Questioning identity (including the idea of ‘identity in Christ’)

There’s been a thread running through some of my recent posts that’s maybe not simply a thread, maybe it’s an elephant worth naming. And patting. And seeing if we can teach it to sit and let us give it a good scratch behind the ears.

I don’t believe ‘identity’ is a coherent category for Christians to use; not in politics, or in theology.

I don’t think it’s a category you find in the Bible, and I think when we shoehorn Biblical categories into this ill-fitting modern boot, we end up with terrible pus-filled blisters, and ultimately, deformed feet.

I think we should stop. And here’s why.

I think the Bible has an utterly different concept of personhood — both in terms of who we were made to be in relationship with God, and with what personal choice and the things we might ‘identify’ as indicate about us as people. I think the word is freighted with too much baggage to be a useful word if ‘identity’ is being used either descriptively (ie drawing an analogy between its use in popular psyhcological/sociological/political thought), or prescriptively (ie seeing those psychological/social/political concepts mapping on cleanly to a Biblical anthropology such that the word is something real and fundamental to our theological schema).

When we talk about ‘identity in Christ’ we’re talking about an act of ‘self-definition’ in Jesus, an enshrining of my own personal decision making and my decision to ground my sense of self in Jesus; this might be experientially true, but I’m not sure, for Reformed types, that it is theologically coherent to speak in these terms, and I think it comes with a whole anthropology that, appears to be a fruit of the Reformation but is actually a fruit of Renaissance Humanism (which in turn, influenced the Reformation). I suspect we’re better off talking about personhood as something given and received — even given by false gods — than something self-defined, grasped, activated, realised and performed as an autonomous action.

This might be oddly pedantic for someone who keeps saying that words have a descriptive function, not just a prescriptive one, and maybe we can fight the good fight to reclaim the word “identity” as something given to us by God, or reflective of heavenly, spiritual realities here on earth, not just a thing I self-determine as I project and perform my autonomous self-understanding and desires into the world… but if we’re going to have that contest we need to know we’re having it, and what we’re up against —  what’s ironic is the same people who reject using ‘gay’ as part of an identity statement for a Christian, because of the way it is understood by the average punter, is that they don’t apply the same standard to the word ‘identity’… There’s a whole other compelling argument, made at Mere Orthodoxy, that when we use ‘identity in Christ’ language we do that in a way that can eradicate a whole swathe of creaturely things that are good and God given as part of our personhood in the process, especially when that becomes a totalising weapon used to stop people making identity claims we don’t like (for eg ‘gay Christian’).

I know I’m unlikely to convince many people. But here are some of my thoughts.

The concept of identity is very closely linked to the concept of individuality. The need to define ‘who I am,’ let alone the need to have my answer to that question recognised and legitimised by society and the state (via laws or ‘identity politics’) is a relatively new concept. Previously you knew who you were because that reality was given to you by God, or the gods, or your nation’s god-ordained political system/structure.

The concept of the individual is both new, and humanist. That is to say, it emerged as society sought to decouple our understanding of the self from God and a cosmic order. When I say ‘new’ I mean in the scheme of human history, not relative to my lifetime. It’s new in that we had a really long time, including the periods in which the Old and New Testaments were composed, where people did not think of themselves as ‘individuals’ at all, but rather, as belonging to a series of systems — family, clan, tribe, nation, etc. In 1860, in a chapter ‘The Development of the Individual‘ in a book on Renaissance history, Jacob Burckhardt, a historian, traced the development of ‘the individual’ as a concept, to the start of the renaissance period in Italy. He said:

In the Middle Ages both sides of human consciousness — that which was turned within as that which was turned without — lay dreaming or half awake beneath a common veil. The veil was woven of faith, illusion, and childish prepossession, through which the world and history were seen clad in strange hues. Man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation — only through some general category. In Italy this veil first melted into air; an objective treatment and consideration of the State and of all the things of this world became possible. The subjective side at the same time asserted itself with corresponding emphasis; man became a spiritual individual, and recognised himself as such.

This ‘veil’ was, in some ways, the idea of a divinely ordered social structure that you were born into, that meant your position in the world, in this system, was given as part of God’s providential design. Now. Maybe some liberation from those structures is good and necessary (and we’ve all benefited), but it’s possible there’s a baby and bathwater situation going on here, because it didn’t take long, once this veil was removed, for us to get quite comfortable not just with the idea that God didn’t have designs for how I lived in my private life, or what I spent my leisure time on, or where I worked, but with the idea that God didn’t have designs for me at all — or, indeed, that God was not in the picture. This sort of humanism is a necessary precursor for the deism that then developed (the idea that God is not actively, or providentially, involved in creation at all — but is distant, having made the universe and then left it to its own devices), and deism was necessary for atheism.

Burckhardt talks about how, at first, this individualism didn’t rock the political system too much; people were content to have private individual freedom, without engaging in conspiracy or revolution. He says “political impotence does not hinder the different tendencies and manifestations of private life from thriving in the fullest vigour and variety. Wealth and culture, so far as display and rivalry were not forbidden to them, a municipal freedom which did not cease to be considerable, and a Church which, unlike that of the Byzantine or of the Mohammedan world, was not identical with the State — all these conditions undoubtedly favoured the growth of individual thought, for which the necessary leisure was furnished by the cessation of party conflicts. The private man, indifferent to politics, and busied partly with serious pursuits, partly with the interests of a dilettante, seems to have been first fully formed in these despotisms of the fourteenth century.”

Now, Burckhardt is writing a sort of ‘history of ideas’ a few hundred years removed from the period he’s describing, writing from a world shaped by the individualism he describes here, and its development through the renaissance, the Reformation, and the enlightenment.

The Renaissance produced ‘humanism’ as a philosophical outlook, this was a product both of the development of the idea of a ‘self,’ and the beginning of a departure from the idea that all positions in society represented a divinely ordained hierarchy. Humanism was, in particular, a product of the empowerment of the lay person rather than the clergy, and so reflected ‘non-church’ or non theological concerns. There are many good things about this move, and yet, the same move involved pushing God to the margins — to the ‘sacred’ space, carving out a ‘secular’ where God was not operating. Humanism was concerned with ‘individuals’ rather than a cosmic ordering of reality, or a system that people were born into.

Humanism eventually produced two lawyers who would reform the church, Martin Luther, and John Calvin (three if you count Erasmus). There’s lots to love about what Luther and Calvin brought to the church — both as lawyers who recognised truths about the Gospel that maybe only a lawyer could recognise, but also as humanists; and the church today would benefit if more people dug deeply into their thinking. But neither Calvin or Luther were infallibly objective commentators, the Reformation has the fingerprints of both humanism and the work of lawyers all over it. Again, these are not bad things where these perspectives gave access to truths about God that had otherwise been missed, but, they do freight in ideas from the Renaissance, and from humanism, that might obscure certain truths if these ideas aren’t held in tension. Like all of us, they brought their personhood into the task of understanding God, and his word.

One additional change brought about by the Reformation, as an implication of the sort of politics required to ‘consciously decouple’ the Catholic Church from state power, was a further breaking down of the idea that all monarchs (and priests) were appointed by God in a reflection of the divine order. The Reformation was another nail in the coffin of the medieval (or more ancient) conception of the world — where kings (and church priests) ruled by divine right and were part of the ordering of society. Luther had a much broader vision of God’s providence in his ‘priesthood of all believers,’ perhaps best expressed in his Letter to the Nobility. Luther didn’t want to so much do away with God’s providential ordering of society — he wanted to broaden it, so that the work of all members of the body of Christ, the church, were appointed by God to play a role in the divine order, and, ideally, all people would find life and their purpose — their true humanity — in Jesus. Luther wanted the ‘spiritual’ and ‘temporal’ — or the ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ to be much more overlapping than the church of his day did — he didn’t want the Spiritual removed from the picture all together. He says:

“It is pure invention that pope, bishops, priests and monks are to be called the “spiritual estate”; princes, lords, artisans, and farmers the “temporal estate.” That is indeed a fine bit of lying and hypocrisy. Yet no one should be frightened by it; and for this reason — viz., that all Christians are truly of the “spiritual estate,” and there is among them no difference at all but that of office, as Paul says in I Corinthians 12:12, We are all one body, yet every member has its own work, where by it serves every other, all because we have one baptism, one Gospel, one faith, and are all alike Christians; for baptism, Gospel and faith alone make us “spiritual” and a Christian people.”

And, describes his ‘priesthood of all believers’ — “Through baptism all of us are consecrated to the priesthood,” before saying “From all this it follows that there is really no difference between laymen and priests, princes and bishops, “spirituals” and “temporals,” as they call them, except that of office and work, but not of “estate”; for they are all of the same estate, — true priests, bishops and popes, — though they are not all engaged in the same work, just as all priests and monks have not the same work. This is the teaching of St. Paul in Romans 12:4 and I Corinthians 12:12, and of St. Peter in I Peter 2:9, as I have said above, viz., that we are all one body of Christ, the Head, all members one of another. Christ has not two different bodies, one “temporal ,” the other “spiritual.” He is one Head, and He has One body.” 

Now, this might all feel a bit repetitive, but the point of the repetition here is that while the Reformation often gets blamed for kickstarting individualism, or discovering that it is a theological truth — like ‘identity’ — that comes when you do away with the old spiritual ordering of the universe, like the Renaissance did, or humanism attempts to, Luther actually had a different picture that wasn’t about individuality, but about being called to an office within a body — whether the spiritual body, or the community. While he elevates all individuals to ‘the priesthood’ (or lowers ‘priesthood’ to ‘the normal’), he doesn’t champion a sort of autonomous ‘define your self with no rules’ approach to life, or give us the building blocks to spiritualise personal identity, he invites us to be people-in-community (or in a system). Luther said all our work, within our vocations either in the ‘temporal’ or ‘spiritual’ realms are meant to be contributions to the health of our body — and he doesn’t just mean our own person… he said: “A cobbler, a smith, a farmer, each has the work and office of his trade, and yet they are all alike consecrated priests and bishops, and every one by means of his own work or office must benefit and serve every other, that in this way many kinds of work may be done for the bodily and spiritual welfare of the community, even as all the members of the body serve one another.”

So, to be clear, I think Luther is right — and that the proper re-ordering of the disconnect between the clerical rule of pre-Renaissance Europe and the everyday human was to not create a secular/sacred divide, where the clerics ruled the sacred space but kept their hands off the secular, but a ‘priesthood of all believers’ that held the sacred and secular together, and saw human dignity and value as things given by God along with the call for us to operate in community in ways that reflect heavenly realities. This isn’t to say the humanism of the Reformation did not, at the same time, impact its understanding of the Gospel (for good and for ill). In his landmark essay ‘The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,’ (a seminal text in the movement now called ‘the new perspective’), Krister Stendahl suggests that the Reformers in general, and Luther in particular, brought their modern, western perspectives (humanist concerns even) to a pre-modern (pre-individual) text.

What’s interesting about Stendahl’s paper is that he suggests a key difference between modern readings of Paul, and perhaps Paul’s own thought world, is that with the rise of ‘the individual’ as a construct, our understanding of our selves, or our identity, or our personhood — what it means to be human — becomes not an act of knowing God and understanding our calling in the created order (and so knowing nature as well), but introspection. When we overlay our method of processing the world onto Paul’s, when that processing of the world is reasonably novel, we end up reading Paul through our own eyes. This is the heart of the ‘new perspective’ as a theological movement — and, you can take or leave its conclusions, but its starting point — acknowledging that modern people think (and so interpret) differently to ancient people seems like a sound starting point.

Stendahl offered an alternative reading of Paul’s writing that challenges, but doesn’t totally overturn, the supremacy of the individual in a particular Reformation schema. This is to say that there is an element of the Gospel that relates to an individual’s position before God, and, at the same time, a corporate or communal aspect of the Gospel that is thoroughly integrated with the individual person. Stendahl says:

“Thus even justification by faith, important though we have seen it to be, must be subsumed in the wider context of Paul’s mission to the Gentiles, part of God’s plan for his creation. Or perhaps we should say it this way. Paul’s thoughts about justification were triggered by the issues of divisions and identities in a pluralistic and torn world, not primarily by the inner tensions of individual souls and conscience. His searching eyes focused on the unity and the God-willed diversity of humankind, yes, of the whole creation.”

