Tuesday, July 26, 2016

What's Your Identity?

This past Sunday, a young man who grew up in the Dansville Free Methodist Church and spent a semester of his college education in Uganda, spoke to the congregation at DFMC about the experiences he had and what he learned from his time there.

Of course there was the culture shock, but not in a way that he expected, as he said he stayed in places with indoor plumbing, electricity, and television. All too often we see the pictures of extreme poverty and people who don't have enough food to eat. While that may have been one of the most surprising things he had to deal with, it was when he talked about the week he spent in Rwanda that I was surprised.

A little over 20 years ago, the Hutus and the Tutsis, tribes within Rwanda, were involved in one of the largest genocides to ever take place on the African continent. I was ten years old at the time and I don't remember too much about it, but what I learned was that just prior to the genocide it was common that they would live, inter-marry, and even worship together. He went into one church that has since been marked as a memorial (several other churches have been so marked as well) where they claimed to worship the very same God. That did not stop the violence though.

For some people it may seem that to worship God (or god, gods, goddesses, a force, etc) there must be violence. Devotion to their beliefs entails a willingness to commit unspeakable, unfathomable acts. Sadly, even if the intentions were initially good, people of the church have waged all-out war, turned to terrorism for political goals, and even tried to forcibly maintain their own ideas of orthodox belief. Protestants though were not exempt from these acts either.

I would contend though that it isn't a belief in God that brings about violence. Christ Himself taught that the greatest command is love for God and love for our neighbors, whom He defined as the rest of humanity. I would say though that when we view our identity in the labels we give ourselves rather than in who we are in Christ, that's where the trouble is.

Having been born in the early 1980s, I was aware (though I didn't quite understand) that the label "American" equaled "good", and "Soviet" equaled "bad." By extension, everything "American" was good, everything "Soviet" was bad. Pretty simple and straightforward, not difficult to grasp even in my young mind.

I get that the political state of the world was in perpetual fear of nuclear annihilation because the USA and the USSR had nuclear missiles that could wipe each other out several times over (wouldn't once be enough?). The USA had church leaders such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson influencing politics and putting out a belief that God must be on the side of America. And the "Commies" had no God, or god, or gods, they believed in. So they ultimately must be defeated. In order to defeat them and make the world a safe place, there must be a strong military.

As I grew older and more aware, I learned of more labels. Though we were all American, if you were a "Republican American" you believed more in God than a "Democrat" American, and you wrapped the flag around the Bible. If you were a "Democrat" American you might have a passing belief in God but you were more concerned about social issues and making the government the answer to everything.

There were more labels though. I was raised in Wesleyan Holiness churches (Wesleyan and Nazarene). Then, once I attended a Christian school in a Baptist church, I learned that I was an "Arminian" (I hadn't heard that term up to that point) and they were "Calvinist." I learned that "Arminian" was a derogatory term in Baptist and other "Reformed" circles for a variety of reasons.

But the labels didn't end there. As I graduated from high school and began formulating my own views, I learned about immigration. Immigrants may have been called "Mexican", but often I heard references to "they" or "them." I could go on and on, but I won't. I believe the point has been made.

As I read through scripture though, I read that the God the Bible describes isn't as concerned about labels as we seem to be. Yes, there are different nationalities and tribes, but God doesn't stereotype or hold them to those labels. He seems to be a God that is more concerned about His people demonstrating to the rest of the world His goodness, and they in turn seeking after Him. He was the God who sent warning to Nineveh so that they may be spared. Jesus began falling out of favor when He spoke of the compassion God showed other nations throughout history. The Apostle Peter was surprised that the Holy Spirit could be poured out on Roman imperialists, and the Apostle Paul went intentionally to the Gentiles.

Among Jesus' disciples was the aforementioned Peter, who was what we might consider a Jewish nationalist. There was also Matthew, who was Jewish by birth, but employed as a Roman tax collector, and someone whom Peter would probably have had brutal arguments and fights with.

In addition, both before and after Jesus' death and resurrection, He was asked if the time was coming when the kingdom was going to be restored, meaning Israel, and Roman rule would be overthrown. Jesus however turned their attention to other matters. When He spoke of the Kingdom of God, He wasn't referring to a re-establishment of an earthly kingdom, but the citizenship that all who have faith in Him and submitted their lives to Him have. It is also this Kingdom that scripture says we are to seek first.

What this tells me is that God is less concerned about promoting Republicans over Democrats, or even vilifying them as the enemy; He's less concerned about promoting America over and above the rest of the world; He's less concerned about keeping people in neat little boxes with our labels. He seems to be concerned about breaking the power of sin and death in our lives, and restoring that image of Himself He created us in through what Christ has done.

When we meet Christ face to face, He's not going to ask us "Were you a good American who always voted Republican in order to get conservative federal judges in place? Even if that Republican wasn't moral?"

It seems to me God wants His Church, His Kingdom, His people, to reflect Him in every imaginable aspect. When there is injustice in the world, He calls His Kingdom to speak His justice. Where there is unrest, we need to speak His peace. Where there is apathy, we must speak His love. The prophet Micah spells it out explicitly for us: do justly, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.

When we care more about our political parties, our national identity, our ethnic identity, our sexual identity, and we care less about the people God commands us to be, we won't be the people God commands us to be. Don't get me wrong, these distinctions do exist, and they are important. It isn't my intention to dismiss them. But they aren't as important as who we are in Christ, for He is the One we as His people must represent above each of these. Otherwise, we aren't a people made in the image of God, but a people trying to make a god in our own image.

Who knows what evil could have been prevented had the people of God made that their most important and foremost identity?


  1. Thank you for such clarity and insight. Praise the Lord.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read this. Blessings!