Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’–Matthew 2:13
You’ve probably heard of ‘identity politics’. And you may have heard it in the context of white guys complain about women, LGBTQ+ persons and minorities complaining about their less-than-equal statuses. Well, ‘identity religion’ is as old as the hills.
…in American Religious History
Identity religion is where one identifies God (and God’s nature) in and/or through one’s historical context. Or it is when someone’s understanding of God is shaped by the historical circumstances of others. Most of the time the identification of God has a strong 1st person perspective (usually 1st person plural) as in liberation theologies. James Cone, major figurehead of Black Liberation theology, recognized that Jesus was a poor, marginalized subject of an oppressive empire (the Romans), just like his black American community was poor and marginalized and subjects of an oppressive empire (USA). Therefore, Jesus is black. Liberation theologies find likenesses between the scriptural story and the contemporary context. These likenesses reveal God in their own context. Cone and others inherited the technique from their slave-era ancestors who sang about crossing the Jordan as a way to escape slavery. The immense spiritual strength of these slave-era ancestors sprang from their ability to find Jesus comin’ forth to carry [them] home.
…In Ancient Hebrew History
My deep respect for the slaves spirituality is amazed even further when understanding how they reclaimed this identity technique from the ancient Hebrews.
When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.
When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this. –Deuteronomy 24:19-22
The ancient Hebrews were commanded by God to remember their slavery, their estrangement in a foreign land and the difficulty that entailed. They were also commanded to act according to the deep memory. Those who are suffering like things are to be granted mercy. The free have a deep responsibility to protect and provide for the less-free.
Slaves used identity religion to sustain themselves and to seek freedom. Post-Exodus Hebrews used identity religion to curtail abuse of the stranger by being merciful to others who are suffering.
Jesus used identity religion so as to promote compassion as a hallmark of the People of the Way. He projected God’s very identity onto the suffering.
Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”–Matthew 25:37-40
God is in the poor, even if we don’t know it. We treat God the way we treat the suffering. Perhaps, I should stop ignoring them so often.
Finally, the Apostle Paul made identity religion his ethos for living out his faith. He desired the glory that Christ had attained. But he couldn’t bypass the pathway that Jesus took to that glory.
But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. –2 Corinthians 4:7-12
So identity religion is a thing. And it has always been a method for connecting souls to souls across many human divides. Hebrews were to find a soul connection to the resident alien in their land because they were once resident aliens and then slaves in Egypt. Christians are to find soul connections to people through the suffering of Christ. We’re even supposed to put ourselves to suffering in order to make that soul connection. And we can look into the life of Christ and use it as a means for making connections with people across many divides. And African slaves in America figured out how to do that as a means of survival and eventual victory over slavery. Through liberation theologies, the descendants of these slaves are using identity religion and identity politics to be freed of the rippling effects of slavery (and Jim Crow and mass incarceration) that still suppresses their freedoms in America.
Jesus is a Refugee
Which brings me to the fact that Jesus was a refugee. If I am to find Jesus in America, if the millennia tradition of identity religion is teaching me anything, then I need to go to the airport. I won’t find Jesus in clergy garb. He will be brown and speaking Arabic.
He may even be a she…
…the mother who clung to her child for dear life as they navigated the minefields between Assad and ISIS,
who paused (I originally wrote “rested”) in encampments in Jordan,
who strapped the last orange vest to her child as they crossed the Mediterranean,
who passed her freezing child to the Greek man she has never seen before or since,
who entrusted umpteen translators to get her story straight, to spell her name correctly in Latin letters from left to right,
who crept in shadows for years, wary of the men with no hair,
who taught and consoled that same child as she silently catnapped through the fright,
who finally boarded her first airplane with a glimmer of hope only to land at JFK on the wrong day, be “detained”, distrusted and denied, and try her luck at English as the men in suits shake their heads and tell her that she has to go back and try her luck with Assad and/or ISIS.
Jesus was a refugee. And he more-or-less disowned his nationality in favor of faithful Canaanites and merciful Samaritans. And he more-or-less disowned his religion due to the callousness of the Temple. And like that Levite on the Jericho road, I wear a robe that convicts me every week.