“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” when I was in my mid-20s, my wife and I helped lead a church youth group trip to New York City.
We partnered with a Manhattan church assisting in summer Bible school for children and, in the evening, doing street evangelism in Time Square and a few other locations.
Now I grew up in a small town in southeastern Ohio hill country. A sign on the edge of our village proclaimed, “3,000 Friendly People.”
This NYC trip was my first to a cosmopolitan metropolis where an estimated 600 languages are spoken every day. Needless to say, it was a learning experience.
New York City residents are all “from somewhere,” and this matters a great deal to them. So, for the first time in my life, I repeatedly heard the question, “What are you?”
At first, my response was, “What do you mean, what are you,” to which they would come back, “I’m Italian-American. She’s Chinese-American. What are you?”
Then my Midwest response was – I kid you not – “Well, I’m just American,” because, to that point in life, I’d honestly never confronted such a strong sense of identity and the need to declare one’s roots. Sure, I’d grown up playing baseball with kids from a few different Eastern European countries, knew a family on the other end of our street who was Greek, and had watched lots of Westerns featuring Mexican senoritas and vaqueros. But that was about it. None of us in my town thought of ourselves or anyone else as hyphenated Americans. Not so in the big city.
I finally caught on, and I began to say, “I’m Anglo-American” (because the Rogers clan had come from England way back in colonial times), and my wife said, “I’m Scots-American,” because her grandma had immigrated from Scotland in the early 1900s and her father was proud of his highland heritage.
Fast forward fortyish years, and I’ve been privileged to travel in the Middle East and North Africa, serve with SAT-7, and call many people from this vast region my friends. They are also quite conscious of their nationality, sometimes specific ethnic or religious designation, and family.
There is nothing wrong with this acknowledgment and appreciation of one’s heritage.
When the Apostle Paul visited Athens, he reminded the intellectuals of the Areopagus, “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And He is not served by human hands, as if He needed anything. Rather, He Himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man, He made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth, and He marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.” (Acts 17:23-28).
Paul acknowledged what today we call “diversity” or “identity” and said God is the source of this social phenomenon. It bears repeating. There is nothing wrong with knowing and enjoying our family heritage.
But “the New Testament clearly teaches that the most important aspect of our identity is not our ancestry, nor our culture, but Christ alone. That isn’t to say that our heritage and ancestry don’t matter at all. In fact, the Bible emphasizes that men and women of “every nation and tribe and language and people” will hear the Gospel (Revelation 14:6) … The Bible teaches that our heritage and other features of our identity are meaningful but not ultimate.”
Yet today, in the West, and to some extent, though differently, in the Middle East and North Africa, identity can be absolutized in what’s now called identity politics. Identity politics argues that demography is destiny. Identity becomes a worldview, a matter of power, privilege, oppressor vs. oppressed. And in this view, people’s identities, even truth itself, are socially constructed, meaning human beings choose their own identity to advance the self. Identity becomes a form of self-idolatry.
To ears suppressing the truth (Rom 1), this all sounds “liberating,” but the consequences are a loss of any basis for human dignity or meaning. Losing protection and purpose are threatening indeed, for the next steps are anarchy and nihilism or governmental tyranny, or both. And we are seeing evidence of these developments today in the West, the Middle East, and North Africa.
But diversity or identity rightly understood in a biblical worldview is reasonable and real, a divine gift to mankind, and full of meaning, purpose, and hope.
Consider these points of theology:
1. Human beings – sex, race, ethnicity – are made in the image of God. God establishes our identity, tells us who we are in relation to him and the world, informs us about our sins, and provides a loving means of forgiveness and reconciliation.
“So God created mankind in His own image, in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them” (Gen. 1:27).
“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23).
“If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom 10:9).
2. When we become Christian believers, while our human identity is meaningful, God gives us a new, much more secure identity in Christ.
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
“Yet to all who did receive Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12).
“Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27).
“You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9).
“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” (Galatians 3:28).
3. Our identity in Christ is the forever source of our purpose and hope.
“Remain in Me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in Me.
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in Me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from Me, you can do nothing” (John 15:4-5).
Living out your identity in Christ is not about who we are or what we do but who Christ is in us.
This message is desperately needed both in the spiritual darkness of the Middle East and North Africa and in the spiritual darkness of the West.
Pray with us, please:
Dr. Rex Rogers
President, SAT-7 USA
Listen to Rex’s podcast episode on this topic here.