Identity Matters
by Jack Wald | March 11th, 2018

1 Peter 2:9-10

Who am I? How do I define myself? What makes me different from other people? I’m an American. I am a white American. I am a white American with Northern European ancestry. I am a white American with Northern European ancestry with three academic degrees. I am a white American with Northern European ancestry with three academic degrees and an evangelical Christian background.

The more I define who I am, the more exclusive I become. If I am an American, than I separate myself from all those who are not Americans. If I am a white American, I separate myself from all those who are non-white Americans. As I define myself more completely, I separate myself from more and more people in this world. The group of people like me becomes smaller and smaller until eventually I am all alone. We were created by God to live in community, not all by ourselves. Defining who we are so narrowly is not a life-giving path to take.

Miroslav Volf is a Croatian Protestant theologian. He currently serves at Yale University as a Professor of Theology and Director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. Croatia is part of the former Yugoslavia that broke up after the death of Tito in the 1980s into six republics: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia. In addition, two autonomous provinces were established within Serbia: Vojvodina and Kosovo.

The long-standing tensions between the republics that made up Yugoslavia were repressed because of the dictatorial control of Tito. But without Tito, in the 1990s these unleashed tensions resulted in wars that broke out as the Orthodox and Catholic nationalists fought with each other and against Muslims. Cities like Mostar in Bosnia where Christians and Muslims had lived peacefully with each other for decades, became a killing ground when Muslim homes were targeted by Croatian artillery on the hills above Mostar. A park was turned into a cemetery, filled with the bodies of Muslims killed in a three month period in 1993. In a horribly negative witness to Jesus, after the war the Catholic Church erected a large cross on the hills where the artillery had been.

Serbian Orthodox priests sprinkled holy water on the tanks and blessed the paramilitary that went to Bosnia and committed genocide in Srebrencia. They sent away the women and young children in buses, and then shot all the men and boys and dumped them in mass graves. Over 8,000 men and boys were killed.

After the Bosnian War, Miroslav Volf was speaking about loving our enemies and during the question and answer period after his talk Jürgen Moltman, a German theologian, asked him, “But can you embrace a chetnik?” The chetniks had committed atrocities against Croatians during WWII.

In response, Miroslav Volf wrote Exclusion and Embrace. He wrote this book about the atrocities committed during the Bosnian War to say, “Yes, I can embrace a chetnik.” This is an important book to read but it is also a difficult book to read as he talks about the atrocities committed and how neighbors who had lived together and worked together, turned against each other when the nationalist Catholics and the nationalist Orthodox revived memories of the injustices of the past in order to reinforce their own power and influence in their communities.

Neighbors, colleagues, and friends pulled away from each other as the memories of past atrocities were lifted up and the old tensions were revived. There is a terrible story Volf tells of a Bosnian Muslim woman, a teacher of literature. In the heat of the conflict, her student, a neighbor, urinated in her mouth while she lay on the ground with the laughter of the onlookers in her ears. Her colleague, a professor of physics, beat her over and over, anywhere he could.

It horrifies me to see what people in this world are willing to do to each other.

I want to focus on what Volf says in this book about the importance of identity. Volf says that when we create an identity, we automatically create “the other.” When I say I am a white American, I create a group separate from myself that is not white and not American. My identity creates distance between myself and others.

The Bosnian professor of literature had been a neighbor and a colleague. But then as identity was narrowed, she became excluded. She was viewed first and foremost not as a neighbor, not as a colleague, but as a Muslim. The residents of Mostar who for years had lived together peacefully, separated from each other and there were Christian residents of Mostar who worked with the Croatian artillery on the hill overlooking Mostar. They identified the Muslim homes that were shelled one after the other.

This was not only a problem in the former Yugoslavian republics. It is a worldwide problem. Where is there in the world, a country that does not have tensions between one part of the population against another part of the population? There are an estimated 3,000 tribes in Africa. The ten richest of these are Yourba, Pedi, Housa, Suri, El Molo, Zulu, Igbo, Fulami, Xhosa and Oroma. As I mention these I know that stereotypes and prejudices come to the minds of those who come from African countries.

