The last decade has seen “identity politics” totally transform the Western World. And in my experience, many Christians have been left bemused at how to respond to this new and changing world of hashtags, cancel culture, social justice warriors and intersectionality.
Now from the very top, I want to acknowledge that the topics I will be tackling in this article are highly sensitive, controversial, and often explosive. And I know for some reading, these topics will be personal and painful. Throughout this piece, I have tried to be as sensitive, balanced, kind, careful and objective as I can be. My intention is not to cause offence or hurt or even controversy. However, if I do inadvertently cause offence or controversy in my analysis, I apologise and seek forgiveness and grace from my readers.
In this blog, I shall be attempting to tackle the topic of “speaking for Christ in a world of identity politics” in 3 parts.
- Part 1: The Story of Woke
- Part 2: Three Christian Reponses to Identity Politics
- Part 3: A Better Story?
Part 1: The Story of Woke
Identity politics is the phenomenon by which people have moved away from the traditional political divisions of left vs right wing, or conservative vs liberal, and have begun to coalesce around identity groups, such as race, sexuality, gender and age. And these identity groups have built the foundations of movements that have changed the world. Here are few words introducing the biggest of these movements.
Feminism and #MeToo
The feminist movement began around the turn of the 20th Century, with campaigners including the suffragettes fighting (sometimes to martyrdom) for equal legal rights to child custody, property ownership and voting. In the 1960s, with so-called “second wave” feminism, the focus shifted to issues around sexuality, family, workplace culture and education. However, within the last decade, the language has evolved even more, and today’s feminist movement speaks less about legal equality, and more about “smashing the patriarchy” and eliminating male privilege wherever it may be found. This movement gained enormous momentum in 2017 as revelations of sinister sexual abuse cases in Hollywood, TV and business sparked the worldwide #MeToo campaign.
Race and #BlackLivesMatter
The fight for racial equality and civil rights has a long and complex history around the world. It was nearly 60 years ago that Martin Luther King Junior delivered his iconic “I have a dream” speech. And it was only around 25 years ago that apartheid was officially ended in the South Africa. However, in recent years, the narrative of the racial-equality campaigners has been less around racial segregation and civil rights per se, and more about combatting institutionalised racism, unconscious bias, and the ideology of white supremacy. BlackLivesMatter summarise their mission on their website as: “to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes.”
Gay Rights and Pride
Gay rights activism also has a long history and has seen some major legal and societal changes in the past few years. The Pride marches go all the way back to the Stonewall riots in 1969. And in the UK in the last 20 years, gay people have won the right to serve in the military (2000), adopt children (2005), and marry (2014). However, again, the narratives of the gay right lobby have shifted recently, away from campaigning for parliamentary legislation, and more toward finding and fighting personal homophobic deeds, words and thoughts, both in the public and private spheres.
Transgender activism is certainly one of the youngest of the social justice movements. Up to 2013, “gender dysphoria” was classed as a psychiatric “disorder” by DSM-V. And in under a decade the prevailing view of transgenderism in the UK has gone from psychiatric idiosyncrasy to celebrated part of our diverse society. But even in a couple of years, the trans narrative has moved from fighting against abuse and for the right to reassignment therapies, to campaigning for the total deconstruction of binary gender, even though this has put them at odds with the many gay rights and feminist activists.
The Grand Narrative
Comments on the strengths and possible criticisms of these individual movements are beyond the remit of this article. And I have delved into the topics of gay rights, feminism and transgenderism in separate articles. But what I want to point out here is that a common grand narrative unites all of these movements- the story of the oppressed waking up (thus “woke”) and rising to fight against their societal oppressors.
Which then begs the question: who are the oppressors?
It doesn’t take much time to deduce that the “oppressors” in this grand woke narrative are the white, straight, cis-gendered, middle class, male… Christians. In the grand woke story, Christians have found themselves labelled as the “oppressors”- the homophobic, transphobic, sexist, racist, anti-liberal, anti-progressive, bigots who need to be overthrown.
Now it is worth at this point acknowledging that these accusations are not unfounded. Christians have been responsible for some horrendous acts of discrimination in history, from involvement in the transatlantic slave trade, to reprehensible intolerance towards individuals based on gender or sexuality. And there is repentance that needs to be done.
But once we have repented and sought forgiveness, how should Christians respond to this world of identity politics?
