Christian, your flag, race, & gender do not define you!: Ben Witherington III on Social Identity

I have been scarce around TF lately due to heavy commitments at Huntington and an upcoming conference paper (which is still dreadfully unformed!), but we recently hosted Ben Witherington III  and his paper on social identity deserves comment.

Unrelated to the paper, I found Ben a delightful guest. After dinner and beforeben-witherington his presentations we chatted about recent films, debates on the doctrine of justification, the first of his two-volume ethical theology of the New Testament, and what he believes might characterize “responsible” theological interpretation of scripture. On this later point Ben was passionate and will be posting something here in January on the topic.

In his paper on social identity, E Pluribus Unum: The One and the Many in Luke-Acts,” Ben leverages social identity theory to draw conclusions about conversion and Christian identity. “The problem of social identity formation in the church is a pressing one,” he explains, “not least because all too often a person’s Christian identity is their secondary identity, and their national or ethnic identity is de facto their primary identity.” He goes on,

Crises tend to bring to the surface what our real defaults are, what our real primary commitments and identities are. And this leads to some painful revelations. All too many church goers seem to have been inoculated with a slight case of Christian identity, and in some cases it is preventing them from getting the real thing.

We have pressed this point before on TF, and it is a critical one for Christians to get straight – especially American evangelicals for whom God and country can become dreadfully disordered.

People in antiquity understood social identity in the opposite manner as most modern Westerners: the group identity is primary and the individual identity secondary (dyadic personality). For example, New Testament figures have no last names because geography, gender, and generation defined group identity. “What established identity in antiquity was not how you stood out from the crowd but rather what crowd you were a part of, or which ethnic, social, religious, kin group you came from.”

For Christians to hear the message of social identity and transformation in Luke-Acts, they must embrace something of antiquity’s understanding of social identity, thereby reversing personal and social identity such that being in Christ is now primary and being (in my case) American, male, caucasian, middle class, etc., is properly ordered second.

Ben marks out the implications of this reordering as follows:

None of the usual identity defining social categories—social, sexual, ethnic, racial, class, national have any salvific import in Christ.  This does not mean they are of no import, but it does mean they are not requirements for salvation or redemption. Whatever good there is in human diversity, it is always a mistake to deify a particular culture or human social or racial identity and make that the means or necessary pre-requisite for salvation or for being a true Christian […]

But Luke would tell us equally that our secondary identity as Americans, or males or females, or belongers to one subculture or another is not of no importance. There is indeed a goodness to diversity, perhaps especially in the body of Christ.  Luke does indeed dream a big dream of a community that is a rainbow coalition of races, genders, ethnic groups, social statuses.  But their oneness is not created by a mere common commitment to diversity and its potential goodness nor is it created by the fact that we are all human.  That oneness is created by the Spirit of God who transforms and transfigures our previous identities.

And Luke would tell us as well, that in Christ we are not called to radical individualism, we are called to a new group identity as our primary identity— to be ‘in Christ’, in the body of Christ […]

‘E pluribus unum’ says the coins of our realm,  ‘out of the many one’.  But this philosophy suggests that group formation happens mainly through human effort, as our metal is tested, so to speak. But what the Bible says is that from the One the many can find their eternal identity in community, when he comes by his Spirit to indwell us.  And this is an identity not found in a mere common commitment to diversity or respecting difference, though both of those values are worth affirming […] Luke would tell us that this sort of identity forming and culture making enterprise should still characterize the church today.  Unity in the midst of diversity,  unity which transforms without eliminating diversity, unity as a more primary value than diversity or a commitment thereto, these are the values of Luke.  In my judgment they should be ours as well. If it is true we become what we admire, then it is time for us to admire Christ more, emulate him more and share his vision of unity that transforms and transfigures diversity so that social, sexual, ethnic, racial, class differences no longer chiefly define us, nor do they any longer divide us from one another.   

Hearing Ben’s paper I couldn’t help but think about worship. 

Objects of worship define us; around them and in terms of them we implicitly or explicitly identify ourselves. While many would say they self-consciously worship God on a weekly, daily, or momentary basis, do we not risk unconsciously worshipping the objects associated with our secondary identity and in doing so make them idols?  When worship becomes disordered, granting ultimate value to that which it doesn’t warrant, we are essentially committing something the Bible straightforwardly calls idolatry.

So what are the reigning ‘idols’ and ‘deities’ of contemporary society threatening to hold the allegiance of Western Christians? Socio-economic status? Race? Militarism? Nationality?


3 thoughts on “Christian, your flag, race, & gender do not define you!: Ben Witherington III on Social Identity

  1. I wasn’t able to attend BW’s lecture on this at HU, but I really resonate with this, especially as it relates to HU’s diversity campaign. I’m not sure how the faculty view this campaign, but many of us students are frustrated by it, and I know many of the minority students feel objectified by it. I think it’s a great thing to focus on, but I think the university is going about it in an unhelpful way. One of BW’s quotes that I really liked was:

    “But their oneness is not created by a mere common commitment to diversity and its potential goodness nor is it created by the fact that we are all human. That oneness is created by the Spirit of God who transforms and transfigures our previous identities.”

    That’s what I would love to see more of on our campus: a focus on the unity that we have (potentially) in the Holy Spirit. I feel like the diversity focus is almost reversing E Pluribus Unum into “the many out of one.”

    • Ben, I understand your concern, and I am sure no one would want minority students to feel objectified through the process of emphasizing diversity this academic year.

      Are you saying, then, that emphasizing diversity in terms of our “potential” unity in the body of Christ would better locate the problems associated with diversity? You seem to be saying that the diversity campaign is actually emphasizing our differences (“the many out of the one”), rather than affirming our common social identity in Christ. Is that what you are saying?

      • Yeah, I think that seems to be the general consensus around campus, from what I can tell. I think it’s definitely important for diversity to be emphasized (especially on such an un-diverse campus as HU), and the fact that people are getting so worked up about it, I think, is proof of that. But I would love to see more balance by emphasizing unity too. Maybe it’s as simple as emphasizing diversity within unity, rather than unity within diversity.

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