly consequences.
Stereotypes that we plague ourselves and others with hurt deeply, that is for sure, but for many of us, what hurts more is being forced into a category. Being forced to identify sexually, for example, when no adequate label exists is painful—one might say, I’m not totally gay or totally straight, but I feel like I need to fit somewhere. And I feel that pain personally.
My identity crises occurred numerous times in my upbringing, so I felt for Ezra this week when he realized that his mom was brown and his dad was not brown and he wondered who he was in the midst of that. He’ll grow up in a racialized society that might force him to pick one or the other.
I felt that growing up too. The pain of being the other. The pain of having a lost identity. One that didn’t have a census box. So a question that I asked, that many of us ask ourselves, is “Who am I?”
So I want you to walk through a day in the life of my identity crisis.
Well, I know one thing: I’m the son of Egyptian immigrants. My cousin once told me my race is Meditarranean-Caucasion. I didn’t like that. I don’t like being called white very much, because I don’t look very white, and in an airport or a drug store, I’m anything but white. So that’s out.
Maybe I’m an Arab-American. This isn’t a very good sociological identity. And there’s never a box for it. And it describes such a massive swath of land, that it really can’t be who I am.
Look at the Arab World—it’s all of North Africa, the Middle East (but Israel), Sudan, and Somalia. The Syrians, and Egyptians, Saudis, Morrocans, and Iraqis all speak “Arabic” but the language may as well be as different as French, Italian, English, and Spanish. Our language doesn’t even bind us. It is noteworthy that I feel a sense of kinship with them, though, even though I don’t seem to have a lot
in common with them. That’s the dominator uniting us again.
So maybe I’m an Egyptian-American. And there we go again. The adjective is Egyptian and the noun is American, but I’ll get interrogated more at an airport because of my skin color despite my definitive natonality. And my broken Arabic doesn’t really unite me with Egyptians either. That and I’m a Christian, so I’m again confused.
But it turns out that 96 percent of Arabs are Muslims, and so I found myself isolated further. And even among the Christian population in Egypt, the vast majority are Coptic Christians—nearly 7.5 million of them. There are only 14,000 Evangelical Christians in Egypt at all. So I’m an Evangelical Christian, but not like my other Arab Evangelicals.
So am I back to where I started and I have no idea what to do. I don’t know who I am, but I feel like I should be something.
And you can feel the pain too if your identity is as muddled as mine. And it doesn’t have to do with your race, it could be your sexual preferences, feelings, and desires that are confusing you because you don’t seem to be fit in any of the boxes someone else made for you.
And so the best thing that liberal pluralism can offer us is individualism. We can make seven billion different categories for each us. And we can hope that our innate desire for community is weak enough to ignored.
Our salvation isn’t found in individualism, nor is it found in imperialistic dichotomies and categories and identities, but only in Christ.
In modern-day Turkey, and ancient Galatia, Paul is realizing the limitedness of sociological categorization. He’s trying to spread the Gospel to the whole Meditarranean and coming up short. In perhaps the most brilliant piece he ever wrote, he encourages all of us to transcend our sociological understanding and follow God. Little does he know that men or women, slave and free, Jew or Gentile, wouldn’t be end of the endless compartmentalization. Here’s Paul at his best in Galatians 3:
26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
In Christ we find our wholeness, we can let go of all the broken and inadequate categories that we are forced into. Our new identity offers us an opportunity to transcend sociological categorization.
We don’t to shoehorn ourselves into some box and find our salvation there. We don’t need to be enslaved into an arbitrary category. For someone like me, who never felt like I had a place to belong, knowing that Jesus is my identity was my fulfillment.
Of course, Christians have misinterpreted Paul for thousands of years. And what we’re left with is a cheap, and frankly lame, subculture that oppresses as equally as any other category. We are not Christian or non-Christian and that’s the end of it, the world is divided into believers and non-believers. We are a Christian nation or we are not. And instead of finding our transformation in Christ himself, we are finding our hope in the sterile Christian box.
We lose our ability to relate to anyone and we act like colorblind buffoons, who have tasted the sweet wine of transformation, but so ignorantly splash it everyone’s face asking if they can taste it too. We create our own category and it’s just as gross as any other.
And of course, many of us, people like me, would say, “well, I’m not part of that Christian subculture, we in Circle of Hope offer you a better subculture and it resists that other one.” And we lose again and it doesn’t make any sense.
Rather than bunkering down and protecting our own subculture, Paul calls us to do something greater. Relate. Connect. Your identity is in Christ, and Christ is a reconciler, Christ is a great hospitable host. He became like us to save us. And we, too, can be all things to all people. Here’s Paul again. This time to the Corinthians in Greece from 1 Corinthians 9.
19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
Paul is a Jew who can assimilate quite well to Jewish culture to redeem Jews. He can also assimilate to the legalists in Corinth who believe that we need to follow the law to the letter to be saved; and to the libertines, who think they are so spiritual that they don’t need any rules for salvation.
Paul is describing is rich, nourished, diverse, and well cared for world. One where individuals “can be who they are,” but fulfilled in Christ. Paul’s a lover, in love with diversity and knowing that by being all things to all people, he will represent Christ even better. There are so many sociological assumptions we make that when we challenge that basic structure.
Our new identity requires us to be all things to all people. The thing we have to focus on is being able to express the Gospel with great flexibility. He is being an inclusive, pluralistic Christian here—meeting people where they are. He is relatable and others-centered. Being others-centered means not always thinking that we are right, that we are the ones who are teaching, but having a willingness to learn from someone else.
As we transcend our sociological categories, and we become an inclusive and welcoming community, but not only that, our new identity unites us with the entire reason we’ve been put on this earth—it unites us in a single cause together.
Our new identity allows us to find “oneness” with Jesus and His world redemption. Our identity, our home is in Christ himself and when we resist the Ivory Tower’s categorization, we can beautifully find our home in Christ.
We’re not trying to create a Christian nation. We’re not trying to create another subculture. But we are offering individuals an opportunity for a complete freedom of expression. Respond to Jesus and find your identity in him.
Here’s Paul talking to the people in Ephesus in the fourth chapter of his letter to them:
1 As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
Live a life worthy of your calling. For many of us that means transcending the sociological identities to which we are so inclined to pigeon hole ourselves. Be nothing but the beloved of God. May that be your only identity, not even just your first one. And you go and redeem the world and transform it with this message, do so with the same humility, gentleness and patience that Paul is talking about. Bear each other in love. Be peaceful. And know that there is one Hope that binds us together.