Identity Politics

First Sunday in Lent

Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Luke 4:1-13

This time of year, especially every fourth year, we find ourselves in the US of A faced with representatives of the powers and principalities of this world. They offer to order the nation around things we most want – psychological safety, economic security, access to “someone like me” brokering power – in exchange for allegiance symbolized by a vote. Some even cite Scripture (or attempt to) to make their case, ostensibly as a proxy for shared identity and commitments with a desired bloc of voters.

It’s not so different a scenario from the story that confronts Christians this time of year, every year on the first Sunday in Lent. Jesus is faced with a representative of the powers and principalities of this world who offers authority in exchange for allegiance. The devil even cites Scripture to make his case – for what it’s worth, more accurately than most of the presidential candidates – as part of his test of Jesus’ freshly baptized identity.

I often hesitate to analogize the Christian’s position as equivalent to Jesus’ in any given pericope, since most of us need no further encouragement to assume something akin to a God-complex. In this case, though, I think it’s a helpful experiment if for no other reason than to consider this question.

How do Christians respond when the power brokers of our time appeal to who we are as Christians and ask for our allegiance in service of their own power-seeking ends?

Rather than getting stuck in the trap of judging the authenticity of a public figure’s personal faith claim or falling lock-step in line with a scripture-spouting candidate, I think we’d do well to shift our individual and congregational focus closer to home. The serendipitous concurrence of this week’s lectionary texts with the beginning of Lent provides a viable alternative: reflecting on our traditioned, baptismal identity and letting it inform, test and hone our commitments and actions in the world. In short, we look back to remember where we came from and allow that to shape how we live.

Deuteronomy 26:1-11 provides a fruitful example of this bi-directional vision, pertinent to current context on multiple levels. The now-landed Israelites were to bring the first fruits of the harvest to the temple during the annual festival of weeks in recognition of God’s continued provision. Upon entering, they were to make a response that started, “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor…” and then recalled their alien status in Egypt and refugee flight from oppression. The food offering was then to be used to provision a celebration that included Levites and “the aliens who reside among you.” It’s worth noting that the word gare, typically translated as alien or stranger, also properly means guest.

The Israelites, God’s chosen, are reminded repeatedly of their formational identity as a stateless group of marginalized refugees. It’s that identity that binds them to the stranger-guests in their midst. And they don’t offer the leftovers, the day-old bread, the spotty apples; the aliens are invited to enjoy the first fruits together with the Israelites.

This is also part of our story, our inherited identity as Christian. It is where we came from, who we are. That we are mediated into covenant relationship with God through the Jewish body of Jesus and the grace of the Spirit, only compounds and solidifies our outsider/stranger-guest status.

When Christians are faced with the powers and principalities, this is the baptismal identity that we both look to and seek to live in to. This is the identity that prods us to recognize marginalized outsiders as guests worthy of the first fruits given to us. This is the identity that demands that we hold scripture-sprinkled campaign rhetoric (and resulting state-sanctioned action like this, which is happening where I live) up to the comprehensive canonical witness and then discern what to do in response.

We see the paradigmatic result of identity-informed action in Luke’s gospel. Publicly claimed by God through baptism, guided by the Spirit, and steeped in stories of who he is as a Jew, Jesus finds that the devil’s biblically literate tests fall short of the larger canonical witness. Jan Richardson writes,

…with every temptation, Jesus responds to the devil: not this, not this, not this. With each response he names what does not belong to him; with each answer he gains clarity about what he needs to empty himself of in order to be who he has come here to be.

This testing is the immediate precursor to the inauguration of Jesus’ public ministry – a constructive this – characterized by justice, freedom from oppression, and good news for the poor.

Lenten blessings to you and your congregation as we steep ourselves in reminders of who we are. May this season of self-reflection both strengthen you to evaluate the claims the world’s powers make on your identity and prepare you to pursue justice for the outsider, the poor, and the stranger-guest, whether that course of action includes a vote or not.

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