South Koreans discriminate against foreigners and mixed race children (Chinese-Korean and North Koreans). Turks discriminate against Kurds. Germans discriminate against Turks. The list goes on and on.

I finished a book, King Leopold’s Ghost, about the Belgian conquest of Congo. It is a brutal history of oppression and abuse in which half of the population, an estimated 10,000,000 people of the people of the Congo, were killed for the sake of ivory and rubber. The Congolese were viewed as expendable sources of labor. Unfortunately, other European countries and the US in other continents, were similarly abusive. The Americans and Europeans viewed themselves as “civilized” humans who had the power and right to exploit “uncivilized” humans. I have been deeply affected by this book and will try to give a Biblical response to what I read some Sunday, but once again, at a root level, it is a question of identity.

As I sit in Rabat and read the news of the US, it is disheartening for me to read about all the bitter tensions that divide one American from another. Since I know more about this, let me focus on the tensions in the US.

Whites are now the numerical minority in six of the fifty states of the US, and they will be the nation’s numerical minority in a little more than 25 years. And now, for the first time ever, there are fewer white than nonwhite children under 10 years of age.

This is a significant change. The U.S. population has been predominantly white since the founding of Jamestown in 1607. As late as 1950, whites accounted for about 90 percent of the nation’s population, according to U.S. Census figures. But in the past six decades, whites’ share of the overall population has dropped to 61 percent. Demographic projections suggest that whites will become the numerical minority in 2044.

This has a portion of the white population of US citizens highly worried. This change is viewed as a great threat to the US. Why? The portion of the white population of the US who feel threatened have a narrow identity that includes only those who are white like them. They are not Americans; they are white Americans.

In the US we talk about African-Americans and Asian-Americans. Why don’t we also talk about European-Americans? My mother’s parents came to the US in the early 1900s from Germany and Switzerland. My father’s parents came to the US in the middle 1800s from Norway. I had my DNA tested and discovered that while I am 85% Northern European, I also have some genetic roots from Britain and Ireland and roots from Southern Europe and the Balkans. I do not have any genetic roots to the first inhabitants of North America.

I am a child of immigrants as are most of Americans. The US is a county of immigrants. Some of our ancestors came to the US involuntarily, as slaves. Some of our ancestors came to the US voluntarily to find a better life. What makes us Americans is not where we came from or how we got to the US. What makes us Americans is our citizenship in this country of immigrants.

The only Americans who are not descended from immigrants are the Native Americans who populated North America before Europeans arrived and named the continent North America. What do native Americans think about immigrants? I like this image of an American Indian. (So you’re against immigration? Splendid. When do you leave?)

For political and spiritual reasons countries should welcome immigrants and refugees. First, from a political perspective, countries benefit from immigrants who leave their homes and make the trip to another country. Even when life is very hard, only the most determined will make the sacrifices necessary to make a long and sometimes dangerous journey. This means that those who arrive in a new country come with drive and ambition to work hard and make a better life for themselves. The more difficult the trip to a new country, the more true this is. Because going to the US requires a longer journey, immigrants who arrive make a great contribution to the US economy. Even though many have degrees and training in some profession, they take lesser jobs to earn a living. The children of immigrants receive an education and make advances in their chosen professions. The US economy benefits.

The German and English settlers in the US resisted the wave of Irish who came to America. Then the German, English, and Irish resisted the Italians who came to America. Then the German, English, Irish, and Italians resisted the Asians who came to America. This is the pattern. But while immigrants are consistently resisted, the continual wave of immigrants breathes new life and energy into the US and keeps the US competitive in the world economy. For patriotic reasons, the US should welcome immigrants and refugees to its shores.

What do you think about those who want to come to your country? If you view them as “the other” you will resist them and lose out on the blessing they can be to your country.

We should also welcome immigrants and refugees for spiritual reasons. Churches spend their money to support missionaries who go out into the world to bring the good news of Jesus to people who have not heard this good news before. Why is it then that members of some of these churches reject the people from these countries when they move into their community?