Stendahl’s contention here is that inasmuch as Paul is interested in ‘identity’ it’s about a communal identity found in Christ; rather than in being Jewish or Gentile. That we find who we are as people in communion (or union) with Jesus, rather than through introspection and the pursuit of an authentic expression of an individuated self.

In his conclusion, he says, that when we as readers are conscious of our tendency to impose our own views on the text, and tried to step back, we can observe the way western thought has developed — both theologically, climaxing with Luther, and in the secular frame climaxing with Freud, and then ask whether this trajectory is a valid and glorious one, building on seeds planted in the New Testament, or we can try to strip back those assumptions and understand what the text is saying (or try to do both). There’s almost an invitation in Stendahl to either read the Bible ‘westernotelically’ — where God’s intention was to develop the liberated (liberal) western human, through the intervention of Jesus in the world, or to read it ‘Christotelically,’ and then to keep looking back to the Jesus who arrived in the first century world, understanding the Scriptures as deeply connected to his life, and mission, and our life being caught up in his. Where you land on this question will impact how legitimate the concept of ‘individualism’ or even ‘identity’ is for Christians engaging in theology in the modern world.

Stendahl critiques the Protestant tendency, in individualising the function of the Gospel, to individualise the function of the Old Testament law, such that it exists to teach us how to live morally and so convict our conscience and show us our need for Jesus, but also give us instruction after we trust him (so that gentiles are under the law), and instead suggests we should read the law as a necessary part of the history that leads us to Jesus. Stendahl explores a debate on the translation of παιδαγωγὸς (paidogogos) in Galatians 3:24 in various modern english Bibles as ‘schoolmaster’ or ‘custodian’ and the theological significance of those choices in terms of what gets freighted in to our understanding of the function of the law, he suggests the law is best understood as occupying a holding position for the Jews until their true teacher and king, Jesus, arrived. , understanding that we, as Gentiles, are not under the law, but are united with our Jewish brothers and sisters in Jesus.

For what it’s worth, I suspect Luther might actually agree with lots of Stendahl’s observations, if not his conclusions. I think Luther gets misread pretty often through the prism of post-Luther Reformed thinking and emphasis, and that he actually grounds his understanding of the Gospel not in justification and its mechanisms, but in union with Christ (where individual justification and sanctification flow from that communal reality), and we see this teased out in, for example, his Letter to the Nobility quoted above. But you also see it in his desire to strip back the text of the Bible from the Latin translation of his day to the original languages; that same impulse might see us stripping back the thought worlds of our day, to the original thought worlds of the Bible.

Luther did, himself, attempt to hold communal realities and individuality (of sorts) together in a theological system, and, if anything, the communal reality (particularly in a social context where everybody was assumed to be part of the body of Christ) still defined the function, even the personhood, of the individual. Luther’s priesthood of all believers, and his application of this to the temporal and spiritual (or secular and sacred) roles people occupied was built from his understanding of our union with Christ, and so, with Christ’s body, the church.

But the reformation of the church, and as a result, the western world, didn’t stop there. And the Reformation itself provided some of the building blocks for ongoing reform outside the church; specifically the foundations of liberalism and the individualism we see at the heart of the modern west. Where Luther challenged the way a divine ordering of reality had been operating in the hands of a corrupt church, modern ‘secular’ humanism challenges the idea of a divine ordering of reality. What we get, instead, as secular humanism captures the imagination of the post-Renaissance/post-Reformation west, is not a ‘priesthood of all believers’ but the divine rule of the individual; the sovereignty of the self. This little snapshot definition of humanism from Oxford has a nice summary of the move involved: “The evolution of Italian humanism, grounded as it was on the study and imitation of the ancients, was marked from its beginnings with the concerns of lay society. Herein lay its claim to be a major progenitor of the modern world.”

When the divine ordering of human society gives way to the all encompassing secular space, built on the bedrock of humanism, the only authority that really matters is ‘the self,’ and any communal endeavours have to be built not on an understanding of, or appeal to, a divine order, or common good, even, but to common self-interest (or coalitions of over-lapping self-interests for the sake of holding power).

After Luther, but before Burckhardt, came John Locke. Locke is one of the founding fathers of liberalism; the political doctrine underpinning both the ‘left’ and the ‘right’ in modern political conversations in the western world. If the Renaissance created the individual, Locke was important in enshrining the individual as the supreme authority; completing the shift of locating human dignity in the ‘image of God’ imprinted on us, to the idea that each individual is Lord of his or her own domain. Locke spent a fair bit of his time arguing from the Bible to justify his understanding of the relationship between the person and the state, especially in his two treaties (treatises?) of government. In the Second Treaties of Government, Locke argues for certain principles of individual liberty that work to establish the sovereignty of the individual. Locke located legitimate exercises of political power, basically, in the protection of property — starting with the property an individual person has in their own self, and extending to rights for an individual to claim created things where their labour had fused with the created thing to give it a sort of value. Locke says:

“Every individual man has a property in his own person; this is something that nobody else has any right to. The labour of his body and the work of his hands, we may say, are strictly his. So when he takes something from the state that nature has provided and left it in, he mixes his labour with it, thus joining to it something that is his own; and in that way he makes it his property.”

This is an expression of a move from either an understanding of a commons, where natural resources belong to all (particularly as given by God), or an understanding that all ‘property’ is owned by monarchs or rulers (in feudal systems). For Locke, legitimate governments existed to guarantee these property rights (both to the self, and one’s work), and to afford individuals the liberty to pursue life, liberty, health, and property. Again, I’m glad Locke existed and brought a bunch of changes, but in bringing these changes life as individual people became further detached from the providence of God, and the ordering of creation such that our experience of its goodness was seen to flow from his hands. Instead, it flowed from our own individual efforts.

So. What does this potted history have to do with identity? And why it’s a nebulous, and perhaps unhelpful concept to build Christian anthropological (and political and ethical) thinking on?

Well. Identity as a concept is a product of these movements — of renaissance humanism, secularisation, and the development of the absolute sovereignty of the self; sometimes justified with some implications of the Reformation, but often only paying lip service to a Christian heritage and seeking to cut loose from the roots and branches that produced the fruit. In a journal article from 1983, ‘Identifying Identity: A Semantic History’ (that became a book chapter), Philip Gleason traced the development of the concept of identity by tracking the use of the word identity. He found that this word that gets given so much weight in modern Christian theology has a very short history; and that alone should give us pause about how keen we are to use ‘identity’ and how people ‘identify themselves’ (ie with what terms or qualifiers) as a yardstick of orthodoxy. He says the emergence of identity as a concept in politics (or sociology) and psychology is very new.

The historically minded inquirer who gains familiarity with the literature, however, soon makes an arresting discovery—identity is a new term, as well as being an elusive and ubiquitous one. It came into use as a popular social science term only in the 1950s. The contrast between its handling in two standard reference works dramatizes its novelty. The International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, published in 1968, carries a substantial article on “Identity, Psychosocial,” and another on “Identification, Political.” The original Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, published in the early 1930s, carries no entry at all for identity, and the entry headed “Identification” deals with fingerprinting and other techniques of criminal investigation.

This fits with the Google ngram data I posted in a previous examination of how unhelpful the word ‘identity’ is when it comes to a Christian approach to sexuality.

When it comes to the links between the development of the individual, unmoored from a divine order — or a ‘given’ self — Gleason traces its usage back to Locke, and Hume (two key figures in the development not just of humanism, but secular humanism).

“The OED’s first two usage citations illustrating psychological “personal identity” are from Locke’s Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690) and David Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature (1739). This tends to corroborate Robert Langbaum’s assertion that identity did not take on psychological connotations until the empiricist philosophers called into question what he calls “the unity of the self.” The unity of the self was not a problem so long as the traditional Christian conception of the soul held sway, but it became a problem when Locke declared that a man’s “Identity … consists in nothing but a participation of the same continued Life, by constantly fleeting Particles of Matter, in succession vitally united to the same organized Body.” Langbaum argues that Locke and Hume “use the word identity to cast doubt on the unity of the self,” and he has written a book to show how writers from William Wordsworth to D. H. Lawrence reacted to this challenge to the integrity of “the self.””

Gleason tracks the emergence of the concept of identity as we might know it from the mid 50s, where he says a book titled Protestant-Jew-Catholic made the case that in a fragmenting culture where personhood had become disconnected from an established order, and was left in the hands of the self, religion was still the most satisfying way for “locating oneself in society” and answering the aching question “who am I?” He quotes a publication from 1963, to demonstrate how ‘Identity’ had moved from the fringes to the centre of moral discourse, and the defining question of a particular age, which asks “who, thirty years ago, would have thought that the problem of identity would become one of the most crucial issues for the searching individual in our society?” 

Gleason then traces the development of the concept of identity (especially identity formation) in psychology, specifically through the work of Erik Erikson (which is about as cool a ‘given’ name as possible for a bloke who then talks about the quest for the development of the self). He says that in the psychological realm, Erikson saw identity formation as a process that “involves an interaction between the interior development of the individual personality, understood in terms derived from the Freudian id-ego-superego model, and the growth of a sense of selfhood that arises from participating in society, internalizing its cultural norms, acquiring different statuses, and playing different roles.”

Charting its actual use in publications, Gleason identifies a contest within the modern understanding of the word ‘identity’ between its psychological and sociological uses, and, indeed, the present use of the word still seems contested in those spheres. This is true even when Christians try to appropriate it in order to ‘contextualise the Gospel’ and speak truths about God’s role in defining ‘the self’ into the modern conversation that often doesn’t realise what is lost through his absence… we use ‘identity’ in either psychological, or sociological ways, or interchangeably without recognising the difference. Gleason says the psychological and sociological understandings of the concept of identity can’t be easily reconciled:

“The two approaches differ most significantly on whether identity is to be understood as something internal that persists through change or as something ascribed from without that changes according to circumstance. For Erikson, the elements of interiority and continuity are indispensable. Working within the Freudian tradition, he affirms that identity is somehow “located” in the deep psychic structure of the individual. Identity is shaped and modified by interaction between the individual and the surrounding social milieu, but, change and crisis notwithstanding, it is at bottom an “accrued confidence” in the “inner sameness and continuity” of one’s own being.

The sociologists, on the other hand, tend to view identity as an artifact of interaction between the individual and society—it is essentially a matter of being designated by a certain name, accepting that designation, internalizing the role requirements accompanying it, and behaving according to those prescriptions.”

Gleason suggests that the incredible spike in popularity of the term identity was that its dual use gave it currency in emerging questions in the 1950s, especially post World War 2. He describes how talking about ‘identity’ replaced talking about ‘character’ and how part of the traction it gained was a sort of reconnection between an individual’s quest for self-hood, and the way social identities (including national identities) were being studied, and/or redefined at the time.

The quest for an individual ‘identity’ alongside a social identity emerges as a significant concept in the west only in the period between 1955 and 1963, but piggybacks off the Renaissance, the Reformation, the work of John Locke, and others, including Freud and Erikson. While it has a heritage that stretches back to the 1300s, it this search is a product of what Charles Taylor calls ‘the secular age’ and specifically the plethora of individual identity-constituting choices that flows out of the rejection of the idea of a God, or gods, providing order and meaning, and a place for each person in the cosmos. Taylor explores this idea in depth in his work The Sources of the Self. Taylor notes that the roles we play in forming our identity after the ‘nova effect’ that comes from the social order being disconnected from a divine order often leaves us with a plethora of choice, and performing our identity not just through rituals (typically non-religious rituals of belonging), but also through choice (and particularly consumer choice).

