Identity politics vs. Gospel of Jesus Christ
April 18, 2019
Over the last several months, I have been writing about some of the seeds of discord that exist in our culture. I started with the judgment of another’s moral character based solely on their voting record or political affiliation. This is due in part to the fact that we see politics as a war where the only important thing is winning. Then I wrote about the role of virtue, particularly charity, in healing our politics. And last month I noted the obstacle that our national media can be to getting at the truth of things.
This month, I want to address identity politics. Allow me to start by sharing a personal anecdote. Recently, I visited family in the Bay Area of California. At Sunday Mass the visiting priest started by noting all the division and anger that exists in the country right now. “It’s a dark time,” he said, and we needed unity. I was rather eager to agree with him, but then things went downhill.
I won’t recount the homily blow by blow, but the gist of it was that Trump voters are bad. Bishops are corrupt. “Rigid Catholics” (his term) are un-Christian, drainers on church life. Radiate the love of Christ, he said. Never exclude anyone, but don’t be the wrong kind of Catholic. Don’t be one of those Catholics who, in his words, “can’t even feel the love of God.” The cognitive dissonance was astounding, but it got me thinking.
Generally speaking, we human beings are wired to organize ourselves along what I’ll call “tribal lines.” There is nothing inherently wrong with associating oneself with a “tribe.” It’s often the result of culture, experience and natural attachments, things like where we grew up or who our parents were: Huskers vs. Hawkeyes, conservatives vs. progressives, Yankees fans vs. the rest of us (that’s a joke; Yankees fans, relax).
The danger is that our attachments can also lead to prejudices, which are destructive. But even in those cases, the tribalism is natural. It is an extension of our cultural bonds, familial relationships and personal experience. This is not the same thing as identity politics.
Identity politics is a result of the philosophical presumption that all of reality boils down to the struggle over power. If that is true, then seizing and maintaining power is all-important. And since political power is the most obvious and immediate form, politics becomes the most important thing in life.
As a result: One, all are divided into either oppressors or victims. Two, belonging to the right group is crucial because if you’re not a victim, you’re de facto an oppressor. And when group identity is arbitrary, then, three, thinking like the group and using the group’s language becomes the only measure of righteousness. Trampling down others with cheap arguments or violence becomes justified in order to maintain the power of the group against the oppressors.
This is why it is so important to understand that our faith is not about power, and why it is disingenuous to argue, as that priest in California did, that our church’s teachings are tools of oppression or that “rigid Catholics” cannot love as Jesus does. Far from it. Our faith is an experience of Christ Jesus who calls us into relationship, but every relationship has rules.
Jesus calls us to break out of the secular tug-of-war over power. Indeed, Jesus reveals to us that we are happiest when we allow his love for us and our love for him to foster love for the oppressed and the oppressor. Next month, I’ll give an example of what that can look like.
Deacon Omar Gutierrez is director of the Pontifical Society for the Propagation of the Faith in the Archdiocese of Omaha. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.