It’s strange where the internet takes one. A few days ago, when I was finally beginning to think about what I might say this evening, I googled the words “Christian identity” and thereby plugged a gap in my knowledge I might have preferred to have kept wide open: for the first thing that came up was – inevitably – a Wikipedia article that began as follows:
Christian Identity is a label applied to a wide variety of loosely affiliated believers and churches with a racialized theology. Many promote a Eurocentric interpretation of Christianity. According to Chester L. Quarles, professor of criminal justice at the University of Mississippi, some of the Christian Identity movement’s followers hold that non-Caucasian peoples have no souls, and can therefore never earn God’s favor or be saved. Believers in the theology affirm that Jesus Christ paid only for the sins of the House of Israel and the House of Judah and that salvation must be received through both redemption and race. In many variations of Christian Identity thought, a key commonality is British Israelism, which teaches that many white Europeans are the literal descendants of the Israelites through the ten tribes which were taken away into captivity by the armies of Assyria. Christian Identity asserts in addition that these (White European) Israelites are still God’s Chosen People, that Jesus was an Israelite of the tribe of Judah, and that modern Jews are not at all Israelites nor Hebrews, but are instead descended from people with Turco-Mongolian blood, or Khazars, or are descendants of the Biblical Esau-Edom, who traded his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew. (Genesis 25:29–34).
Or “a mess of pottage”, as the Authorised Version puts it. Now, I grew up in Ireland, where Protestant sectarians have at least occasionally been attracted by such thinking. In Ulster there is a remnant mentality: expressed simply, a section of the Protestant community, nurtured by a Sunday school exegesis of the Exodus story, sees itself as latter day Israelites fighting to retain possession of a land given by God – or at least King Billy – from those whom they compare with the Canaanites – Roman Catholics – whose dispossession they thereby justify..
The danger of extreme examples, of course, is that we may be tempted to hide behind them in order to avoid addressing the mote – or even the beam – in our own, supposedly more moderate, eye. There is, and there has always been, an aggressive and essentially reactionary streak in much of what passes for Christian identity. Today that reaction is most clearly seen in the response of large sections of all the churches to the reality of a secularising – and often no less aggressive – society. The admission of secularist aggression prompts an example: for the creationists surely feed on the militant atheism of Dawkins no less than he feeds on their fundamentalism. No one should doubt the growing influence of creationism in the church; and if we think it is a phenomenon confined to the United States then it is likely that none of us – perhaps not surprisingly – has ever watched TV 7 here in Finland. But such antedeluvian Christian reaction is not only concerned with the challenges posed by science, for it invariably goes hand-in-hand with an absolutist approach to the obvious moral dilemmas of our age. We are to be “in the world, but not of it”, Christ tells us; and too many of us suppose that injunction to enjoin of us no more than an acknowledgement of an irksome, if temporary, sojourn in a world with which we need not engage. And those who make that acknowledgement are generally even more scornful than they are of the world itself of those in the church who take what I want to believe is a more nuanced approach to engagement with the world. For as often as not the dogmatic refusal of some in the church to engage with the world in anything other than a reactive way is but the echo of the stands taken in pursuit of power within the institution itself.
There is nothing new under the sun. Reactionary and dogmatic Christianity is but a modern manifestation of the pharisaism so radically challenged by Jesus of Nazareth, perhaps most strikingly in St Matthew’s Gospel, which necessarily in this short paper will be my focus. In Matthew chapter 12 the Pharisees reject Jesus because he allows his followers to pick ears of corn on the Sabbath, and because he himself heals the sick on the Sabbath. But their concern for the Law has surely at least as much to do with the position and power that their own interpretation of it gives to them. Matthew tells us that they begin to plot to kill Jesus soon after he has, in their eyes, broken the law concerning the Sabbath; but their intent, for all their disapproval of Jesus, is surely not the result of their sense of offence. It is rather the result of the threat his own interpretation of the law and consequent growing following poses to their power. The Pharisees operate within a closed system. You are either righteous or you are not; you are either clean or unclean. Women must periodically be shunned; the foreigners to whom the Pharisees feel they must submit because of the faithlessness of others must be kept at a distance; and lepers owe their disfigurement to their defiling disobedience. And to the Pharisees’ horror Jesus places himself alongside the women and the lepers.
But not the foreigners. When Jesus sends his disciples out at the beginning of his ministry, he sends them to “the lost sheep of Israel’. His concern is with those fellow Jews whom the Pharisees deem to be unrighteous. His message to them is of God’s radical identification with them; that what he calls the kingdom of heaven is near, and that they may belong to it. Meanwhile, to the Pharisees, whom he calls a wicked and adulterous generation, he suggests that what will exclude them from that kingdom is their hypocrisy. For most of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus operates among his own people, reaching out to the marginalised “lost sheep of Israel” and offending the religious establishment as he does so. But he does not concern himself with foreigners.
But then Jesus travels out of Israel to Tyre and Sidon, where he meets a Canaanite woman. Matthew tells us:
Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
After Jesus had left that place, he passed along the Sea of Galilee, and he went up the mountain, where he sat down. Great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others. They put them at his feet, and he cured them, so that the crowd was amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel.
Now, this is both a shocking and transformative story. Jesus’s approach to the woman betrays his Jewish prejudices. He may challenge the Pharisees within Israel; but he shares their attitudes towards the outsider. He declares plainly that he is not concerned with Canaanite women, for, he says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. But the woman’s faith converts him. The healing of her daughter may have been wrung from him; but his view of the world and his mission has been changed. New crowds now come to him for healing – and the clue to their foreignness lies in Matthew’s triumphalist need to tell us that “they praised the God of Israel”. Matthew’s Gospel is no less about the transformation of Jesus than it is about the transformed lives of those he encounters.
So what then of Christian identity? You won’t, at this stage, be surprised to hear me say that pharisaism is alive and well in the church; and it must therefore be conceded that there is a strong pharisaical streak in Christian identity. The separatist tendency is strong. Like the Pharisees, Christians are often happy to shun a world that they must concede they are in, but that they protest they are not of. But perhaps Matthew suggests another way. Perhaps we should be enthusiastically in the world: engaging with and being transformed by the other whom we fear and would prefer to shun; and wary of a world where so much power is vested in those who find ways to marginalise that other. Surely the true mark of Christian identity is that we are Christlike; how odd, then, that pharisaism lives in our midst. Or perhaps not. The engagement of the body of Christ with pharisaism goes on. At times, it may seem to define us, as it threatened to define Christ’s own message. But somehow, sometimes, the other converts us – and whenever and wherever that happens, the true identity of the Christian is seen.