Gleason’s paper is worth ploughing through, both for its substance, and its conclusion — one that urges caution in employing the word “identity” mindful of the contest or confusion caught up in its use; a warning that we Christians might heed when co-opting the word to use for our theological purposes (or even to try to show how the Gospel of Jesus provides answers to both the psychic and sociological quests for an identity). He says:

“For these reasons, responsible use of the term demands a lively sensitivity to the intrinsic complexities of the subject matter with which it deals and careful attention to the need for precision and consistency in its application. But of course its enormous popularisation has had just the opposite effect: as identity became more and more of a cliché, its meaning grew progressively more diffuse, thereby encouraging increasingly loose and irresponsible usage. The depressing result is that a good deal of what passes for discussion of identity is little more than portentous incoherence, and the historian need not be intimidated into regarding it as more than that.”

When Christians talk about our ‘identity’ in Christ, it’s hard to distinguish what we’re saying at that point from the idea that Christianity is just one ‘choice’ we make, that impacts the role we play and the community we belong to, while we ‘internalise its cultural norms’. The Christian story of who we are as selves, especially selves in Jesus, is something different to this. A Christian understanding of personhood makes space for a whole range of ‘identities’ as descriptions of roles we play in different relationships so that I can be, for example, husband, father, pastor, friend, sport fan, coffee connoisseur, or dog owner as ‘identities’  — I could even be straight, or Australian, or white (or if it were true, gay) and have that as part of my experience or story, and a description of communities I am connected to, without that threatening my understanding of my ‘self’ being rooted in God’s life and providence, and found and redeemed in the body of Jesus, through union with him by the Spirit, and so also find my identity in the body of Jesus, the church, and in the roles God has appointed, or provided, or calls me to in this world as a priest in the priesthood of all believers, in service of the body. I don’t need to claim a totalising ‘identity in Jesus,’ as an expression of my individualism.

That is to say, Christianity has something to say for those who are searching for a sense of self, who want to answer the question ‘who am I’, but the answers Christianity gives might, in their most satisfactory form, not rest in weird ontologically weighted labels around sexuality, race, or even religious belief, and the recognition of one’s individuality, desires, or ‘id,’ but instead might look to a more ancient schema, both in a divine ordering of reality that works its way through to the givenness of our personhood (in an integrated sense of body and soul), and the calling, or telos, we find in Jesus as we are united to him, and called into the priesthood of all believers, such that we can find meaning and purpose in both the spiritual and temporal realms. To push towards that sort of vision of the person might involve pushing back both against individualism (as a product of Renaissance/secular humanism), and identity (as a child of the uncertainty produced by that move), and to something more grounded in the life and providence of God.

On the need for subversive ideologies

Australia’s Gospel Coalition CEO, blogger, and genuinely nice guy Akos Balogh is currently working on a series over on his blog about critical theory titled ‘Are You Being Shaped By This Subversive Ideology.’ Part 2 leads off with a quote from Hebrews, “‘Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings.’ (Hebrews 13:9),” this could just have easily have quoted Romans 12:2, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

It’s a neat rhetorical trick to see Critical Theory as a ‘pattern of this world’ or a ‘diverse and strange teaching,’ but not to apply that same standard to the systems, patterns, and teachings that Critical Theory seeks to dismantle. For Christians, all systems of thinking and action — all patterns, political systems, and pretensions — whether whiteness or wokeness — are things we, at least, should be demolishing and bringing captive to Jesus (2 Corinthians 10:4), as we adopt a methodology or way of life that comes not from the world, but from Jesus, our king. This means Christians are actually called to be subversive.

Now, I’m not sure where Akos is going to land, whether or what insights from Critical Theory, or Post-modernity, and its critiques of modernity and power structures, he might affirm, but there’s something a little culture war-y about the posture of the series so far; and TGCAU has a little form here. If we’re not being shaped by ‘this subversive ideology,’ as Christians (or citizens), then might I suggest that we always need to be shaped by other subversive ideologies? Otherwise, without subversion, the status quo inevitably becomes enshrined as the default vision of ‘the good,’ and looking around at society, culture, and politics, I’m pretty sure we’re in need of some good old subversion, as I argued in a previous post, this subversion probably needs to be both conservative and progressive (mostly it needs to be wise and good).

Akos writes about the move from boring post-modernity, to a toothier ‘social justice theory,’ where the insights of post-modernity are turned into moral imperatives. He says “This desire to reorder society is incredibly moralistic: which is why so many students graduating from these ‘Social Justice’ type courses (women’s studies; gender studies etc) become activists.”

Now. We might be in real trouble if universities in Australia were pumping out graduates from these ‘social justice’ type courses (and, bear with me, ‘woke capitalism’ is certainly also a thing). That would be a status quo worth subverting. The ‘so many students,’ at least according to data on university enrolments from Australia’s Department of Education, is a subset of the 19.9% of university students who fit in the ‘society and culture’ segment of the university population, 25% of the student population are in ‘management and commerce’ degrees, 6% in Engineering or related fields, 7.9% in IT, 2.4% in Architecture and Building, 7.4% in Science, and 1.1% in Agriculture, add the 15.4% who are in Health, and that’s 65% of students who are in ‘modernist’ courses with a STEM flavour. That’s a pattern. That’s a system (the other 13.6% of students are studying Education or Arts). Drilling down into the ‘society and culture’ field of education, research conducted by the Australian Academy of the Humanities, says this sector includes “Political Science and Policy Studies, Studies in Human Society (History, Gender Studies, Indigenous Studies, Sociology), Human Welfare Studies and Services, Behavioural Science, Law Justice and Law Enforcement, Librarianship, Informational Management and Curatorial Studies, Language and Literature, Philosophy and Religious Studies, Economics, and Sport and Recreation.” Gender studies is there, but that’s a whole lot of other courses that aren’t necessarily producing activists committed to a social justice outlook. According to that same AAH paper (albeit a paper from 2014, using data from 2012) the ‘Other Studies in Human Society’ field, that includes Gender Studies and Indigenous Studies only accounts for around 12% of full time equivalent employees in the Society and Culture sector. Given that (according to the Grattan Institute) only 2 in 5 high school graduates enrol in university, the number of Aussies getting Gender Studies degrees and becoming activists is negligible, especially when compared to non-activist students who get jobs that plug them in to an economic and social machine that is more representative of a system or status quo or pattern of the world.

Perhaps these activists have a disproportionate impact on society and culture — perhaps they’re particularly effective online, and in a sort of ‘chattering class’ that cares about moral or ethical conversations (where plenty of Christian leaders find themselves engaging). Perhaps they even wield a disproportionate influence on western politics, especially on the left (though equally, they gain a disproportionate amount of attention from the Christian Right in these same online fora). But. Here’s a couple of caveats — perhaps the social justice activists from the Gender Studies departments, or Critical Theorists are actually right in some of their diagnoses about power, and systems and structures (but maybe sometimes wrong about their prescribed solutions to said problems), and perhaps, we Christians, aren’t so much at risk of being swept up by this ‘subversive agenda’ but not being subversive enough when it comes to the status quo that accounts for the vast majority of university graduates, and the 60% of Aussies who don’t go to, or haven’t graduated from, university.

We Christians could be a little more subversive when it comes to systems or patterns of thinking that are drastically shaping our conception of what it means to be human. Systems like liberalism and its radical individualism, or capitalism. Power structures like systemic racism or the patriarchy. This isn’t to say the answer is rushing out and subscribing to Critical Theory or getting a Gender Studies degree, but surely the same discernment we’re so willing to apply to progressive politics should be applied to the conservative realm and its patterns. The call to follow a crucified king in an upside down kingdom where the proud fall, and the humble are exalted actually requires a degree of subversion?

Akos suggests that the political principle of this ‘subversive system’ is “a belief that society is formed of systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known and how. This has also been retained. In fact, this is central to the advocacy of identity politics, whose politically actionable imperative is to dismantle this system (i.e. modern western society) in the name of Social Justice.” I won’t rehash the argument I made elsewhere about how the Biblical account of empire — whether Babylon, or Rome-as-Babylon, seems to fit with a belief that society is formed of dominion systems of power and hierarchy — but I will suggest, briefly, that identity politics is actually a product not of ‘social justice’ but of liberalism; and some unexpected consequences of Reformation Christianity and its emphasis on the individual (and a protestant work ethic).

Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor in his A Secular Age, traces the rise of what he calls ‘the age of authenticity’ to a protestant impulse to disconnect people from a previous social order, particularly an order where people were born into class systems or professions, this came with a disconnection from the idea that this social order was created and dignified by God (or a reflection of the supernatural realm in the natural order), such that, for example, kings were appointed by God. When we pushed that transcendent ordering of the natural world to the side, we were all left masters of our own domains, forced to construct our own individual identities, and, often, choosing to construct our identities through performative projections of our ‘authentic’ desires; our ‘id’ into the world — when we talk about identity politics, we’re really talking about id-entities — the idea that we as individuals create ourselves, that we need to be recognised by others to be legitimised, and that we can often construct this identity through consumer choice; either as we build our appearance and our connection to place, or as we associate ourselves to brands, sub-cultures, or tribes, in order to be understood. The system that we all operate in — whether plugging in to the economy as the quickest means to the sort of security that allows us to construct our ideal ‘id-entity’ through consumption or experience, or participating in woke capitalism, or social justice activism, or culture wars — is one built on this conception of the human. It’s a picture that needs subversion, or disruption.

Historian Tom Holland (not the Spider-Man actor) does a great job charting this in his book Dominion. He starts his exploration of the impact of Christianity on the secular west — or rather its formative and foundational role in the western world, with an exploration of the systems of dominion or domination ultimately replaced by Christianity, but maybe, following Taylor, that we might be returning to in the post-Christian west (as a result of some streams of Christian belief and practice).

He says, of the Babylonian and Persian realms, that they had a particular relationship to a conception not just of the universe and the ‘heavenly realm’ but the nature of the gods, “beyond the physical apparatus of the Great King’s vast empire, then, beyond the palaces, and the barrack rooms, and the way-posts on dusty roads, there shimmered a sublime and momentous conceit. The dominion forged by Cyrus and secured by Darius served as a mirror to the heavens. To resist it or to subvert it was to defy Truth itself.” The sort of power systems that led empires to crucify, destroy, or torture their enemies in order to promote or maintain power gave way in the west, at least for a while, to a thoroughly different way of operating; but this does not mean that ‘systems of power’ are a fiction; they are, instead, the very patterns the Biblical story emerges against — the patterns Hebrews and Romans call Christians out of as we pattern our lives on the cross. Holland says his ambition in writing  Dominion was to trace the course of what one Christian, writing in the third century ad, termed ‘the flood-tide of Christ’: how the belief that the Son of the one God of the Jews had been tortured to death on a cross came to be so enduringly and widely held that today most of us in the West are dulled to just how scandalous it originally was. This book explores what it was that made Christianity so subversive and disruptive; how completely it came to saturate the mindset of Latin Christendom; and why, in a West that is often doubtful of religion’s claims, so many of its instincts remain – for good and ill – thoroughly Christian. It is – to coin a phrase – the greatest story ever told.” Note that Christianity in its rejection of the sort of power structures of ancient empires was subversive and disruptive. 

Holland argues that the subversive and disruptive effects of Christianity served to overturn a certain ancient, and perhaps human-without-Jesus pattern of dominion; the same sorts of patterns that always sit latent in human hearts in a Christian anthropology — or that are always active in human hearts and actions without the influence and transformation brought by the Spirit, such that we should expect to see not just human lives given over to dominion (or being dominated), but human systems and cultures being built around the idolatrous use of power. These are the sorts of systems that Paul and the writer of Hebrews were worried might pull people away from the pattern of life found in the Gospel. Holland says the pattern that has shaped the western world, for good, is not one of dominion built on power, but rather, a culture built on the emptying out of power for the sake of the other; the power of the cross not just as a symbol but an ethic.

