You likely remember the childhood come-back, What you say is what you are. Nutritionists tell us, You are what you eat. One website titled We are what we do seeks to accomplish big changes in our world by encouraging millions of small everyday actions. At first glance, all of these phrases appear to be comical ways of inspiring good behavior. They seem to engender us to be good people. They subtly ask us, who are you? The concept of identity is very popular in our culture these days. I suppose it should not surprise us that the first generation of children that raised themselves – as both parents worked outside the home and 50% of all marriages ended in divorce – is the exact generation of adults that is so concerned with identity. In a very real sense, people are asking the question, who am I. Can you blame them? The fact is – we often do blame them. We in the church are often shocked when others are attracted to seemingly narrow and incomplete identities. How easy we forget that we found our truest identity only after we found the Christ. In this respect, we forget just how much Christ has done for us. This is why the question – who am I – is so critical. As Christians, it reminds us over and over again to draw near to Jesus. In Christ, we best know our true selves and most accurately reflect God’s love to others. To effectively live out Kingdom Culture, this is a basic requirement: to remember that only in Christ do we find our truest identity. Identity is a human construct that captures how people see and define themselves. If you date online or if you maintain a space or a face on one of the social networking sites, then you are intimately familiar with the transient nature of identity. If one ‘identity’ does not work, we simply adjust or shape it a bit – not necessarily dishonestly – in order to maximize our chances of being recognized and affirmed. Affirmed for what? Affirmed for who we are. We deeply desire others to know and like us – for who we are. The very fact that we shape and reshape our image necessarily implies that we don’t always capture our own identities accurately. I know several friends who have dated online only to discover that their date was not what they expected. Maybe my friends were not what their date expected either. If truth be told, most of us subscribe to identities that are often incomplete and inaccurate. We tend to cast our image too broadly while cutting too narrowly the identity of others. In this respect, there is a certain myth that goes along with identity. The myth is this: that we accurately establish and assess identities. In reality, we often fail at this endeavor: both in establishing our own identity and in assessing our neighbor’s identity. What does this have to do with Kingdom Culture? It has everything to do with it – or rather, it has everything NOT to do with it. With Kingdom Culture, we see ourselves and our neighbors through the lens of Jesus – this ensures that our vision is accurate and it helps us to say and do things that accurately reflect our King. Once we step away from seeing through the eyes of Jesus, however, our vision gets distorted: the end result is that we fail to see ourselves and our neighbors as Christ sees us. When this happens, we step out of Kingdom Culture and into the many kingdoms of this world. When we allow the kingdoms of this world to overtake our Kingdom Culture focus, we lose something of who Christ is and in the process we lose something of who we are in Him. In the absence of Christ, our souls clamor to be filled – to regain a sense of who we are. Our flesh all too urgently latches onto soul substitutes and soon we abandon Kingdom Culture. Could it be true that we are what we do? Maybe so. I know this much: if we find ourselves operating outside of Kingdom Culture, what we say and what we do changes and others start to see a different identity emerge from within us. Our self-proclaimed identity may still be Christian, but our actions and words reveal an entirely different person. Just like the online dater, we project ourselves for “who” we want others to think we are – but ultimately, our true identity is revealed. The scary thing is that it usually happens without our knowledge. Why so? The reason is connected to a spiritual truth that I often write about – it is this: planks blind. If we do not have planks, we will see clearly. But if we do have planks, then we will not see clearly. When we don’t see clearly, we easily get lost. We lose our own true identity and we fail to see our neighbor’s true identity. Stepping away from Christ and away from seeing our world through the lens of Kingdom Culture equips our eyes with the planks that blind. These planks that blind serve us in the worst way possible: we become far-sighted. We can very easily see when others identify themselves in seemingly inaccurate and incomplete ways – we often point out, stand up against and blame others for doing so. Yet we often cannot see right under our nose when we do the same thing. Likewise, others tend to struggle to see themselves clearly – but they see our pharisee game all too clearly. Our biases for – or rather against – one another come out when we look through the lens of this world’s kingdoms. So what does all this have to do with Culture Wars? It has everything to do with it: while Culture Wars are certainly battles over positions, I said earlier in this series that they tend to quickly progress from the expression of positions to pitting people against people. Once we pit people against people, we have stepped out of the holy realm of Kingdom Culture and we have equipped our eyes with the far-sighted planks that blind. Soon, we’re not seeing others the way Christ sees them. Thus, Culture Wars are not just about issues; they are often a battle over identity – a fight to establish who we are in the eyes of the audience we seek to win to our position. To illustrate this, consider the following terms: Tree Hugger, Queer, Baptist, Ecologist, Liberal, Evangelical, Feminist and Emergent. We won’t take the time to analyze all of these terms, but all of them are ways in which we describe what others do, say, think or believe. At the same time, these terms are also how people describe their own identity. Maybe we are what we do. If that’s true, then “who” are we?
