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January 21, 2022
A Modern Identity Crisis For Christians
A lesson I so often forget is that the stories in Scripture are simultaneously ancient and modern. The stories tell of people who lived and died thousands of years ago, and yet the stories are retold in the lives of people today. It is unfortunate that so many of us were trained to read the Scriptures, both Hebrew and Christian, as a history book. The people of the time of Scripture were primarily farmers, tradesmen, and merchants. Their world view was limited. Today, we are a people of iPhones, space travel, and telescopes looking into the deeper reaches of the universe. How can we relate to the stories, the parables, of Jesus when our culture has so little in common? We cannot simply ignore the historical context of the Scriptures. We should understand the historical context. It is the historical context that provides the key to unlocking the deeper mystery of the Scriptures, the message from God. But it is more than incorrect to understand the times and events as completely divorced from our present-day human experiences, and challenges.
The Scriptures tell a complex, yet simple story of God’s relationship with humanity. It is simple because everything we need to know about God’s desire for humanity, God’s love and mercy are revealed in the stories and writings of Sacred Scripture. There is no new revelation we need; today or ever, that would change the teachings of Sacred Scripture. The complexity comes through interpreting responses in our modern lives that would comply with the commandments of God; of Jesus. Over the centuries, cultures, technologies and environments have dramatically changed since the first century A.D. But people really have not. Just as in the days of Abraham, as there are today, there are people capable of great generosity, friendship, love and loyalty; and there are those capable of great evil. The Scriptures tell us of how God commanded love, forgiveness, and regard of others; and how God responded to evil.
Unfortunately, rarely is God’s response to evil immediate. It took over several hundred years from the time Soloman first sanctioned the worship of false gods in Israel, until the Exile from Jerusalem. Deep in the mind of the human being, lies the hope of escape. Unless we are caught in the act, we can think we got away with our sin. For the people of ancient times, the concept of a life after death was not a universal expectation. For the ancients, if you made it through life without experiencing the unpleasant consequences of sin, you escaped. Eventually by the time of Jesus, there was a more generalized understanding of a life after death, with unfortunate consequences for those who died in sin. The story from Luke’s Gospel about Lazarus and the rich man illustrated the development of the understanding of eternal punishment (cf. Lk 16:19-40).
Another factor that plays a part in our sense of escape ability is our sense of entitlement. Israel is the Chosen People of God. God’s covenant with Israel is everlasting, regardless of Israel’s sins. Solomon did not destroy God’s love for Israel when he allowed his many foreign wives to introduce their pagan rituals into Israel. God’s love of Israel did not end with the Exile. Nor did God’s love for Israel end with the crucifixion of God’s only Son, Jesus. A nature of the attitude of entitlement is the corresponding attitude of superiority. Because Israel was the Chosen People of God, they were by nature superior to others, the uncircumcised.
Obviously, the story of the rich man’s indifference to the poverty of Lazarus points out that neither wealth in mortal life, nor social status, will protect one from eternal punishment in the next life if one should callously disregard God’s commands. This same message is retold in Matthew’s Gospel, chapter twenty-five in the story of the last day when the sheep are separated from the goats based on how they treated the least of God’s people. Interestingly, Josephus, a first century Jewish historian and philosopher, uses the same imagery from Matthew’s Gospel in a letter he wrote to the Greeks concerning the afterlife. The great sin that condemns the soul to eternal punishment is the sin of indifference supported in a sense of superiority over another.
The attitude of entitlement is not restricted to ancient Israel, but pervades throughout human history. The attitude of entitlement though contradicts the very core of God’s commandments, the teachings of Christ. In the first chapter of Genesis, we read that God created humanity, male and female, in the image of God. The male species is not more equal in the image of God than the female. Whites are no more an image of the divine than are blacks, browns, yellows or greens. When we allow ourselves to believe that in some way, we are better than another person, we enter the arena of sin. Our situations in life are better than some people, maybe even most, we may possess qualities that allow us to succeed where others cannot; but we are not better than anyone else.
In American politics today, it seems to be no longer a matter of Republican or Democrat, but I am right and if you disagree with me, you are wrong. Political opinions seem to have become lines in the sand, rather than starting points for resolving complex problems. Many people identify themselves as Liberals or Conservatives, and I am left to wonder what they intend by their professed identity. Do all Conservatives believe that government should abandon all regulations on commerce? Do all Liberals believe that the government is responsible for equalizing the standards of living of every household? I personally would hope not. I believe that it is safe to suggest that no human organization – secular or religious – makes a verry good policeman of its own actions. I also believe that physical equality is a dangerous myth. Equality of opportunity is not to be equated to equality of success.
Considering the above then; what might my identity be? I was born a white male, in the State of Michigan. Is my identity classified as an American white male citizen? In part yes. These factors play a part of who I am, but they are not my identity. I was also baptized, confirmed, married, and ordained a deacon. Is this my identity? Hopefully yes. On my birth certificate my name and the names of my parents are listed, along with the date of birth, my ethnicity (Caucasian) and gender. Thus, my white male American citizen identity. On my certificate of baptism, my name, my parents and sponsors, date of birth and date of baptism are listed. There is no mention of ethnicity nor gender! We are baptized into the body of Christ where we are no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, free or slave… We are one body (cf. Gal 3:28). If my identity is defined by my baptism, my receiving the sacraments, then I need to center my life within the context of Christ’s teachings. Am I a Conservative? Am I a Liberal? Or, am I a Christian?
Deacon Bill Stimpson