He says:

“If secular humanism derives not from reason or from science, but from the distinctive course of Christianity’s evolution – a course that, in the opinion of growing numbers in Europe and America, has left God dead – then how are its values anything more than the shadow of a corpse? What are the foundations of its morality, if not a myth? A myth, though, is not a lie. At its most profound – as Tolkien, that devout Catholic, always argued – a myth can be true. To be a Christian is to believe that God became man, and suffered a death as terrible as any mortal has ever suffered. This is why the cross, that ancient implement of torture, remains what it has always been: the fitting symbol of the Christian revolution. It is the audacity of it – the audacity of finding in a twisted and defeated corpse the glory of the creator of the universe – that serves to explain, more surely than anything else, the sheer strangeness of Christianity, and of the civilisation to which it gave birth. Today, the power of this strangeness remains as alive as it has ever been. It is manifest in the great surge of conversions that has swept Africa and Asia over the past century; in the conviction of millions upon millions that the breath of the Spirit, like a living fire, still blows upon the world; and, in Europe and North America, in the assumptions of many more millions who would never think to describe themselves as Christian. All are heirs to the same revolution: a revolution that has, at its molten heart, the image of a god dead on a cross.”

That’s powerful stuff right there; and I’d suggest where cultures, including the west, are moving away from the image of a god dead on a cross, and towards systems of power modelled on different concepts of god (idolatry, including greed), we’re seeing returns to dominion systems that just go by other names, like capitalism. Now. Capitalism is a product, like much of the west, of Christianity — a product of the idea of property rights and a person owning ‘property’ in the form of their own self (thanks Locke), and a product of ‘the protestant work ethic’ and democracy, and some of this is good fruit from a good tree — but idolatry is where good things — created things — are taken, and instead of being received with thanksgiving, worshipped in the place of God; made ultimate. The Social Justice Movement, or Critical Theory, is its own power game (as I’ve argued elsewhere), and it is not immune from critique using its own framework of deconstruction and assessment of an approach to power — but its critiques of systems of power at work in the west aren’t all wrong; especially because Christianity has had an awkward relationship with state power in the western world. If the book of Revelation is a criticism of Israel and its harlotry — cuddling up to the beastly Roman empire and so executing Jesus and persecuting his church, then the church, too, has been guilty of cuddling up to beastly human power structures — dominion structures — and copping some ire from the people we were meant to serve for our failures, historically and presently, is part of doing the business of repentance for us Christians. We shouldn’t be surprised if those who are sensitive to systematised abuses of power also point the finger at us, we had a whole Royal Commission exploring some of the failures of the church in this area, but those aren’t all our failures — just our failures that broke the law. We’ve also failed in our calling to be those who stand not at the centre of society but for all those made to bear God’s image, our neighbours marginalised by dominion systems. If the church is so cosied up to worldly patterns — especially in the west, which still bears the hallmarks of the Gospel and is now enjoying the fruits, how will we be able to see where disruption or subversion is still required without voices from the outside?

If we assume the status quo is good and right, how will we avoid the ‘patterns of this world’ — and isn’t there a chance that sometimes things that challenge our comfortable status quo will feel like ‘diverse and strange teachings’ — much like the prophets calling Israel away from idolatry, or Jesus arriving in first century Israel felt to God’s people who had become too comfortable with the gods and systems of the nations? If we get caught up conserving the good things about the west to the extent that we don’t hear a call to ongoing progression or disruption don’t we run the risk of conforming to the patterns of the world? To systems of dominion or empire? Won’t we end up becoming vassals to the empire in ways that make it hard not to bow the knee, or kiss the hand, or bless the President, when he beckons to us, rather than ambassadors for Christ and ministers of God’s reconciling work in the world?

In an essay titled ‘Woke Politics and Power,’ published in The Monthly, Australian academic and media personality Waleed Aly unpacks a way that the Critical Theory/Social Justice movements play power games via cancel culture. His analysis is well worth the time because he observes that underneath the Social Justice/Critical Theory movement is both a power game, or dominion system, and an animating force that is essentially the same as the forces animating capitalism (that also explains, again, why woke capitalism is a thing). It’s the same false fruit of Christianity (and perhaps particularly post-Reformation Christianity) behind the ‘age of authenticity’ and the pursuit of an id-entity that needs to be recognised by others (including the state) to be validated. He’s not the only one making this observation. The whip smart hosts of the podcast The Eucatastrophe have been banging this same drum for three seasons of their show now, and, really, Charles Taylor, Alisdair MacIntyre, and William Cavanaugh have made similar observations (MacIntyre in After Virtue, Cavanaugh in many places including this most excellent essay about Amazon as a modern god). The issue is a version of liberalism, or radical individualism, built on a radical form of individualism that props up, and in a vicious cycle, is a product of a form of capitalism-as-empire. Aly examines wokeness, and cancel culture as an application of woke power, as a reaction to liberalism that doesn’t escape liberalism’s constraints. He says:

“But perhaps cancel culture’s most fatal problem is that while it intuits liberalism is insufficient, and seeks to dismantle it, it cannot escape it. In fact, it ends up imbibing several of its basic ideas. This isn’t immediately obvious due to liberalism and woke politics’ opposing focus on individual rights and collective identities, respectively. That seems completely incompatible until you recognise that cancel culture adopts a postmodern version of identity that becomes highly individualistic. So, on gender (though not on race) identity is largely determined by individuals who declare themselves into existence, then require society to recognise them on those terms. That is very different from pre-modern identities, which were overwhelmingly given to people by society, assigning membership of a collective, which came with established roles and obligations to other people. These collectives might variously be national, religious, gendered, class-based (or some combination of these), but they were not typically chosen. Collective identities effectively led people to ask themselves “What is required of me?” rather than “What does my identity demand of you?” Liberalism smashed that comprehensively.

It’s a major difference with major consequences. Pre-modern identities sat atop a shared, largely fixed morality, provided mostly by religion or a relatively homogenous culture. Liberalism assumes that some kind of common moral culture undergirds society, but it is largely amoral itself. It leaves moral judgement to the “market” of individuals, which will change it over time.”

It’s a really, really, good essay.

So how do we disrupt, or subvert, the worldly patterns, systems, and power structures underpinning both wokeness and whiteness? How do we challenge not just the ‘subversive systems’ that challenge the status quo and so feel like they’re challenging the things we want to conserve, but also the more invisible systems that we’ve become complicit in that still need to be challenged?

Well. I tried to unpack that in this earlier post, but it’s ultimately going to work with the same spirit that animated the west and subverted older models of idolatry or dominion, and that animated the Reformation itself, even if subsequent generations of reformed Christians created a dangerous emphasis on the individual in their deconstruction of ecclesial power structures — the cross of Jesus. Weakness. Power given for the sake of others, not for self interest.

More than that though it will have to come with two simultaneous convictions — the existence of a heavenly realm and a heavenly being who has some say in how human relationships and systems should look — and we Christians have that at the heart of our story of creation and redemption; a God who made heavens and earth that they might reveal his ‘divine nature and character,’ who sustains things by his powerful word, who uses the ‘wisdom of the cross’ to shame and defeat worldly empires and power structures, and whose ‘word-made-flesh’ taught us to pray that his kingdom might come ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ — we need a re-enchanted sense of the world, and our place in it within a system, not simply as individuals, and we need a conviction that our personhood is given, not just self-actualised.

The first of these convictions is going to come through worship that rejects idolatry. In Romans, Paul describes the way cultures and norms are formed when we reject God as creator, and worship creation instead. There are plenty of religions-of-liberalism. Aly describes wokeness itself as a sort of religion — the kind philosopher Émile Durkheim described in his sociological definition of ‘a religion’ — Durkheim’s model describes how all sorts of things, from politics, to consumption, to sport, function as ‘religions’ in a post-transcendent, or disenchanted, world. There are plenty of corporations out there vying to fill the religious void in your life, and even to appear ‘enchanting’ — Cavanaugh’s essay on Amazon describes this, where he says “we continue to serve gods every bit as transcendent and irrational as the gods of old. The holy has not disappeared but migrated from the church to the state and the market.

Cavanaugh concludes, saying:

“Idolatry is embedded in whole economic and social and political systems that hold us in thrall. In an unjust system, we are all idolaters, and there needs to be systemic change to free people from false worship. If there is no true God, that task seems impossible.”

In his Gifford Lectures, published as History and Eschatology, N.T Wright suggests that much of what might otherwise be called ‘liberalism’ is just a modern form of Epicureanism. Wright argues that this is built from a consistent atomisation, or individuation, of all parts of life, playing out in the way we approach systems — from the universe down, whether that’s in economics, politics, or anthropology. He talks about modern life as life in ‘Epicurean Babylon,’ and suggests that this Epicureanism has infected the church, including how we understand God as creator and redeemer, in a variety of damaging ways, and sees part of the way this atomisation has taken place being the destruction of the role of narrative — not just in post-modernity, but in western modernity as well (where propositional truth and a sort of ‘mechanical’ model of life and the universe were assumed, so that a ‘deistic non-interventionist God’ is assumed, and that isn’t so different from a disenchanted, materialist universe where secular and sacred are separate realms, rather than integrated or overlapping). In such a world material things become our objects of worship, or the ways we define our ‘identity’ — rather than seeing our humanity as something given to us with the purpose of reflecting the divine nature and character of God (or, bearing his image). This is to say that the current state of play in the West isn’t just a product of Christianity, as Holland suggests, but also the product of a turn to, or at times a synthesis of Christianity and, a sort of Epicurean cosmology that underpins liberalism and its understanding of the world, the economy, and what it means to be human.

For me the second task, rediscovering who we were created to be, means being suspicious of the word ‘id-entity’ as a theological or ethical category (and a preference for talking about personhood), and an avoidance of identity based politics, identity-construction through consumer choice (and, instead, an approach to formation and ethics based on virtue and embodying the narrative we’re called to live in by the God who made, and re-created us in Jesus, who is transforming us into his image). Id-entity construction is so often a product of idolatry — our hearts, that are factories of idols, are poor guides for what our humanity should look like, and we aren’t as in control as we think we are of our ‘identity’ if, fundamentally, we are worshipping creatures who become what we worship. Our transformation, redemption, or re-creation in Christ certainly involves transformed hearts — but this transformation, like our bodies that are born into a ‘story’ (our families, communities, etc) is ‘given’ to us in that it is brought about by the Spirit (see Romans 7 and 8). The whole exercise of talking about Christianity as an ‘identity’ that we construct lends itself to a sort of liberalism where our religious commitment ends up being a personal consumer choice and a bid to construct and have our heart-desires recognised in much the same way as a sports fan, or a member of a sub culture or community. The Biblical concept of personhood in relationship to God as creator and redeemer is, in many ways, the antithesis of liberalism and we should be really cautious in adopting the language, or anthropology, at the heart of the liberal system (or empire).

This attempts to re-understand humanity, or personhood, requires a commitment to discovering who we are in the Gospel, as the culmination of God’s story — or revelation of his character to us, and in our union with Christ and as his body in the world, and a commitment to the sort of worship, or liturgy, that forms us as the people who live this story in all of life. The stuff Paul says at the start of Romans 12 about true worship is the antidote to the false worship of Romans 1, and the basis of our transformation and the renewing of our minds and the not being conformed to the patterns of this world, and its the ‘offering of our bodies’ in view of God’s mercy to us in Jesus). As MacIntyre puts it in After Virtue, when examining the givenness of our personhood, and how that has been lost in modern constructions of identity (or how the modern bureaucratic state wants to educate/form us into particular identities within an economic machinary), ‘“I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do? ‘ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?'”

Finally, because subversion requires challenging the status quo we need to not just hear political and social voices we might otherwise exclude. The prophetic voices calling for disruption, subversion, or Reformation. I fear that many of our conservative, institutional, voices would react to Luther the way the Pope did. The Protestant impulse might have led us to some interesting political and social positions where different sorts of idolatry were birthed, and it may have not just ‘re-ordered’ given structures that underpinned a sense of God’s providential ordering of the universe (like kings and popes), but done away with a link between the two in some profound ways, but it did get the emphasis on disruption or subversion — the church always reforming — right. Perhaps rather than dismissing voices that challenge systems and status quos as ‘diverse and strange teachings’ we might consider and discern whether we should be receiving them as a ‘voice calling from the wilderness’ encouraging us to make straight paths for the Lord. Our tendency, especially in a ‘liberal’ world that teaches us we are the autonomous authors of our own identity, is to be blind to the systems that are shaping us, because we believe we are in control.

