How Social Identity Alone Damages the Church

In a recent CNN interview, one Trump rally attendee stated that she was unvaccinated because she felt that vaccinations were a test from God. With great conviction and certainty, she declared, “I watch the prophets of God, and Newsmax, and maybe a little Fox, that’s about it. I want to listen to what God’s saying, what he’s fixing to do. That’s all I’m concerned about. I think it is a time where God is separating the sheeps [sic] from the goats…I’m a goat because I ain’t a sheep, I’m not doing what they [sic] telling me to do.”1

Biblical context is so important. If we don’t understand the historical context of Jesus’ words, then we will twist them and make Jesus into our own image. This is the very definition of idolatry. It turns Jesus into a tribal God who supports those of “my cultural group” or political party and rains fire and brimstone down on everyone else. If we don’t understand the historical context of Jesus’ words, then we will twist them and make Jesus into our own image. This is the very definition of idolatry. Click To Tweet

This passage being referenced (Mt 25:31-46) of course has nothing to do with COVID vaccinations, but it is in part about the importance of compassionate treatment of immigrants and the poor. If our personal relationship with Jesus is sincere, Jesus tells us, then we will reflexively demonstrate compassion to immigrants and the poor, for it is in them that we see Christ. In this parable of the sheep and the goats, the “sheep” are those who express such compassion and are commended by Jesus at the final judgment; those who do not are cast aside as “goats.” It is at once both funny and tragic that the interviewee above called herself a “goat.”

Casting Jesus Into Our Own Image

The danger is on all sides of the US political spectrum, however. Neither is Jesus just an enlightened version of Ché Guevarra who signs off on our activist agenda. (We’re both faith-rooted activists and community organizers, in case you were wondering.)

So many of our current divisions in the US church stem from a variation of this same problem—casting Jesus into our own image and then declaring as an enemy anyone who disagrees with any belief which undergirds our social identity. Many are doing this even if their deeply held convictions may be nowhere to be found in the Bible, or if they have to twist Scripture in knots and rip it out of context in order to arrive at their position. So many of our current divisions in the US church stem from...casting Jesus into our own image and then declaring as an enemy anyone who disagrees with any belief which undergirds our social identity. Click To Tweet

Here are some other examples:

“You believe that structural racism exists—you’re not a Christian, you must be a Marxist or one of those CRT people.”

“Don’t believe all the hype about anti-Asian violence. Those are isolated incidents. Racism doesn’t really exist in the US anymore.”

“The Democratic Party is replacing good voters with illegal aliens from third world countries. I’m not racist. I’m just being honest.”

In response to, “Your church is deliberately disobeying local public health ordinances and not wearing masks? What about Romans 13?”: “Well, according to the emails I received and social media posts I read, these local ordinances violate the recent Supreme Court decision.”

A Dangerous Social Identity

These examples are part of a larger social identity that has crystallized among large swaths of the American evangelical church over the past five years. As reflected by these various examples, this social identity basically casts Jesus into the image of a white Republican Christian from the Bible Belt who supports the MAGA (“Make America Great Again”) movement, together with all of its cultural and political priorities. This social identity is not new, but it is at a high point and currently fanning the flames of racial divisions and causing great harm in the US church.

I (Erica) remember one ministry staff training in Fort Collins many years ago, where my eyes were opened to this wrongful conflation of Jesus with the identity of American Christian exceptionalism. Often as we walked into the Moby Gym of Colorado State University, staff would be outside handing out free books as we passed. One particular time, though, the book that we were given made many of us furrow our eyebrows in concern. The book was about “America’s Godly Heritage.” Why were we being given this book, which seemed much more like white nationalistic rhetoric than the Gospel? Where was the repentance for how Native Americans were killed and their lands stolen by our ancestors?  Where was the contrition for how the horrid industry of slavery was justified by so many who called themselves Christians? What about our further mistreatment of Mexicans, Chinese, Japanese, African Americans and so many others? Why is our ministry leadership passing out this book, and the toxins therein, instead of repenting, naming those sins, and claiming clearly for all that those things were NOT of God…and should never have been done in Jesus’ name.  As a white woman and follower of Jesus, I repent of those historic and current day acts of racism and violence against men, women and children made in the image of God.

As a young staff, I remember some of us speaking up about the distribution of that book and bringing up the discussion with others, hosting our own mini-protest…but I confess that I didn’t do enough. Speaking truth in love is a responsibility as a follower of Jesus. I now look back and see that because I grew up in a conflict-avoidant and individualistic culture, I couldn’t see beyond those small things I could do. As a spiritual director and based upon my personal experience, I know that it is a challenging process for us as white Christians to sanctify our cultural, racial, and nationalistic social identities. Much soul care and authentic community is required to effectively engage in this personal and communal work of the Spirit. This has been true in my own 30-year journey of learning and sifting…and that is still my ongoing, humbling work with the Lord and others. But to be a disciple of Jesus, there is no other option.

(Stay tuned for part 2 of this article by Robert and Erica, which will release on Friday.)


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