Isn’t this a great opportunity to welcome these immigrants, help them assimilate into the culture of your country, help them find their way in this new life? I have friends who work with immigrants to the US and they spend time with them, learn about their culture, learn a few words in their language, share their native food. They let them know they are valued and welcomed. The love them in the name of Jesus.

The wave of immigrants who are coming to the US and other countries are a gift God is giving the churches of the world. We should give praise to God for this gift, not despise it and reject it.

Why is there such a strong rejection of immigrants? I think the roots lie in our identity.

The president of the US recently made disparaging remarks about African countries and Haiti. He asked why it is we had to allow in immigrants from (disparaging word) countries in Africa and the Caribbean rather than from places like Norway.

Why should it bother the US president and people who think like he does if the immigrants who come are not white Europeans?

Again, it is a matter of our identity.

As a follower of Jesus, what is my identity? Who does the Bible tell me I am? Peter wrote in the first of his two letters: (1 Peter 2:9–10)
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Who is the “who” Peter is writing to? Peter was writing to the early church that was being persecuted for their faith in Jesus. He was writing to Jewish followers of Jesus and Gentile followers of Jesus. He was not writing to Jews and he was not writing to Gentiles; he was writing to Jews and Gentiles who were followers of Jesus. This is why we can read this passage, 2,000 years after it was written, and say that it applies to us. Because we are followers of Jesus, this is also our identity.

As followers of Jesus, we are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession. The Bible does not tell us that we are Americans or Swiss or English or Sudanese or Liberian or Korean or Antiguan, or Argentinian or Tuvaluan. It does not tell us what race we are. It does not tell us what our educational level is. It does not tell us what our political stance is. We are a chosen people. That is who we are. We belong to Jesus. That is our identity.

For an eternity before the creation of the universe, the Triune God existed in relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is an outward focused relationship. The Father is loved, encouraged, and supported by the Son and Holy Spirit. The Son is loved, encouraged, and supported by the Father and Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is loved, encouraged, and supported by the Father and Son. The relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is so perfect their unity makes them one God. That is the best I can understand about worshiping one God in three persons.

The outward focus of the Triune God, each person looking toward the other two, is what led to our creation. The love experienced withing the Trinity was too precious not to be shared. We were created by God to be in fellowship with God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are in fellowship with each other.

We were created to spend eternity with God in a beautiful relationship of love. As Randy Alcorn writes, “We were created for a person and a place. Jesus is the person and heaven is the place.”

We were not created to live in a particular country, work hard at a job, buy a house and all that goes with it, take some vacations, and accumulate so many things that we occasionally need to have yard sales to get rid of some of it.

We were created to live in harmony with our brothers and sisters in Christ in a relationship that is supposed to mimic the relationship of the Triune God. We are being prepared for our future in heaven. We have the privilege of working with Jesus as he rescues the lost in our generation. We are making our way through this life, along with our brothers and sisters in Christ, heading to our heavenly, eternal destination.

Who are our brothers and sisters in Christ with whom we are to live in harmony?

Paul wrote to the Galatians (Galatians 3:26–29)
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

We are all children of God through faith. There are an estimated 33,000 denominations in the world. Cities in the world have hundreds and sometimes thousands of churches. Are all these churches filled with our brothers and sisters in Christ? Only God knows. Salvation is a mystery and we are not qualified to make this judgment. I like to say that the decision of who is and who is not saved is above my paygrade. But certainly membership in one of these churches does not disqualify someone from being my brother or sister in Christ. The Body of Christ is far larger than my concept of it is. And God wants you to live in harmony and unity with these brothers and sisters in Christ in the diverse churches of the world.

When someone asks you about your faith, what do you tell them? Are you an Evangelical Christian? A Lutheran? A Methodist? A Presbyterian? A Pentecostal? An Anglican? A Quaker? Every one of these descriptions creates “the other.” Every one of these labels creates distance between you and those who are not in the same faith tradition as you are.