The telling of the Christian story as a counter-narrative to the stories of the world is one way that should open our eyes, but we probably also need to hear the Christian story as told by non-liberal (non-western even) Christian voices to examine where our version of the Gospel might have been colonised, or where a worldly dominion model might have crept in without us noticing (or worse, with us noticing but not caring because that’s more effective, or comfortable). One example of this that I’ve come across recently is this application of something like ‘critical race theory’ to ‘whiteness’ in the church, or more particularly, in the Christian academy by Ekaputra Tupamahu. This article’s insights into how liberalism, particularly in the form of property rights (starting with the self, or the body, as autonomously governed personal property) and then copyright are particularly ‘white’ western phenomena (made evident, historically, by colonialism in the west, and white ownership of non-white persons as slaves). The application of ‘property rights’ — an expression of liberalism — to the field of Biblical studies, and specifically, to a problem in New Testament studies known as ‘the synoptic problem’ is a fruitful example of listening to voices from outside of the liberal western world and allowing those voices to lead us in a task of subverting some damaging assumptions.

Brian Walsh, the author of Subversive Christianity: Imaging God in Dangerous Times, which explores, for the most part, an Old Testament Babylonian context and the way Israel’s creation narrative called them to be a subversive people who believed something different to the sort of idolatrous capitalism and environmental (and human) destruction at work in Babylon’s dominion-based empire, in order to map that on to a call for those bearing God’s image in a new Babylon, also wrote Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empiredemonstrating (as Tom Holland does) a shared philosophy of dominion or domination at work in Babylon and Rome, seeing these as the backdrop for Christianity and its subversive politics — namely, the kingdom of God, centred on a crucified king. In it he said:

“What was true of an ancient community of Christian believers struggling with a powerful and appealing philosophy is also true for Christians in a postmodern context. Arguments that deconstruct the regimes of truth at work in the late modern culture of global capitalism are indispensable. So also is a deeper understanding of the counterideological force of the biblical tradition. But such arguments are no guarantee that the biblical metanarrative will not be co-opted for ideological purposes of violent exclusion, nor do arguments prove the truth of the gospel. Only the nonideological, embracing, forgiving and shalom-filled life of a dynamic Christian community formed by the story of Jesus will prove the gospel to be true and render the idolatrous alternatives fundamentally implausible.”

The trick is to not embrace deconstruction (alone) or dominion-style power games as we listen to these voices, but to embody a subversion built on hope, and joy, and eschatological anticipation of the renewal of all things, and so to work towards reconstruction of our own systems aligned to the Gospel and the kingdom of Jesus. It’s actually these voices from the margins — or the wilderness — speaking out against empires, dominions, or domination systems — that are echoes of the voices of the prophets; the voices that are indispensible for our task of being disrupted to our own personal transformation, and to the transformation of the world around us, or at least our anticipation that the one reconciling all things to himself will one day return to make all things new, but it’s the voices of those pointing us to Jesus that are the ones offering us not just diagnosis, but a way forward.

On demolishing strongholds: Approaching both wokeness and whiteness with weakness

Owen Strachan is, increasingly, a ‘thought leader’TM in the hardline evangelical Reformed Baptist movement in the United States. He was, for a time, the President of the Centre for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. He’s an influential voice. If one was to peruse his Twitter output in recent weeks, and months one would find that he’s turned his earnest voice to ‘wokeness’ and ‘critical race theory’ and ‘intersectionality’. These are the bad guys in the culture war, where feminism was, for the CBMW guys, just the pointy end of the spear.

Strachan posted a video clip from one of his recent talks yesterday where he quoted 2 Corinthians 10. Here’s the full lecture for context.

He said:

“We are speaking the truth in love. We are demolishing strongholds according to Paul in Second Corinthians 10:4. A lot of us today, we don’t think in those terms, that language sounds kind of hostile and arrogant and imperial and very western. That is an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, martyred in the Christian faith, who tells us that he demolishes strongholds, the Corinthian church is to demolish strongholds, and by extension, two thousand years later roughly, you demolish strongholds that would seek to take you captive. We want unity in the truth of Jesus Christ, but where people have embraced wokeness, we must follow the steps of discipline per Matthew 18:15-20. We need to treat them as if they are being taken captive by ungodly ideology. Because they are… Even as we also publicly confront those teaching unbiblical ideas in a broader sense. Though it will pain us greatly, excommunication must be enacted for those who, after going through the Matthew 18 steps, we pray we don’t have to go all the way to the end, but if we do, excommunication must happen for those who do not repent of teaching CRT, wokeness, and intersectionality. At the institutional level the same principles apply. Trustees, voting members, organisational heads, educational boards, and so on, must not tolerate the spread of wokeness any longer. Not one day more. Not one hour more. It is time. It is time for a line in the sand.”

Critical Race Theory, wokeness, and intersectionality are quickly replacing ‘Cultural Marxism’ as the term of choice in these culture war debates; which is a small mercy, at least, because Critical Race Theory is not so much a pejorative label with anti-Semitic undertones, but an actual discipline. These umbrella labels are attempts to describe the same sort of phenomenon; a cultural move afoot that recognises that the established status quo typically benefits those holding cultural and institutional power, and indeed is systemically set up to benefit those holding cultural and institutional power such that this status quo also costs those excluded from cultural and institutional power.

One way to observe this status quo, in the West, is to look at the question of power through, say, a prism of individual wealth. Globally, the white male comes out pretty well. This systemic ‘status quo’ stuff is more obvious in other cultural contexts, like Russia’s oligarchy, or China’s communist party. More ‘free market’ based nations, cultures, or economies, have changed the power dynamic so that power is more connected to wealth (success in the free market). But this isn’t a neutral status quo, the market isn’t free of history or the institutions (banks, corporations, etc) that mediate it to us, or even the expertise to navigate it (that comes via education, opportunity, and connections). It is geared through cultural, structural, and political systems, to benefit those already at the centre; and those people are typically white and male. It’s not that being white and male guarantees success, it’s just that the status quo keeps benefiting the same people. This also isn’t to say that all white people benefit from these systems, or that no non white people do, one’s success will depend on how well one adapts to, or challenges, the status quo. An example might be that not all white people can afford a sports car or a nice suit, but if you have a sports car and a nice suit as a white person in the west, particularly in America, you’re less likely to be assumed to be a criminal than a black person in the same car, and more likely to be assumed to be an individual success. If you’re a non white driver of a sports car the narrative is often that you’ve succeeded by sheer force of will, against the odds. Those odds, or what is overcome, are the ‘status quo’…

In short, critical theory says there’s a system built to perpetuate this, and that we experience that cascading down from the top into all systems and relationships. Critical race theory observes that in the west there’s an ethnic element to this status quo, partly through the colonial history of the ‘commonwealth,’ where the British Empire brought an ‘establishment class’ into various nations, benefited from the wealth of nations connected to the empire, and built cultural and physical infrastructure to benefit that establishment class (universities, old boys networks, gentleman’s clubs, legal systems, political parties, corporations etc) at the expense of non-establishment (non-white) people (including through slavery, but also in dispossessing people from their lands). Then, these establishment institutions assume the white experience as a default, whiteness as a norm, and white voices at the center, and this perpetuates itself generation by generation. Often these nations and cultures have not just been built on ethnic inequality, entrenching a biased status quo that benefits the establishment class, but they have been built by cultures where power was held by blokes, sometimes for theological reasons, other times because of the typical power dynamic created by brute physical strength. So when ‘woke’ CRT people speak of ‘whiteness’ — it’s not white skin they’re particularly interested in, but the assumption implicit in our culture and institutions that whiteness is the default, such that, for example, I never have to describe ‘where I’m from’ (and really, I don’t actually know with much precision), I’m just white, and I don’t suffer the downsides of systemic racism, or the inherited baggage of intergenerational economic disparity built from those establishment decisions that created a status quo I see as ‘normal’ and am not particularly predisposed to change or challenge, on my own, because not only is it normal, it is beneficial.

Where feminists particularly focused on the maleness caught up in the patriarchy, race theorists look at ethnicity, and when those groups recognised the similarities in experience and outlook the idea of ‘intersectionality’ was born. Throw in the sense that the status quo operates through the application of power, given to maintaining, or further entrenching the status quo as ‘the norm,’ sometimes the ‘God given’ or ‘natural’ norm, and we get the language of oppressed and oppressor in the mix.

This wokeness, when you open your eyes to the systemic reality — whether as an oppressed, marginalised, person, or someone benefiting from the system — then brings a new ethic. So we see groups or institutions that subscribe to ‘critical race theory’ and ‘intersectionality’ seeking to re-alter the landscape so that the voices that are dominant ‘status quo’ voices — that are all too often centered — are turned down, while the voices of the oppressed are amplified.

In the ultimate expressions of intersectionality or wokeness, powerful ‘centered’ voices can find themselves ‘cancelled,’ or historic statues toppled, for perpetuating oppression, while marginal ‘intersected’ voices — especially, say, the voices of a black trans woman (the ultimate intersection of oppressed classes) — are elevated, or centered. Now, we’ll come back to the question of whether this is actually a change of structures, or just a change of people occupying the positions of power in a structure that is essentially the same, below. It’s worth noting too that this whole intersectional agenda only really works in the west, it’s a particular product of western history, multiculturalism, violence, and even (in a positive sense sometimes) Christianity. Intersectionality doesn’t see ‘whiteness’ as a problem in China; it’s not a universally true, all encompassing worldview, and the people who want it to be have a pretty small view of history and geography. In some ways, our ability to even identify injustice, oppression, and systemic sin in our ‘status quo’ might, itself, be a product of the Christian framing and vocabulary that comes to the west via its heritage. It’s worth bearing that in mind when declaring it a heresy or a ‘line in the sand’ where anybody who uses any wokeness, CRT, or intersectionality should be excommunicated.

There are, of course, truths to the criticism of the west offered by critical race theory, or intersectionality, that anybody with a Christian anthropology might recognise. Our story — the Bible — is full of political leaders who create empires and cultures that perpetuate their godlike power, and that oppress and enslave (think Egypt, Babylon, and Rome). It shouldn’t surprise us when power based empires or cultures create a marginal experience where those not sharing power, or benefiting from the status quo, have similar observations, language, and experience that builds a shared revolutionary suspicion of the status quo.

In these ‘dominion’ style cultures it was hard to be from another ethnic group, or a woman, and to be a woman from another ethnic group did work in a sort of intersectional way. If Jesus had met, for example, the Samaritan woman at the well in Jerusalem, she’d have been an example of an intersectionally marginalised and oppressed voice on an additional count; as it was she was an outcast in her community, a bit like the woman accused of adultery, caught up and spat out by what we might now call the patriarchy and its status quo benefits offered to blokes (so that women bore the cost of sin and shame disproportionately). We see these dominion systems as an outworking of the sinful rejection of God, and our desire to rule in his place and to seek dominion over others, rather than co-operation.

This is the fall written into the fabric of human society — our beliefs, our structures, our institutions, our cultures — are as fallen as we are at an individual level, and then serve to perpetuate that fallen view of the world (so a Babylonian was raised to think like a Babylonian, according to Babylonian stories about what the gods were like, and who the king was as ‘the image of God, and this was the same in Egypt, or Rome, where the rulers of those empires were also ‘images of God’ in imperial propaganda).

The trick is that it’s hard for an Egyptian, Babylonian, or Roman kid to realise how much the default system, or status quo, was a departure from God’s actual design for life; and how flawed their picture of God was when built, inductively, from the life and rule of the ‘image of God’ at the heart of their empire. It’s harder still for someone caught up in the power games at the heart of the empire, and benefiting, to hear that their stronghold is a house of cards, and to see the oppression and destruction it brings.

It might take, like it did with Naaman, a general serving the King of Aram, an empire opposed to God’s people, the de-centered voice of a marginalised ‘servant girl’ to bring the whole house crashing down. Naaman wanted to keep playing the power game in his interaction with Israel; the girl sent him to the one who would speak God’s word — a prophet — but Naaman went to the king. The prophet, when he got there, wouldn’t take wealth, or power, or glory for healing Naaman, but sent him to get dirty and lower himself into a river. His picture of power was inverted; his stronghold demolished.

