by: Scott Little
The kindergarten Sunday School class was playing a game of “Who Am I?” The teacher was describing something, and the eager five year-olds were trying to guess what it was based on the teacher’s description. “I am small, brown, and covered with fur. I have a bushy tail, I like to climb trees, and I love to eat nuts and acorns. Who am I?” Eager to please and impress her teacher, little Sally raised her hand and answered: “Well, it sounds like a squirrel, but I’m going to say Jesus!”
I’ve been thinking a lot about identity lately, about the various ways people answer the “Who Am I?” question. It’s not as simple as it sounds. What identifies you as you? Using labels and adjectives can be helpful up to a point. For example, I might say I’m a pastor, husband, father, & grandfather. If that’s too vague, I can add more descriptors: I’m a Pendletonian, a sports enthusiast, an avid reader, and a mediocre golfer. All of that tells you more about me, but is that really who I am? Is that essential to my identity?
Maybe a simpler question to ask is, “What’s the most important thing about me?” In other words, what’s the one thing that most identifies me, that’s most essential to who I am and what my life is about? What shapes my thinking and my actions the most?
These questions have been weighing heavily on my heart these days because I fear that many of my fellow evangelicals, in part as a reaction to the deeply polarized and bitterly partisan culture of American society, are increasingly answering these identity questions not primarily in terms of our faith, but in terms of our politics.
Please understand – I’m not saying a Christian shouldn’t have opinions and convictions, even strong ones, about politics and the cultural issues of our day. What I am saying, though, is that if we’re shaped by Republican or Democrat or liberal or conservative (or any other) ideology as much or more than we are by the Way of Jesus, we have located our identity in the wrong place.
In the first century, if you had asked Peter, James & John about their identity, about who they were before they became disciples of Jesus, they probably would have self-identified as Jews, as descendants of Abraham. If you asked the Apostle Paul, he would have said the same thing, but added a few more qualifiers. In fact, Paul gives a list of self-identifiers before he met Jesus, but then says they’re all meaningless compared to knowing Christ:
“If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless. But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things..” (Philippians 3:4-8)
What’s Paul saying? Before he met Jesus, his identity was shaped primarily by his ethnicity, his politics (the Pharisees were a political pressure group as much as a religious one), and his moral purity. But after He met the Lord, his identity was re-oriented around following Jesus.
Of course, I understand there are strong feelings and convictions about many of the issues affecting our politics and culture, and in most cases, appropriately so. But I’m concerned that this hyper-partisan environment is infiltrating and impacting the church, too, and as it does, the danger is that Christians will increasingly center our identity in our political ideologies rather than in our allegiance to Jesus and His kingdom. In fact, I’ve seen distressing signs that this is already happening, and it’s not likely to get any better after this election. In fact, it’s probably going to get worse.
Not long before He went to the cross, Jesus prayed for His disciples. First, He asked the Father to protect those disciples who had been with Him on earth, “…so that they may be one as we are one…” (John 17:11). Then, Jesus prayed for His future disciples (including us), saying “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20-21).
So even as the events of the crucifixion loomed over him, Jesus’s prayer for His disciples, both then and now, was that we would be unified in Him, and that this unity would be a witness to the world about Him.
Now, I realize that the bonds of church unity have been strained for centuries – how else do we explain hundreds of Christian denominations and traditions? Still, most of those divisions have centered around theology and doctrine, and in spite of them, we’ve been able to maintain an essential identity as brothers & sisters in Christ.
I’m afraid that in today’s American church, the greatest threat to our unity isn’t disagreements about theology and doctrine, but the temptation to center our identities in political and cultural ideologies rather than in our allegiance to Jesus. And in case you think you’re not in danger of it, let me warn us that it’s a very slippery slope.
What I long for, pray for, and hope for – for myself, my fellow Christians, and the American church, is that the answer to the questions “Who Am I?” and “Who Are We?” will simply and obviously be “Followers of Jesus” first and foremost – whether we’re Republican, Democrat, Independent, conservative, liberal, moderate, or anything else. May that be our essential identity, both individually and corporately. May it be the label we wear and the ethic we embody above all else.