Christian theology and identity politics

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In a powerful article entitled 'Antisemitism and the Ideology of Oppression' published in the Times of Israel on 29 November last year, the American Jewish writer Jonathan Foxman addresses the question of why 'normal looking young Americans' had torn down posters of Israelis kidnapped by Hamas on 7 October and smeared faeces on posters of kidnapped Israeli children.

In his article Foxman writes: "I struggled to understand this until I realized I was watching a generation of young progressives who have come to embrace a fundamentally different ideology. The something more I saw was zealotry. The people justifying Hamas' attacks, even cheering their atrocities, are the zealots of an ideology that looks at the world and sees only oppression. Wealth and power have relevance because they reveal oppression. Skin colour has relevance because white is the colour of oppression and colonization. In this ideology, everyone must be either oppressor or oppressed, good or evil. It is always 100% the one or 100% the other.

"This ideology makes the world easy to understand. There's no need to study the complexities of the Middle East when you can just rely on the transitive property of equality. If A = B and B = C, then A = C. If Jews are wealthy and powerful and the wealthy and powerful are oppressors, then Jews are oppressors. If colonized peoples are darker skinned than their colonizers and Palestinians are darker skinned than Jews, then Jews are colonizers. If oppressors and colonizers are evil and Jews are oppressors and colonizers, then Jews are evil."

A similar analysis for the causes of contemporary American antisemitism is put forward by the respected American psychologist Jonathan Haidt. In an article published on the website After Babel entitled 'Why antisemitism sprouted so quickly on campus' Haidt notes: "In the days after the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, university campuses immediately distinguished themselves as places set apart from the rest of American society—zones where different moral rules applied. Even before Israel began its military response, the loudest voices on campus were not university leaders condemning the attacks and vowing solidarity with their Jewish and Israeli students. Instead, the world saw faculty members and student organizations celebrating the attacks."

He notes that what has followed has been "hundreds of antisemitic incidents on campuses including vandalism of Jewish sites, physical intimidation, physical assault, and death threats against Jewish students, often from other students". The cause of this antisemitism, Haidt argues, is that American students have been taught "to see everything in terms of intersecting bipolar axes where one end of each axis is marked 'privilege' and the other is 'oppression'".

"Since 'privilege' is defined as the 'power to dominate' and cause 'oppression,' these axes are inherently moral dimensions. The people on top are bad, and the people down below are good. This sort of teaching seems likely to encode the Untruth of Us Versus Them directly into students' cognitive schemas: Life is a battle between good people and evil people."

In this way of looking at the world, which is a development of Karl Marx's original teaching about class struggle, the good people/the oppressed are those who are economically deprived, women, and racial and sexual minorities. The bad people/oppressors are the economically powerful, men, white people, and those who are heterosexual and support traditional Christian views on marriage and sexual ethics.

As Foxman suggests, this ideology leads to contemporary antisemitism because Israelis (and by extension Jews in general) are seen as wealthy and white whereas the Palestinians are seen as dark skinned and poor. Therefore, Jews are the oppressors/bad people and the Palestinians are the oppressed/good people. What follows from this is that actions taken by Israel are seen as necessarily unjustified, whereas actions taken by the Palestinians are seen as necessarily justified.

Viewed objectively, this take on what is happening in the Middle East is unbelievably simplistic. It is simply not the case that all Israelis (or Jews in general) are white skinned immigrants from Europe, nor is it the case that all Israelis are wealthy, and all Palestinians are poor. The top leaders of Hamas, for example, are billionaires who live lives of luxury in Qatar. Furthermore, Palestinian society, and particularly Hamas-controlled Gaza, is much more restrictive of the rights of women and sexual minorities than the state of Israel. Thus, even on its own terms, the simplistic equation of Israelis (and Jews in general) being bad and Palestinians good makes no sense.

Furthermore, from the standpoint of Christian theology the whole idea of dividing the world into good people and bad people has to be seen as completely mistaken. The reason this is the case is that the Christian faith, based on the teaching of the Bible, holds that every human being, with the sole exception of Jesus Christ, is a bad person in the sense that they are a sinner against God and their neighbour.

This basic Christian conviction is well expressed in To be a Christian, the catechism published by the Anglican Church in North America in 2020. The section on 'Salvation' in this new catechism declares:

"1.What is the human condition? Though created good and made for fellowship with our Creator, humanity has been cut off from God by self-centred rebellion against him, leading to lawless living, guilt, shame, death, and the fear of judgement. This is the state of sin. (Genesis 3:1–13; Psalm 14:1–3; Matthew 15:10–20; Romans 1:18–23; 3:9–23)."

The key point to note is that all human beings are sinners. In the words of Paul in Romans 3:23 'all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.' This applies to rich and poor alike, men and women alike, white, black and brown people alike, and heterosexual people and sexual minorities alike.

The consequence of this fact is that although we can (and must) distinguish between the deeds that people perform and say that some are good and some are bad, we cannot divide the world into good and bad people.

We cannot say that we are good while others are bad. As Jesus made clear, all we can ever say is 'God be merciful to me a sinner' (Luke 18:13). We also cannot say of other people that X is good, and Y is bad. Viewed against God's standards, everyone is bad. Thus, the conflict in the Middle East is not between bad Israelis and good Palestinians (or conversely between bad Palestinians and good Israelis).

From what I have said thus far it might appear that Christianity takes a very pessimistic view of things since it says that we are all sinners and all we can look forward to is 'darkness, misery and eternal condemnation.' However, three further things need to be considered.

First, even if Christianity is pessimistic this does not mean that it is wrong. If we are honest about ourselves, we know that we do not live as we should and that therefore, to quote C S Lewis in his book Mere Christianity, if God exists and is absolutely good he 'must hate most of what we do.... He is our only possible ally, and we have made ourselves his enemies.'

Secondly, while insisting that we are all sinners, the Bible, and mainstream Christian theology following the Bible, has always insisted that because they have been created by God in his image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-27) fallen women and men retain an awareness of the distinction between good and evil, and an ability, albeit limited, to perform morally good actions. It is because that is the case that it is realistic from a Christian point of view to seek to ask people to take action to at least mitigate the consequences of conflicts such as the current conflict in the Middle East. That is not asking for the impossible.

Thirdly, and most importantly, Christianity offers hope for everyone. To quote again from To be a Christian, the Gospel, or 'good news' that Christianity offers to anyone, whoever they are, and whatever they have done is that: "God forgives my sins and reconciles me to himself through his Son, Jesus Christ, whom he has given to the world as an undeserved gift of love. 'God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." ( John 3:16; see also Psalm 34; Zechariah 12:10–13:2; Romans 3:23–26).

In this world we shall never be completely free from sin, but through Christ God offers all human beings a supernatural new beginning that means that we begin to become free from the power of sin in this life and that one day we will be resurrected to enjoy a new life from God in which we will be completely free from sin and death forever.

This hope is more comprehensive than the best hopes offered by identity politics since it is offered to everyone and offers a total solution to all human problems, and unlike human political hopes, which may or may not come to pass, the Christian hope is certain since it is guaranteed by God himself.

So, what's the Christian message? Stop dividing people into good and bad, and accept that you, like all human beings are a sinner, but also accept God's supernatural offer of a comprehensive and eternal deliverance from sin, starting in this world and completed in the world to come.

Martin Davie is a lay Anglican theologian and Associate Tutor in Doctrine at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.