To suggest ‘CRT, wokeness, and Intersectionality’ are grounds for discipline and excommunication is a fascinating step, given that there are pretty strong Biblical precedents for reaching a similar diagnosis of what happens when idolatry and sin are systematised; namely, that people are oppressed or enslaved. It might be better, I think, to question the solutions offered by those bringing this diagnosis to bear on modern cultures and institutions (including the church). There’ve been some interesting contributions to this project from Tim Keller recently, and in these two response pieces to him from David Fitch (part one, part two).

Here are some additional further possibilities that might lead us to be cautious when it comes to drawing ‘lines in the sand’ — and ‘excommunicating people’ — especially when we belong to the ‘identities’ that are typically the beneficiaries of the status quo (especially if much of your professional life has been given to entrenching the gendered part of that status quo).

It’s possible that exactly the power structures that CRT, Intersectionality, and Wokeness identify are the structures we should be demolishing both in the world and in the church, but that the trick is we’re meant to demolish those with different weapons than the weapons of this world; and those same weapons might also be turned against the new world order dreamed about by those championing regime change or revolution under the CRT, Intersectional, or ‘woke’ banners.

That is, it’s possible that the demolition job the Gospel of the crucified king does on human structures and empires and power games actually demolishes both ‘whiteness’ or the patriarchy and ‘wokeness,’ intersectionality, and CRT.

It’s possible that the whole ‘identity politics’ game, whether played from the right or from the left is a politics built on a model of the human person where we’re creating our own ‘image’ and thus projecting our own ‘image of God’ as we pursue some sort of authentic self or ideal human life and experience (‘identity’).

It’s possible that democracy means that instead of having empires where the king is the image of God, we’re all kings and queens trying to carve out our own space, playing the game Charles Taylor calls ‘the politics of recognition‘ — where we want our identity to be affirmed and recognised and upheld by the law, and our chosen ‘identity’ to be the one that is at the centre of society, and that flourishes most of all.

It’s possible that Christian contributions to politics in the culture war have simply been a form of the identity politics we claim to hate, built from a desire for our own recognition as the ‘images’ that should be the social and cultural norm in a particular form of empire.

It’s possible then, that the church built by people playing this sort of ‘politics of recognition’ game, uncritically adopting worldly mechanics of power, or not demolishing the strongholds of our particular empires (democracy, meritocracy, technocracy, etc) have created a situation where those in positions of power in the church, at least those whose voices are centered, tend to look a whole lot like those in power in the world.

It’s possible that in all this we’ve totally lost the sense of personhood being something given to us from above, and built in relationships and community, not something we build by playing an individual power game where we claim our space in the world and yell ‘this is me, know me and love me for who I really am’ at the universe (see The Greatest Showman’s anthem ‘This Is Me’ for example).

It’s also possible that we’ve lost something of the essence of the Gospel in both the shaping of our own institutions, communities, and culture — the Gospel that is the story of a member of an oppressed people group (Israel under Rome), born into a system that was threatened by his very existence (Herod’s rule as a symbol of Caesar’s rule), and so further marginalised him (his exile into Egypt). Jesus was a non-centered voice in both Israel’s religious institutions (he wasn’t a priest, or a pharisee), and he consistently sought to ‘demolish the stronghold’ the Pharisees had built — the religious edifice that oppressed the people for their own wealth, relied on cosying up to imperial power (Herod and Pilate), and claiming, ultimately, that Caesar, not Jesus, was king of Israel as they sought to silence his voice.

It’s possible that we’ve missed the New Testament’s diagnosis that opposition to Jesus and his kingdom, particularly through the use of the power of the sword, was beastly, or Satanic, and represented a false image of God being held by those who were meant to be living as God’s image bearing, priestly, people; and that the leaders of the Temple had become oppressors who ‘devoured widows houses’ just like their tax-collecting Roman rulers did; as beastly, prowling, Satan-like wolves, rather than being like lambs trusting God as a shepherd.

It’s possible that where we’ve missed that essence, and even systematised the domination system caught up in our status quo in our churches the ‘strongholds’ that need demolishing will not be ‘out there’ in the community, but ‘in here’ in the church. Some examples might be where we uncritically embrace leadership manuals, or business practices, or status quo practices (like old boys clubs, gentleman’s clubs, setting the parameters for who gets authority in our institutions in ways that perpetuates a ‘sameness’ to the voices that are centered, etc). It’s possible, too, that the church will never see where it has sided with the ‘oppressor’ or the status quo unless we see these practices through the eyes of those who are marginalised and oppressed. If voices like ours are the voices we keep centering, how will the status quo ever be challenged? How will the strongholds ever be demolished? If, God forbid, we have systematised sinful patterns in our church structures, then it’s precisely the ‘woke’ intersectional critical race theorists we may need to hear from; there are plenty of examples in the Gospels of voices who would normally be ‘marginalised’ being centered in the kingdom; including the women who are the first witnesses to the resurrection (see the response of the disciples who “did not believe the women”).

If we’re going to discipline people and excommunicate them; let’s do it when they have a Lord, or king, who is not Jesus, and pursue an image of God not found in Jesus, and want revolution that looks something other than like bringing in the kingdom of Jesus. You know, like supporting Trump for president.

Let’s demolish strongholds. But let’s demolish all strongholds.

And let’s recognise that we might need to listen to voices who are typically excluded in order to see what we’re missing. The catch is, we won’t find many black trans women in our churches (and nor should we play the game of intersectional one upmanship, perhaps our posture should simply be to listen to those members of the body of Jesus, including the global church, whose experience and outlook is different to our own). This isn’t to say that wokeness, intersectionality, or critical theory aren’t ‘strongholds’ that need demolishing because they pull us from Jesus, just that they might be allies in tearing down some strongholds that have already dragged us into captivity. ‘Wokeness,’ in the culture wars, often feels like an attempt not to change the game, but change who occupies the centre (even whose image gets turned into a statue that sits at the centre of civic life). Our solutions to the problems of this world aren’t meant to look like elevating other, previously excluded, voices to the place of supremacy or dominion (though God does oppose the proud and give grace to the humble), that just perpetuates the same system under different parameters, our solution to the problems of this world don’t just sit in the space of diagnosis, but revolution. Our revolution isn’t about picking other humans as kings or queens who’ll become the image of our God to us, but about following the king who is the image of the invisible God. Wokeness, where it seeks to play a dominion game, captivating us and pulling us away from Jesus as the radical inversion of beastly empires we need, but also whiteness, the status quos from the world we’ve brought into the church.

This is, of course, why culture wars style politics, or worse, culture war Christianity, is problematic. And this is, in a sense, exactly what Paul is writing against in his letters to the Corinthian Church.

In the city of Corinth the dominant culture was one of power and status. They played the Roman game harder than most. The city skyline was dominated by an imperial temple. The city was big on oratory and impressive orators. They wanted Paul to be an orator — a big and flashy speaker who’d sway their power obsessed neighbours over to this new empire. They liked Apollos because he was an impressive orator, then, by the time 2 Corinthians rolled around, they were enamoured with the ‘super apostles,’ who, when you look at Paul’s response seem to be the very opposite of him; the sort of church leaders wielding the weapons of this world — sharp tongues — playing a power game that the Corinthian church was getting behind. Winning the culture war.

The Corinthian Christians didn’t quite understand how revolutionary the message of the Gospel was; how much Jesus being the antithesis of Caesar, Pharaoh, or a king of Babylon meant for how we’re meant to approach life, as individuals and in community. Jesus’ diagnosis of the world — from Israel outwards — was that the powerful had become oppressive; that sinful rebellion against God and siding with Satan and cosying up to Rome had corrupted the people and institutions who were meant to be representing God and his heart for the humble.

Jesus upended the ‘dominion’ style status quo, and its politics, and brought something very different as a solution. A cross. This is how Paul sees strongholds being demolished. God’s power and wisdom is found in the crucifixion. This realisation shaped Paul’s message — so that he resolved to know nothing but Jesus, and him crucified, but it also shaped his posture — his approach to persuasion — so that he came to the Corinthians not with powerful words, but in weakness and trembling. So that he ‘renounced underhanded ways’ of persuasion, and ‘carried the death of Jesus in his body so that the life of Jesus might be made known’ (2 Cor 4). If we’re going to trot out a part of 2 Corinthians 10, lets ground it in Paul’s criticism of the Corinthian pursuit of dominion within the life of the church, and for the church within the life of the city. If Paul were here today I don’t think he’d be speaking for ‘wokeness’ or ‘whiteness’ in a sort of fight-to-the-death battle for supremacy; I think he’d be pointing us towards weakness. I don’t think he’d be kicking out those who identify how the pursuit of strength in church structures has led to oppression of people we should be loving with our might, or those who cry out for reform and justice in the church on that basis (it’s worth seeing, for example, how Strachan’s speech plays out specifically against conversations about race in the American church in the midst of the conversations amplified by the black lives matter movement, and the current unrest in America produced by generations of racism that are now entrenched in the status quo). Paul might have used a ‘war’ analogy in 2 Corinthians 4, but it was precisely to subvert the sort of power games we’re so used to playing in the church and in the world.

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. — 2 Corinthians 10:3-5

The cross of Jesus is our weapon; it demolishes both wokeness and whiteness because it stops us playing the culture war and invites us, instead, to be ministers of reconciliation (2 Cor 5), who carry the death of Jesus in our body, and have relationships marked not by dominion but by the self-emptying example of Jesus.

This might mean rejecting, or re-directing, the power and opportunity given to us by the status quo; the platform, or the centering of our voices in the life of the church. It might mean making space to listen to those voices marginalised by structures that perpetuate the same sorts of people being given authority and influence. It might mean hearing the critique of our church structures, and the west, from those who stand among the oppressed. Maybe that’s where we find what the paradoxical strength in weakness of the cross looks like embodied in the western world. In the voices of those, faithfully in our churches, but from the margins of our society.

This might mean that CRT, intersectionality, and wokeness aren’t the enemy, even if they challenge the things we hold dear. It might mean that the things we hold dear, the things that give us strength and influence, are actually things we should be letting go as we embrace weakness, rather than grasp worldly weapons.

Here’s Paul again, just after talking about the ‘weapons’ he uses to demolish strongholds — the things Satan uses to capture us and pull us away from Jesus.

Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. — 2 Corinthians 12:9-10

Which, of course, is an outworking of his whole understanding of the Gospel of his king, and the way it confounds the systems and conventions, the status quo, of the world he lives in.

For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” — 1 Corinthians 1:25-31

Something strange is happening at the ACL…

If you’ve been around these parts for a while, then you know that I’ve been vociferous in my criticism of the Australian Christian Lobby — not so much for its politics (though it should be reasonably clear by now that I think their platform is too narrow when it comes to issues that Christians should be politically engaged on, and that some of the positions they take are more identifiably ‘conservative’ than ‘Christian’), but for its co-opting of the word ‘Christian’ and its inability to connect the positions it advocates with the Lordship and way of Jesus. I’m still uncomfortable with the idea of lobbying if it represents a sort of use of the power of numbers and claims some sort of Christian constituency who should have our way in politics, rather than advocacy where we make a case for what is right for all (and especially if it is at our expense, and for the sake those at the margins of our community)…

But.

It’d feel a little remiss not to acknowledge that this change is happening.

There’s been a regime change at the ACL, with longtime director Lyle Shelton taking a step that I think had a particular sort of integrity — making it clear that his platform and concerns align with conservatism, not just Christianity — by jumping to the Australian Conservatives. A new director, Martyn Iles, has emerged in his place and there has been a subtle, but significant, tone change in his approach to politics and Christianity… he keeps writing about Jesus.

For years it felt like Jesus was ‘he who should not be named’ in ACL publications, but in blog after blog, Iles is grappling with how the Gospel shapes his politics. Now, I’m not sure I land on the same positions on most things having done that grappling, and doing this runs the risk of co-opting Jesus to a political agenda rather than having Jesus set the political agenda… but it is refreshing (and the Christian Left in Australia could learn something from this).

