This week at St Peter’s Harrow I gave a talk called “It’s all about Jesus.” I argued that Jesus is not like God, on the contrary, God is like Jesus. Everything we know about God comes from Jesus. I also suggested that we understand who we are, what it means to be human, from Jesus too. We have an eccentric existence. We discover who we are outside of ourselves. Our identity comes from Christ, the representative human who stands both in solidarity with us, and as a substitute for us. This means that what is true of Jesus by nature, is also true of us by grace. It is a unique identity that defines us above all others.
Who we are, our sense of identity, has become a real issue following the Charlie Hebdo attack in France last week. Over the weekend, more than a million people marched through Paris, many of them proclaiming “Je Suis Charlie” in solidarity not only with those murdered, but also with the values for which they died, the values of the Republic, of liberty, equality and fraternity. The brother of a policeman murdered by the extremists, reminded everyone that Muslims hold these values too. His brother, a Muslim called Ahmed, died defending his country. Supporters quickly began using the hastag “Je Suis Ahmed.” One tweet read “I am not Charlie, I am Ahmed, the dead cop. Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture and I died defending his right to do so.” There is clearly a complex set of overlapping and competing identities here.
Unsurprisingly perhaps that part of our identity formed through our nationality stirs when an atrocity like this takes place. This terrorist attack on a satirical magazine feels like an assault on our identity as Brits who value free speech and democracy. Talk of British values of tolerance and decency resonates and it is easy to assert these in opposition to what are perceived to be alien, imported values from a different culture, particularly when politicians use Christian language.
But, as Christians, we must be careful that our sense of identity is not commandeered or hijacked as we react against a particular ideology. Nationalism, even patriotism, is an ideology too, just as much as Islamism It demands our loyalty, it wants us to pledge our allegiance to it. The state offers its citizens another salvation. It offers an alternative eschatological hope of genuine peace and prosperity, if only we would put our trust in it rather than in anything else. It is tempting. But in this ideology, the church is reduced to a voluntary organization, part of a civil society that serves the ends of the state, with a role to play in community cohesion, but little else. More than that, the state offers an identity not only to the church as a corporate body, but also to Christians as individuals. For the modern state is the market state, and in the market state every citizens is also a consumer. That’s not how I want to define myself.
The Apostle Paul calls us back to our identity in Christ, as citizens of heaven, those ‘in Christ.’ He says to the Galatian church “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28) Our identity in Christ subverts and relativizes every other identity. Christians no longer define themselves in terms of ethnicity or nationality, gender or sexuality, status or income. Instead our identity is located in Christ alone and we pledge our allegiance to no one else.
In a world that is increasingly polarized by the politics of identity this is a real challenge. We must resist hatred, violence and terror wherever we find them. Jesus calls us to serve the common good, to do good to everyone, to love our neighbours as ourselves. Surely then we can do so because we are Christians, not because we are British.