Part 2: Three Christian Responses to Identity Politics
Unsurprisingly, Christians have not taken kindly to being labelled as the “oppressors” in the grand narrative of identity politics. Responses have varied across countries, theologies and personalities. However, I think we can broadly summarise the main Christian responses into three groups:
As will become apparent, I think all three are problematic!
One huge consequence of the rise of the above social justice campaigns has been a reactive and mirroring response from groups labelled as “oppressors”. Many white, middle class, conservative Christians have responded to identity politics by hunkering down into their own identity groups. BlackLivesMatter protests, have been met with calls of “WhiteLivesMatter”. The accusations of bigotry have been met with accusations of “snowflake” and “liberal elite”. And the rise of liberal, progressive movements, has led to a rise in the popularity of far-right groups, including neo-Nazis. I think this goes a reasonable way to explain the election of Donald Trump in USA, the rise of far-right parties in Europe, and even Brexit in the UK.
The problems with this mirroring response are obvious. The polarisation of political discourse has turned productive political debate into abusive mudslinging. And it has led to a news-cycle filled with violence. In the last month, the USA has been engulfed in violent clashes between BlackLivesMatter protesters and Trump supporters, and on both sides of the conflict, people have been shot dead.
Mirroring causes escalation. Escalation causes violence. And violence is not productive, never mind Christian.
Many who have been labelled as “oppressor groups” have sought to argue against the woke ideologies, both in public and private spheres. And there are legitimate debates to be had: Is there any evidence that unconscious bias training actually works? Are puberty blockers safe to be giving to children? Is positive discrimination really fair? Can the gender pay gap be explained by factors other than employer prejudices? You may not agree with these points- I don’t necessarily. But surely they are reasonable questions that are worth discussing.
The problem is that if you argue against any of the woke narratives, you immediately run into “cancel culture”. As I wrote about in another article, one of the most frustrating things about identity politics is that if you publicly express any view that falls outside the range of “politically correct” opinions, you run the high risk of being “cancelled”- de-platformed, blocked from Twitter, called a bigot and then ignored. There is no room for debate.
There are many examples of this.
Earlier this year (before lockdown), evangelist Franklin Graham (Billy Graham’s son) was due to do a large preaching tour of the UK. However, activists managed to pressure all of his booked venues to cancel his events, due to his views on homosexuality and his support for Trump.
In 2015, Prof. Kenneth Zucker, who was psychologist-in-chief at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, was attacked by protesters and his clinic was shut down by the Canadian government, after the journal he edited published a study reporting substantially elevated rates of suicide among transgender adults, even after they had undergone reassignment therapies.
I could list many more examples, but the point is that there appears to be little room for debate and argument in this culture of identity politics. Even suggesting a “politically incorrect” view can cause you to lose your place in public discourse.
Which brings us to my third response: ignore. This is where I think most Christians fall. Many Christians are simply too scared to broach the topics of race or feminism or gender in public, and so we bury our head in the sand, and carry on doing the talks, sermons and carol services that we’ve been doing for the past 50 years. However, the reality is that our evangelistic messages are not landing like they used to a few decades ago. Rico Tice, founder of Christianity Explored, explains:
“When the American evangelist Billy Graham came to the UK for the first time in 1954, he packed out stadiums night after night. He preached the cross, and thousands put their faith in Christ… By the time I joined the staff at All Souls Langham Place in central London in 1994, the culture was hardening against Christianity… Today , people are on a totally different road.. our culture is defined by tolerance and permissiveness. Culturally, we’re such a long way from biblical Christianity that people don’t object to faith having engaged with it; they just simply dismiss it.”1
Identity politics has caused a seismic shift in how society views and responds to Christianity, and yet our evangelistic talks still resemble the Billy Graham sermons of the 1950s. Compare the UK’s response to Billy Graham in the 1950s, to Franklin Graham in 2020!
Part 3: A Better Story?
So if mirroring, arguing and ignoring have proven to be ineffectual at best and destructive at worst, what should we do? Is there another way to speak for Christ in a world of identity politics? I think there is.