Here’s a paragraph from a recent post on identity politics in our universities:

The problem is resolved through character, especially the kind of character that Christ gives us.

Indeed, we are called to follow Christ’s example who, although He was omnipotent (all powerful), He “made Himself nothing” (Phil 2:6-8) for the sake of others. “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus…” says the Apostle Paul (Phil 2:4-5).

All people, regardless of privilege, status, or tribe are capable in Christ of individually growing in character. The uniqueness of Christ-like character is its deeply others-centred, self-sacrificing quality. It places the real interests of God and neighbour at the very core and kernel of our being…

… The great tragedy of the postmodern world is that the call to character is rejected. People are exponents of their tribe and the only real way to improve your moral standing falls to the powerful to change their political beliefs and acknowledge the culpability of their tribe. This is infantilising. It denies the truth about human beings. It denies the possibility of real character. It denies the gospel.

How refreshing — the example of Jesus, on the cross, being held up as an example for us to consider, and a call to others-interest above self-interest; which does have to be the foundational principle for how we approach the fraught territory of identity politics, and current conversations about gender and sexuality. Here’s more from the follow up post (it’s not just a one off).

Flag-wavers from the various movements that spring from a postmodern base claim that their end goal is equality.

If only they knew that the greatest equality in the world is found in Christ, who is Himself the Logos who they reject.

All are made in the image and likeness of God, born into one human family (Gen 1:27). That is equality.

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23). That is equality.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God for salvation to all who believe (Rom 1:16). That is equality.

For those believers, all are one in Christ (Gal 3:28). That is equality.

The utopia the postmodernists seek is found in the Logos, not outside of it. John saw a vision of His coming kingdom and it was a mish-mash of minorities “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev 5:9).

Again, I’m not endorsing the position they adopt (or not not endorsing it — I would point out that the ‘mish-mash’ of identities represented in Revelation don’t lose their tribe, language, ‘people’ or nation, but rather bring those to the table in something bigger), I’m simply pointing to a refreshing change in modus operandi for a peak lobby group seeking to operate in our political sphere as Christians. Christian politics is bigger than deciding if you’re from the Christian right, the Christian left, or the Christian centre — though our theological positions will often land us more naturally in one of those camps… it’s about the pursuit, for anyone who follows king Jesus, of a politics that is Jesus-centred (not just ‘centrist’ politics). It’ll mean we bounce to different positions on the political compass, or spectrum, on different issues, and if you’re predictably right or predictably left on every issue then there’s probably some work for you to do in assessing how much that is a product of a political ideology that isn’t the ideology of the Gospel. It’d be nice for the ACL to be less predictable… and this seems a step in the right direction.

It also seems to represent a movement away from playing the game of secular politics on hard secular terms that exclude religious ideas from being discussed, and I welcome that, and the idea that being shaped by Jesus should impact the way we Christians participate in the world (and in politics). It also makes the grounds for dialogue between Christians much more fruitful because we’re being asked to work from our shared assumptions about Jesus to develop a Christian position (whether we agree with where Iles and the ACL land or not, at least we can engage from some shared presuppositions). What it does for dialogue between Christians and non-Christians remains to be seen, but the next step might be to work out how to do the ‘Righteous Mind’ thing from psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who points out that having some empathy for the other is vital to effective persuasion (but it might require that you, yourself, be persuaded):

“If you really want to change someone’s mind on a moral or political matter, you’ll need to see things from that person’s angle as well as your own. And if you do truly see it the other person’s way—deeply and intuitively—you might even find your own mind opening in response. Empathy is an antidote to righteousness, although it’s very difficult to empathise across a moral divide.” — Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind

The Last of Us, the zombie apocalypse, identity politics, and the Benedict Option: Christian presence in a post-Christian world

Just how much can you learn about being a Christian in the post-Trump secular age of identity politics from playing a video game about the zombie apocalypse? What does survival even look like for Christians? Who knows. But I had fun writing about it.

sam_and_ellie

I just finished playing through the Zombie survival thriller The Last Of Us. Like many other high quality story driven gaming experiences, it really hit me in the feels. Perhaps especially this scene between Ellie and Sam; discussing the soul, or the humanity, of the infected (you can watch the scene here). Note: There’ll be some spoilers in blockquotes throughout this; but they aren’t super essential to this piece.

Sam: How come you’re never scared?

Ellie: Who says I’m never scared?

Sam: What are you scared of?

Ellie: Scorpions are pretty creepy… Being by myself… I’m scared of ending up alone. What about you?

Sam: Those things out there? What if the people are still inside? What if they’re trapped in there without any control of their body? I’m scared of that happening to me.

Ellie: First of all, we’re a team now, we’re going to help each other out, and second, they might still look like people, but that person is not in there anymore.

Sam: Henry says they’ve moved on, that they’re with their families, like in heaven, do you think that’s true?

Ellie: I go back and forth, I mean, I’d like to believe it.

Sam: But you don’t?

Ellie: I guess not.

But it also got me thinking. How would I go about surviving in a world where all my neighbours, the people I live with in my city, seemed determined not just to want to understand me, but wanted to infect me with a deadly, soul stealing, virus in order to make me just like them. And why does modern life often feel like that? Not just when it comes to my faith in Jesus and what life in modern Australia seems to want me to do with that; but with any view I hold that someone else disagrees with? You want a scene that looks like something out of a zombie survival movie where a bunch of people are operating with some sort of narrow-focused hive-minded propensity for violence and the destruction of the brains of another…

Well…

anti-trump-protests
An anti-Trump protest

Sadly I suspect this would’ve looked almost exactly the same if Hilary had won and Trump’s supporters had hit the streets.

Zombies, Trump, Identity Politics, and civilised self

Playing The Last Of Us, thinking about Christianity in a post-Christian world, and watching the fallout to Trump’s victory got me thinking about the way we’re increasingly not individuals in public and social life, but tribes, and about how sometimes this tribalism plays out in what people are calling ‘identity politics’… which has been the subject of some of the more fascinating analysis of both Trump’s victory and the protests in response. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines Identity Politics as:

“The laden phrase “identity politics” has come to signify a wide range of political activity and theorising founded in the shared experiences of injustice of members of certain social groups. Rather than organising solely around belief systems, programmatic manifestos, or party affiliation, identity political formations typically aim to secure the political freedom of a specific constituency marginalised within its larger context. Members of that constituency assert or reclaim ways of understanding their distinctiveness that challenge dominant oppressive characterisations, with the goal of greater self-determination.”

This is made all the more interesting by this piece reacting to Trump’s victory and the fallout amongst those who practice identity politics in the Stanford Review.

Stanford has come to embrace a particularly narrow definition of identity politics – one that almost exclusively focuses on the struggles faced by racial minorities and that refuses to acknowledge the plight of any group that does not fit in this reductionist narrative.

It’s fair to say identity politics has largely been a plaything of the political left, until Trump.

In The Last Of Us there’s both the meta-tribes of ‘survivor’ and ‘infected’ and the splintered identities within the survivors who look for survival by belonging to different factions or adopting different strategies. These sub-groups don’t like each other much; they pose just as much danger to one another as the infected; and as a result, undermine the human enterprise. It’s the times that people join forces across tribes that provide some of the most poignant moments in the game. It’s a moment like this that brings Ellie and Sam (and their guardians) together; but the conflict across these sub-groups; these tribes; these identities involves people treating other people as something less than human. As you play the game you’re every bit as likely to sink a bullet or an arrow into another person as you are into a zombie; which requires, ultimately, thinking of anyone who opposes your vision for human flourishing as though they are something less than truly human. It’s an identity politics thing; you operate in this wasteland where survival is everything as though your neighbour is your enemy if they don’t belong to your tribe, and those enemies are in competition with you for resources and a threat to your group’s survival because they’ll either steal from you, or lead the infected to you and undermine your whole social enterprise.

Your identity and your understanding of how identity works in the life of others will, and should, inevitably shape the way you approach and understand politics. I approach politics in a way almost totally formed by my Christian convictions and the sense of self and what human flourishing looks like, that comes from this identity. Where identity politics and tribalism get a little dangerous (and combative) happens along the same fissure line in our view of the other that turns The Last Of Us’ Joel and Ellie into human killers, not just zombie killers; it feels like when we’re trying to survive in the cultural wasteland of modern, secular, life every other vision of what the flourishing life looks like has the potential to eat away at the core of my identity; thus the core of myself and my tribe; thus it is a threat that we must guard ourselves against; tribally. I suspect this is, in part, an explanation for the Benedict Option (which I’ll get to below).

As Joel and Ellie travel through the post-infection wilderness they come across several failed utopias, including one where a small breach in the tribal boundaries — in the wall — was enough for the infection to slip by and destroy the community; other communities, particularly the tribe Sam and his brother Henry belonged to, were destroyed by hostile humans who wanted their stuff. Survival in the world of The Last Of Us seems to require keeping your guard up; and it’s this practice that drives the narrative, and the tension, between Joel and Ellie. Joel loses his daughter in the first cut scene of the game, early in the outbreak of the virus; years later he meets Ellie and takes responsibility for her well-being; his nature, hardened by surviving in the post-apocalyptic wilderness, is to remain emotionally buffered; to avoid attachment to Ellie because his own survival depends on it; well, at least that’s what he thinks. There’s a scene where Joel and Ellie are discussing a toy robot she gave to Sam. It does contain major spoilers so maybe skip the quotes.

Ellie: I forgot to leave that stupid robot on his grave. What should I do with it?
Joel: Ellie…
Ellie: What? I want to talk about it.
Joel: No.
Ellie: Why not?
Joel: How many times do we need to go over this? Things happen… and we move on.
Ellie: It’s just…

To say more would be to spoil the game even more; and you should play it; but Joel’s view is not uncommon in the game, or in the real world. In fact; it’s modern, even if we tend to live tribally around shared identity rather than as individuals. We have this sense that letting down our guard enough to understand an other person, or an identity counter to ours, is a threat to our survival, because it undermines our ability to keep the walls up and may lead to some sort of nasty infection where our identity is ripped apart. The modern, secular, human is by nature, at least according to philosopher Charles Taylor, a ‘buffered self,’ and by this he means a few things.

“This term, as I’ve been using it, has in fact a complex meaning… To be a buffered subject, to have closed the porous boundary between inside (thought) and outside (nature, the physical) is partly a matter of living in a disenchanted world. It comes about through… the replacement of a cosmos of spirits and forces by a mechanistic universe, the fading of higher times… but these changes were furthered, and in turn intensified by subjective changes, shifts in identity, like the rise of disengaged reason, and the transformations wrought by disciplined self-remaking, including the narrowing and intensifying of intimacy and Elias’ “civilising process.”” — Charles Taylor, A Secular Age.

The world of The Last Of Us, like ours, is thoroughly disenchanted. Ellie is haunted by the possibility of an afterlife, but the virus causing the infection is very real, and very scientific (and the attempts to fight it are really playing out in a lab, and via the shotgun). Where in our secular age, at least as Taylor understands it, the ‘buffered’ self is a self cut off from the divine, or from a sense of enchantment, in the post-zombie secular age, the self is also buffered from other people; especially those outside the tribe… the introduction of this horrific and community-destroying infection has undone the ‘civilising process.’ The zombie apocalypse in The Last Of Us is fundamentally uncivilising; all the hallmarks of our civilisation fall apart.  Train stations are abandoned, health care is a thing of the past — you’re left bandaging your wounds with salvaged alcohol and torn off strips of fabric, cars have all fallen into disrepair, and people behave like animals, even to the point of cannibalism. This ‘civilising process’ Taylor cites is a reference to Norbert Elias’ book The Civilising Process (which according to Wikipedia describes a basic evolution in human behaviour over time from ‘uncivilised’ to civilised); that has all come undone simply because an unexpected plague hits, and hits hard. It might not take as much as we think to turn us into savages. The scenes in the world of The Last Of Us aren’t so different from the scenes we see around mass protests where the trains no longer run on time, health systems fall apart to some extent, and people start looting and pillaging… There’s also a risk that if we see the zombie apocalypse as a metaphor for rise of Trump, or the rise of ‘identity politics’ or even the rise of secularism where the brainless masses walk the streets wanting to devour people not like them, and it’s a fight for survival, we’ll adopt strategies — like tribalism — that’ll bring about the undoing of civilisation.

