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What the Gospel Story Can Tell Us about Identity Politics

(Leonardo da Vinci’s Annunciation)

From this vantage point, it would be difficult to imagine a more intersectional person than Jesus.”

The deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, protests over racial justice, and mounting threats to free speech have, once again, brought issues of race, power, and identity to the forefront of our national conversation. While conservatives have rightly expressed outrage at the circumstances of Floyd and Taylor’s deaths, for various and understandable reasons, there has also been a hesitancy to acknowledge that these events might be indicative of a broader problem.

In light of this, the questions and sentiments I most often hear from fellow conservatives are as follows: “Will we ever be able to stop talking about race? I’m not a racist, and nobody alive in America today had anything to do with slavery, so why is this my problem? If we give an inch on this issue, then liberals will take a mile—just look how fast they’ve moved from Robert E. Lee to George Washington and Ulysses S. Grant.”

Yet, while I am sympathetic to these positions politically, my spiritual home is as a Christian. This means that when my political home and my spiritual home come into conflict, my spiritual home must win. And it is difficult to read the gospel story and come to the conclusion that issues of identity, power and justice, which racial concerns and identity politics seek to address, are irrelevant to the gospel message. 

The gospel story arrived in a time and place that was in many ways much more divided along social, ethnic, and economic lines than our own. According to Charles H. Cosgrove, a scholar of early Christianity and professor at the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, in the first century A.D., many Greeks, Romans, and Jews “regarded themselves as generally superior to other peoples…” Indeed, Greeks and Romans subjected the Jewish population to severe prejudice, while the Jews occasionally referred to Gentiles in fairly harsh language. Economic inequality was also fairly stark. Most of the wealth was held by about 1%-3% of the population, with only about 10% of the population able to provide for their daily needs. Two-thirds of the population lived in extreme poverty, and much of the inequality fell along a familiar rural-urban divide: Landowners, government officials, and judges who resided in cosmopolitan cities held most of the wealth, while peasants residing in the countryside made up the lower and forgotten rungs of society. 

It was into this world that the message of the gospel entered with its radical proclamations that spoke directly to the divisions of the times: “[I]t is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

But it was not just this message that so powerfully addressed the circumstances of the time; it was also the identity of the messenger. The identity of Jesus was complicated to say the least—a refugee born in a lowly manager, who was acquainted with the norms of the city, yet was raised in a small village. He worked as a lower-class carpenter, was celibate and became an itinerant teacher, fully divine yet fully human, and was viewed by many as an illegitimate child

As Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, the law professor who coined the term “intersectionality,” wrote in describing the theory and concept of intersectionality: People who are “both women and people of color” are marginalized by “discourses that are shaped to respond to one [identity] or the other,” rather than both. From this vantage point, it would be difficult to imagine a more intersectional person than Jesus. After all, what discourse exists that fully responds to the multiple and overlapping identities of a low-income refugee, rural carpenter, fully divine and fully human, who was viewed as illegitimate and lived a life of celibacy? 

The question then becomes: “So what?” Even if issues of identity and power are central to the gospel story, what are we to do about this? It is in answering this question that the prescription laid about by the gospel diverges from modern-day identity politics. Whereas the story of identity politics embraces a zero-sum view of power relations, Jesus uncouples true human flourishing from earthly wealth and power by inverting these concepts through a paradox: “[W]hoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.”

Supporters of identity politics often support their movement by means of a phrase: “the personal is political.” Implicit in this statement is the belief that narrative and personal experience should be granted significant weight and authority in discerning the truth of a given matter and informing public policy. Hence, the oft-heard phrase: “As a minority/woman/refugee/member of the LGBTQ community, etc., the following is true…” 

This raises a challenging question: In discerning and uncovering truth, should we look more to personal experience or argument, data, and abstract theory? While identity politics leans heavily on the former—and its opponents look to the latter—the gospel offers a very different philosophy: Truth arrived in the form of a person—Jesus Christ—and was revealed by means of his narrative and personal experience alone. As John 14:6 states: “I am the way, and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” And in that narrative, Jesus willingly sets aside the privileges of power, not on behalf of good or righteous people, but on behalf of the very worst of us—ourselves.  In this way, the personal is much more than political; it is transformational.

Greg Everett is a lawyer and writer in Nashville, Tennessee.

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