In his popular book “A Better Story”, professor of psychiatry Glynn Harrison argues that the Sexual Revolution of the 70s and 80s was propelled by captivating and powerful stories and grand narratives of sexual liberty, freedom and joy. He then goes on to argue that a Christian response to the Sexual Revolution should not be composed of facts, rules and condemnations, but with a more powerful counter-narrative: a “better story”. Harrison writes:
“You can’t respond to a great story with a list of facts. Well, you can, of course, but hardly anybody will listen. If you want to win hearts as well as minds, you need to tell a better story. But where do we begin? A narrative, remember, puts facts and ideas together in ways which the mind finds interesting and memorable. So that’s where we’ll begin, by gathering together the relevant facts and ideas that will eventually fashion the plot line of our story…”2
Or to put it in the pithy words of the late philosopher Ravi Zacharias: “You can’t argue against a story.”
I think Harrison’s principles very much apply to identity politics; to speak of Christ in a world of identity politics, we need to tell a better story.
And the more I have reflected on identity politics, the more I have realised that the ideas propelling the woke grand narrative are actually deeply biblical ideas- of freedom, liberation, justice, identity, peace, equality, unity, and redemption. The bible is soaked in these words. Christians do have a story to tell. For example…
- You believe in equality- that people should not be discriminated against because of their skin-colour, or gender, or sexuality? I do too. Can I tell you the story of a God who created all human beings in His image, and thus endowed us all with intrinsic, immense and equal value?
- You believe that some people are compelled to oppress those below them? And that this desire to oppress can be unconscious- sometimes unknown to the individual? I do too. Can I tell you the story of the disease of sin that contaminated the human heart and causes us all to want to be gods of our lives, even if it harms those below us?
- You believe that the powerful should care for the oppressed and the disadvantaged? I do too. Can I tell you the story of the God of the universe who stepped down from Heaven to Earth, to associate with the most despised and rejected in his society, and then who died for the helpless and hopeless?
- You believe in freedom- that the enslaved should be liberated? I do too. Can I tell you the story of a Saviour who died on a cross, and in doing so broke the chains of sin and death, so that we might gain true freedom in Him?
- You believe in justice? You believe that those who harm and oppress should pay the penalty for their wrongdoings? I do too. Can I tell you the story of a just God who will one day bring total and perfect justice on those who have harmed others and the world?
- You believe in unity- that we are heading to a hard-fought world of greater peace and harmony? I do too. Can I tell you the story of a future of total unity and peace, when people from every tribe and tongue and nation will join in perfect community with God forever?
Talking the Language of the Culture
In his book “The 3-D Gospel”, missionologist Jayson Georges argues that there are three broad cultures in the world.
- Guilt-Innocence Cultures: predominantly in the global West, where you don’t do bad things because it is against the rules and you’ll be punished
- Shame-Honour Cultures: predominantly in the global East, where you don’t do bad things because it will bring shame and dishonour on you and your family
- Power-Fear Cultures: predominantly in the global South, where people are more aware of omens and spirituality, and you don’t do bad things because you don’t want to anger the spiritual realm.
Georges then argues that the gospel has powerfully impacted all three cultures, but the gospel presentation that resonates most, differs between the cultures.
In Guilt-Innocence cultures, the gospel message that has resonated most has been the message that we have all broken God’s laws, and deserve punishment, but Jesus died on the cross and in doing so, bore our punishment and paid our penalty, so that we may be declare innocent before God the Judge.
In Shame-Honour cultures, the gospel message that has resonated most has been the message that we have abandoned out Heavenly Father and dishonoured His Name, but Jesus came from the place of highest honour to bear our shame on the cross, so that we might be reconciled with our Father and re-join the royal family.
In Power-Fear cultures, the gospel message that has resonated most has been the message that the world is ruled by the Devil, who has blinded our eyes, but Jesus died on the cross and in doing so, disarmed and defeated Satan, sin and death, so that if we join with him, we might share in His victory.
Georges acknowledges that his summation of world cultures is overly simplistic. And clearly we should, in the words of the Lausanne Convention, “take the whole gospel to the whole world”. We should teach of the victory of the cross in the West, and the penal substitution of the cross in the East. However, Georges makes the profound point that the gospel resonates when it speaks the language of the culture.
I’d like to end by proposing that maybe, just maybe, we are seeing the emergence of a fourth culture: an “Oppression-Liberation” culture. And maybe we will see the gospel resonate with our culture, when we start talking the language of the culture: of freedom, liberation, justice, identity, peace, equality, unity, and redemption. Maybe, that is how we can speak for Christ in a world of identity politics.
- Rico Tice, Honest Evangelism (The Goodbook Company 2015), p.85-87
- Glynn Harrison, A Better Story (IVP, 2017), p. 125