The Last Of Us is a sort of warning shot in the days and weeks post Trump as we figure out the role of identity politics and tribalism together… The sort of tribalism that assumes the zombie apocalypse has hit, that everyone outside the tribe is basically the walking dead, and so turns identity politics into a wasteland survival game is deadly to us all. It’s deadly to civilisation, and deadly to the self. There’s a risk that identity politics, both in theory and as practiced, dehumanises the ‘other’ and because it diminishes the humanity of the other, it also comes at a cost to our own humanity. But this risk runs two ways — there’s also a risk that if we don’t listen to those minority voices championing the identity politics movement, that this will be to our own detriment if we’re operating in a position of relative privilege, or operating seeking the safety of our own tribe. When we attempt to silence, or simply dismiss the concerns of those voices our tribe naturally desires to exclude — those who offer an alternative understanding of, or pattern for, humanity — we’re essentially dehumanising them, seeing them as something akin to zombies, or like you see those pesky other humans in The Last Of Us, as a threat standing in the way of our colony’s surviving and thriving.

If there’s anything I learned from reflecting on The Last Of Us it’s that dehumanising the other has a profound impact on our own humanity. I shot lots of non-infected people simply to advance my own cause; survival. I could do that, morally speaking, so long as they were simply other bits of meat standing between me and survival, but Joel and Ellie find a cannibal tribe rightly repugnant, recognising the risk that their approach to other humans taken to an extreme dehumanises everyone; even if, as the game’s protaganists, we didn’t go quite so far, we end up as monsters who take just as many lives as the infected. As I thought about the body count in my quest for survival I considered that I (or Joel/Ellie) would’ve probably been far better to see some sort of dignity and humanity still underneath the skin of the infected, such that the humanity of the person from outside our tribe with a different utopian vision was not in question. There is some sense in which the human villains you stare down the barrel at in The Last Of Us are worse than the zombies; they have all their faculties in place, but are still driven by baser instincts; those pushing for survival at the expense of others. They’re worse because they choose it; and in order to fight back, we choose it too; and so we are all diminished.

This is the cost of identity politics as it plays out now; which is to say identity politics that is conceived adversarially as tribe against tribe. At worst this sort of identity politics involves a vicious cycle of interpersonal destruction; via the dehumanising of the other, and the assertion of the supremacy of my identity over yours, or, like in even the most utopian post-virus view of human identity in The Last Of Us, it requires a walled-in alienation from the rest of humanity (and the infected).

The real shame here is, of course, that some sort of identity politics is vital to survival in a secular, pluralistic, democracy, and in this sort of context, the key to real survival doesn’t lie in wiping out all competing views of identity, but cultivating the type of world where different identities and different visions of human flourishing can truly co-operate.

This means listening to people who own an identity other than your own (ie, for me, non-anglo people); or perhaps whose identity both overlaps and is differentiated from your own (so for me, for example, an anglo woman, or a Christian woman, or a non-anglo Christian), is vital to the human project. By which I mean it’s vital to true politics and to real survival (that isn’t simply predicated on wiping out the other tribes). Listening like this; and really hearing; might mean laying down some of your rights, or privilege, or capacity to wield power, for the sake of these other groups. Nothing illustrates the potentially positive role a type of identity politics, built on listening to the other, has to play in the post-Trump world if we want to avoid de-civilisation like reading this lament about his election. Hear this post. Read it. Consider it. Here’s why identity politics matter, so long as we keep them from being de-civilising and adversarial, because we so often ignore the identity (and issues) of those outside our own tribe, and there’s always a human cost for that, both for those we ignore, and potentially for ourselves in the act of ignoring, or simply not hearing, them.

Whatever your reasons, a vote for Trump required a rationalization.

What he said about “the blacks” is terrible, but…

What he said on mic about sexually assaulting women is awful, but…

How he mocked several people with disabilities isn’t okay, but…

His statement that immigrants are rapists and criminals was out of line, but…

I could keep going. I think you get the idea, though. In order to vote for Trump, something mattered more to you than his mistreatment or discrimination of certain groups. Whatever followed the “but…” is why you voted for him. Maybe it had to do with the economy or the Supreme Court or his anti-establishment vibe or [fill in the blank]. I trust that you had your reasons. Some policy aspect of his was compelling (or of hers was so awful to you that you felt like you had to vote for the person with the best chance of stopping Hillary).

But here’s the deal: Your policy stance followed the “but…” Our personhood preceded it. — Shannon Dingle, I Want To Help You Understand My Lament

It’s weird that a zombie game got me here. I get that…

Zombies, Survival, and the Benedict Option

But let’s talk about how sometimes it feels like being a Christian in the secular age is like being surrounded by zombies who want to eat your brains; and perhaps other religious groups who see you as a threat to their survival. Because this is a mistake it feels like we’re making when assessing the new status quo, and the Christian’s place in it. Just as it’s a mistake for the identity politics driven protesters to take to the streets in protest while burning effigies and like it was a mistake for Trump voters (particularly white voters) to buy into his dehumanising rhetoric about the other without listening. We don’t, as the church, want to model repeating that mistake in our interactions with the world do we? And so contribute to de-civilisation? We’re not a tribe of sole survivors trying to live in a post-apocalyptic wilderness, we’re certainly an apocalyptic, or eschatological, community living in the light of the end of days as we see it in the resurrection of Jesus and showing what a utopian future might look like, but I’m not sure that’s only meant to happen in our little buffered enclaves. It’s meant to be infectious; if anything we’re like the zombies, the infected, the ‘walking living’…

I’m sure just about every identity group who do the identity politics thing can play through The Last Of Us or watch a zombie movie and identify with the survivors… I think thinking this way is deeply problematic, and here is my point, I think at times we think of the church as an island of zombie survivors, a community-as-bunker, that’ll keep us safe if we guard the boundaries to keep us from infection and ride out the waves. And here’s my concern about the popular Benedict Option, even though I’m possibly misrepresenting it, as it seems everyone does, according to founder Rod Dreher.

People who say that I’m talking about everybody running to their bunkers hidden in the mountains need to stop it. It’s not true. — Rod Dreher, Everybody Row Or We’re Going Over The Falls

I don’t think he’s talking about bunkering down in the hills, and there’s lots he says about the sort of thick community he’s after that I think is great, sign me up (though I just call what he’s talking about ‘church’ and think we should be doing it already), but I do think he is talking about a movement that is primarily a defensive response to a sense that the world outside us is full of infected ‘secularists’ who want to destroy our brains and feed on our children. Here’s something Dreher actually said about the Benedict Option.

“There is no question that the Ben Op calls for a much greater sense of withdrawal than the church has today. The idea is not to create a “utopian enclave,” as if that kind of thing could exist, but rather to live within stronger boundaries between the church and the world, for the sake of better Christian formation, both of individuals and local communities. Most of us will continue to have a “faithful presence within” the structures of the world outside the church. The Ben Op intends to shore up the “faithful” part, because the church has failed miserably to do so. The current moment is an “apocalypse” in the strict sense of an “unveiling”: a revelation of the nakedness and powerlessness of the church before the modern world. This is simple reality.” — Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option and Faithful Presence Within

I do think despite his protestation about being misunderstood by all sorts of very smart people (and he’s writing a book that everyone should read obviously), that the Benedict Option will create a more buffered community (and these words suggest that with its ‘stronger boundaries’, rather than a community that is porous (and being porous means probable movement in and out from both directions. There’s a certain amount of theological truth to the fear that there are monsters crouching at the door waiting to turn us from Jesus, obviously; and these ‘monsters’ don’t always look like zombies, it’s much more likely that identity politics and listening sympathetically to the voices and desires of different minorities and the majority view on, say, sexuality, will pull people from Christian community… and Christians do believe that the key to being truly alive is Jesus, and anyone who doesn’t follow him is basically a member of The Walking Dead… but that doesn’t mean we should be building walls and buffering ourselves from the world at large. In part, because a buffered community is a community that doesn’t listen as well as it should to voices and perspectives from outside the community which may contain necessary criticisms for a community to hear in order to survive. But also, because if the church is going to succeed in any age we need to be porous rather than buffered, not just open to the presence of ‘the divine’ but open to the other, so that people can easily come in; we can’t simply be a community within the wider community, a ‘tribe’, or an ‘identity’ where we shore up the faith of believers by defining ourselves against unbelievers, but a community that grows believers and makes new ones. We’re made to be dynamic, to be on the move, to bring a cure to the infected, not to be static while hoping that infected people will simply fall through the gaps of our defences so that we might isolate them and cure them while they’re cut off from the disease. We can’t approach survival in the world as Christians the way Joel and Ellie face it in The Last Of Us.

The Benedict Option (even with the caveat that I might be misunderstanding it) seems to operate on the assumption that those outside the walls are zombies to be kept out, and that defence is the best response from the church to the changing world — it assumes we need to educate our kids in our own institutions, we’ll probably have to get out of the public service and the legal system, etc and we should do this rather than maintaining (and risking) a presence in these institutions calmly listening to others and offering a cure for their virus, even if doing so comes back to bite us.

It seems designed to mitigate against the risk of infection, and as a result, it creates a community that is less porous than it should be; The Last Of Us (and just about every zombie text) provides pretty strong warnings for minority groups wanting to politic on the basis of their identity that it’s important to keep the walls up. And the Benedict Option, though its proponents would claim otherwise, seems to be a defensive, risk-averse (looking internally, rather than considering the ‘risk’ of how society outside the church will treat us) approach to identity politics; predicated on carving out a Christian identity against and apart from the world. Christian community must be risk-taking, with a particular sort of risk in mind.

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? — Matthew 16:24-26

The risk of Christian community is that by heading out into a world full of sick people we might get infected by the world (which didn’t worry Jesus so much, and maybe our aim should be to be like him), but it is riskier still to do nothing. The Benedict Option feels too much to me like the guy in the parable of the talents who took everything his master gave him and buried it so he wouldn’t lose anything; where the righteous person took risks with the master’s gifts in order to grow his wealth. That parable contains God’s investment strategy, not for money, but for the church and how we invest ourselves in the world. Porous boundaries are a necessary risk if we want our community to survive and thrive, and if we want to bring real life and hope and cure to the existentially sick beyond our boundaries… I’d also argue it’s actually this task taking up the call to go into the world to make disciples — not simply be in the world trying to make disciples while keeping the infected at bay — that best shores up the faith of Christians. The best form of defence is ‘attack’ (with the obvious caveats that attack for us, following in the footsteps of Jesus, might actually look a lot like losing)…

In The Last Of Us, Joel, the main character, goes on a journey (led by Ellie) where it becomes clear that staying cut off from emotional attachment to anyone (because they might be infected or die at any time) isn’t a great way to live; that being buffered gets in the way of being human. This ultimately leads him to a place of reconciliation with others he’d spurned and scorned; to seeking a greater understanding of life in the world. It’s a beautiful story. He realises survival isn’t just about staying alive, hunkered down away from risk, but about being alive in relationship with others. This is what offers him the hope of a return to civility; in a community that is starting to recapture even some of the technology lost as a result of the arrival of the infection. Our civilisation, in the rise of tribalism and identity politics, isn’t threatened by zombies who can’t be cured, but by humans who are beaten and battered into buffering themselves against everyone not like them; it’d be a mistake for the church to respond to this by forming our own tribe and forging our own identity apart from and against all other comers instead of modelling what it looks like to break down barriers, understand the identity politics of others ,and work towards a civilisation that gives space for all comers, so that we might have a voice to speak of the ultimate cure and the ultimate kingdom, the one that answers the longing of Sam, Ellie and Joel… Even if it bites us.