To be honest, it’s hard to tell. Why? One reason is that the life-cycle of meaning for such terms looks like a roller-coaster ride: that is to say, the meanings are all over the place. It depends on “who” you talk to… Tree Hugger, for instance, originated from a group of bold Hindu women who began the Chipko movement back in the early 1970’s. Chipko means “to stick to” and these Hindu women literally ‘stuck’ themselves to or ‘hugged’ trees in order to prevent deforestation caused by industrialization. Quite a courageous act! Yet does the term Tree Hugger capture the full identity of “who” these women are? It gives us an important glimpse of who they are but I don’t think it establishes their full identity any more than we know Michael Phelps beyond his identity as an Olympic champion. Identity meets Culture War in that the original courageous act of these powerless Hindu women is now all but lost when people use the term Tree Hugger today. If you are speaking with someone who is highly engaged in protecting the environment, then the term Tree Hugger can be a positive attribute. If you think protecting the environment is some “liberal” social movement, then the term Tree Hugger can be a way to attack another person. It can either be used as a light-hearted compliment or to tear someone down. What is the real meaning? Once again, it depends on “who” you talk to. There are two views and between these two views is one big Culture War: a war that likely will never end.
In light of this, I want to make an important point: seeing others through the lens of the Culture War is very dangerous if for no other reason than the fact that Culture Wars rarely end. If they do end, it often takes decades or longer for them to be resolved. Thus, if we only see others through the lens of negative labels such as Tree Hugger, we may forever miss out seeing them through the eyes of Kingdom Culture; we may forever miss out seeing them through the eyes of Jesus; we may miss learning more about “who” our neighbors really are. There is a real danger in getting too absorbed by Culture Wars: our vision of people whom Christ loves and desires to reach can be permanently clouded by the planks that blind. We not only narrowly cut the identity of those on the other side of a particular issue: we so often end up narrowly chopping the value we attribute to such persons. If we do not value people, we are far from Kingdom Culture principles established by Christ and we will have little incentive to truly lay down our lives to get to know them, serve them and love them. Next, let’s consider the word Queer. What once had nothing to do with sexual orientation now seems to exclusively relate to sexual orientation. When I grew up, it was a derogatory term. Now, many in the gay community have reclaimed this term as a positive attribute. When I speak at universities, I often hear the positive term Queer Community. At some campuses, they have Queer Dorms or Queer Community Centers or Queer Safe Zones.
Despite this, others still use Queer with a clearly negative connotation. Where will it end? When will the meaning of this term of identity be resolved? Once again, it depends on “who” you talk to. In other words, it may never be resolved. In the realm of Culture Wars, the pitting of people against others has the potential to just keep going on and on and on… Why does it work this way? The spirit of Culture War tempts us to narrowly and negatively define others according to one aspect of their full identity. This seems to fuel counter-attacks aimed at redeeming derogatory meanings into admirable ones. When we label others negatively, we not only invite a Culture War over the meaning of words: we very tangibly propel others deeper into a narrow view of their own identity. That which we cast in a negative light becomes the focal point of all others claim to be. Then, we blame others for establishing their identity too narrowly.
All this is to say that Culture Wars tend to propel others into very extreme and narrow ways of establishing their own identity. Another way of looking at this is to say that people who feel condemned tend to work triply hard to prove that they are NOT condemnable: like a middle child, they at some point defiantly stand up to reclaim their sense of personal worth. If they cannot come up with new terms of identity, they reclaim the old negatives into something newly positive. In the case of the word Queer, many believe that it is a mistake to define one’s personal identity based upon sexual feelings and attractions. I hear it said quite often, “The gay identity is a false one: it simply does not exist.” I won’t get into that debate. My point is that it is so easy for us to see ‘others’ identifying themselves in seemingly incomplete terms, yet we rarely notice when we do the same thing. (Romans 2:1-4) We ALL tend to identify ourselves in ways that are often incomplete. At one university, they have dorms that cater to various identities: Social Justice, No Boundaries, Ecological Cuisines, Creative Writing, Jewelry Making, Gender Reform, and a host of other hobbies and personal interests. Many of these categories are not “who” people are but “what” people think, believe, say or do. What seeks to build diversity often kills true diversity when people segregate into homogeneous living units by “what” they do. Nonetheless, that’s how important identity is in our culture: we want people to know and to affirm who we are. I am starting to think – in a very real sense – that we are what we do after all: that is to say, we tend to identify ourselves by what we think, believe, say or do. Is it surprising that the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 6 warns us about various sins that we are all guilty of – and in doing so, he makes a curious statement. He does not say, “And that is what some of you DID.” Instead, he says, “And that is what some of you WERE.” In short, even the Apostle Paul seems to be associating our sinful actions with our identity: in a sense he is saying, you are what you do.
Unfortunately, the illustrations of Tree Hugger and Queer will accomplish two errors: first, some environmentalists and homosexuals might feel they are being picked on – I assure you that is not the case (stay with me please). Second, some conservatives might have their narrow identities of others affirmed in a way that leaves them unchallenged in regard to their own identity. In order to work against both these errors and balance the playing field, I need to get closer to home to illustrate how evangelicals do these same things.
In my next entry, I’ll do just that.
Say a prayer for me: I am about to tread on sensitive ground. (smile)
May His Kingdom Come on Earth as it is in Heaven, BillClick here to easily navigate to Part 5.
This series on Kingdom Culture is not an attack on Christians involved in political processes. Rather, it seeks to cultivate a ‘voice’ of the Gospel that is unencumbered by political identities and initiatives so that Christ’s Kingdom Culture can shine brightly into our world.
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