Identity (Galatians 3:26-28)

There’s a beautiful moment in the Book of Galatians in which Paul affirms the unity of the people of God across all of society’s divides. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free,” Paul writes, “Nor is there male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

It’s a way of emphasising our unity as Christ’s family, but there’s a risk here. Because it would be easy to read this and ignore the fact that our identities are rooted in our ethnicity, our gender,  our social context. These things are important, and while it’s true that faith in Christ will result in a restructuring of our personal identity, it takes a very privileged position to be able to dismiss out of hand our race, our gender, our sexuality and our class. 

Each of us have multiple identities, and we can’t pretend those identities don’t matter, not when the leading cause of death for young black men is homicide, not when so many transgender people commit suicide, not while rape culture is still a thing, not while…

Our identities affect our lives. They affect how we interact with the world, they impact how people respond to us, positively or negatively. We can’t fall into the trap of believing that our identities don’t matter; we can’t blithely erase someone’s identity because in doing so we erase a part of them and their story with God.

So when we quote Galatians, I don’t think it’s about erasing identity, it’s about erasing division. We’re called to come together as one, as equals before Christ, and sometimes that means acknowledging our differences and embracing them, not seeing them as something that divides but as a way of achieving unity in diversity. We haven’t always been good at that. But we need to figure it out, because as Paul says, we are one.

We are one…so we need to dismantle the structures that see innocent black men getting shot by police.

We are one…so women should be able to walk across a car park at night without fear of getting raped.

We are one…so children shouldn’t be sexual assaulted as their churches cover everything up.

We are one…so poorer communities need some support and investment rather than being written off.

We are one…so attitudes towards sexuality shouldn’t lead to a spoke in suicides.

We are one, so we need to be able to see the needs and feel the pain and listen to the lament of our brothers and sisters, and then work together to heal those wounds and demolish structures of injustice, because if we don’t the humanity of us all is eroded.
We are one, so the things that divide us need to be nailed to the Cross with Christ do that we can be transformed into his diverse and inclusive family, joined together through grace. 

And then our identities will no longer divide, and we can then begin to celebrate each other instead.

No Jew or Greek but Plenty of Elephants (Galatians 3:26-29)

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Galatians 3:28

I like this verse. It speaks to the Star Trek fan in me , the Utopian; we can get beyond our differences and move forward into the future because we’re reconciled to God and we’re all his children. So let ‘s treat each other as equals and embrace a world in which we’re post-racial, post-feminist, a world in which sexism and racism are artefacts of seventies sitcoms. Our differences take second place to our unity.

But that’s not always true in practice, is it? Our differences do still matter; if they didn’t, would there be protests in Ferguson, Missouri?

There’s a danger that we end up using verses like this as a silencing tactic – “Paul said we’re all one in Christ Jesus, therefore I’m not racist. Please stop asking awkward questions.”

Now, I’m not arguing that, through Christ, we’re all God’s children, all joined together as a family in which, despite our demographics, we’re all equal. But if we are all spiritual siblings, then we don’t get to ignore or explain away the experiences of those outside the church’s power structures. We get to shut up, and to listen, to to join with our brothers and sisters as a force for justice.

We’re not always keen to do this. We don’t like to talk about race. We don’t like to talk about feminism. We don’t like to talk about abuse or mental health, inequality or sexuality. And if go on ignoring each elephant in the room, all we’ll end up with is a church full of elephants.

Here’s the thing. I like to think I’m not particularly prejudiced, but I’m a white, straight western male and I’m acutely aware I have no idea what it’s like to face police suspicion every time I walk down the street. I have no idea what it’s like to receive rape threats just for expressing an opinion online. I don’t know how it feels to be ostracised because of my sexuality, or how it feels to suffer in silence because I’ve been told that depression is just a lack of faith. I don’t go to church and feel a second class citizen because the wheelchair access is like something from The Crystal Maze. I’m not late for church because I’ve had to stop off at the local food bank.

I’m not going to apologise for who I am, but I do have to acknowledge that I benefit from a system that disadvantages others, and I do have to make sure I’m listening to the voices of those without my levels of privilege. Heck, my sons have autism. Life’s not going to be a picnic for them, and as parents we have to be their advocates, and that’s a hell of a fight at times. There may be no Jew or Greek in Christ, but there’s prejudice and bigotry and ignorance and apathy in society, and if we can’t advocate for our family, then all our claims about the unity of the church are empty rhetoric, soundbites for our corporate Facebook pages and about half as useful. We need to maintain a pastoral eye towards these issues; if we don’t, you can be sure the Holy Spirit is.

The people looked at him as if he was crazy. “When did we see you stopped and searched for no reason? When did we see you threatened with rape, or told not to report the man who abused you? When did we see you looking for the number for the Samaritans, or struggling to feed the kids? That sort of thing doesn’t happen in our church. Someone would have mentioned it.”

And Jesus replied, “Whatever you didn’t do for the least of these, you didn’t do for me.”