After being part of Lutheran, Congregational, and Presbyterian churches when I was growing up, I went to university and hedonism, seeking the pleasures of life. Then I met people who told me that Jesus wanted to be in a personal relationship with me and I surrendered to Jesus.

I began attending Park Street Church in Boston, an evangelical church. I graduated from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with no denominational ties. I served one year as a youth pastor in a Methodist Church in West Virginia and then began five and a half years as pastor of two small Presbyterian Churches in Eastern Ohio, where I was ordained into the mainline Presbyterian Church.

For the next thirteen years I worked in the business world and then when the company was sold and I wondered what I would do next at the age of 48, I ended up coming to Morocco to RIC which, on an average Sunday, has 35-40 nationalities and about the same number of denominational backgrounds.

What happens when we live in the midst of that wonderful diversity is that over time we become less denominational and more Christian. In your home church what you believe is constantly being reinforced by all the other people in your church. In your home church you have a way you do baptisms and observe communion. You have a way in which you worship and a way in which you pray. In fact, with all the other churches in your community, you focus on what differentiates your church from other churches in the community.

In an international church like Rabat International Church, what we believe is constantly being challenged by others in the church.

Before I moved to Rabat, when I moved into a new community, I would pass by an Assemblies of God church and think to myself, “That is where all the crazy Christians go.” After a few years in Rabat I discovered that many of my friends and some of the Christians I most admired were from the Assemblies of God. Pentecostals in our church have taught me to have a greater expectation of the Holy Spirit working in my life. I have grown in my faith because of the influence of Pentecostals in our church.

Pentecostals discover that Christians who have not experienced the second baptism of the Holy Spirit are filled with the Spirit.

The beautiful thing that happens in an international church is that the denominational distinctives, those things that differentiate us from other churches in the community, are pushed to the side. We focus on the core of the gospel – which I loosely define as those things on which Evangelicals and Pentecostals agree. And because each denomination has a better understanding and appreciation of some part of the core, we end up with a more beautiful gospel.

We become less denominational and more Christian over time. Our focus in preaching and teaching is not on the denominational distinctives but on the core of what we believe and that is another reason why I believe spiritual life in an international church is so rich and vibrant.

When someone asks me about my faith, I tell them I am a follower of Jesus. This does create “the other” as all identity does, but at least this includes all those who follow Jesus, whatever denominational background they come from. This identity helps to create unity among us as members of Rabat International Church.

Another part of my identity is my nationality. I discovered when I went to Morocco how fortunate I am to be a citizen of the US. So many nationalities are restricted by visa requirements. I was trying to find a safe haven for a woman from Uganda who was being abused by her husband. Trying to get her a visa to go to some other country was almost impossible. I could simply get a plane ticket and go; she had to work and work to try to get a visa and that request was most often denied.

So I appreciate the benefits of being an American citizen but I did not realize how important this was to me until Loren Cunningham, the founder of Youth with a Mission, came to speak in Rabat. This was in 2003. He told us that when the percentage of Christians in a population reaches 25%, the values of Christianity spill over into the culture. He said that every country has smart people and every country has stupid people. But because China has so many people, there are more smart people in China than any other country in the world. And then he said that he expected the percentage of Christians in China to reach 25% by 2015. As a consequence he expected China to be the dominant world power for the 21st century.

My first, immediate, reaction was “Oh no! I hope that doesn’t happen.” And my immediate second reaction was, “Jack, what a jerk! You don’t want Chinese to become Christians so that the US will remain the dominant world power?”

This is an embarrassing story for me to tell because it shows how much my identity is wrapped around my nationality. I chose earthly domination over the work of Jesus to rescue people he loves and bring them into his kingdom. I rejected people I will spend eternity with because of earthly, political and economic concerns.

I have learned from this and other experiences and so I tell people that over my years at RIC I have become less American and more Christian. My identity as a follower of Jesus is more powerful than my identity as an American.

A third part of my identity is racial.

Those who say they don’t see race are fooling no one except themselves. We very quickly notice what is different about other people.

Skin color is different. Eyes are different. Hair is different. When the different race is from another country, culture is different.

When I came to Rabat to begin as pastor of RIC, I came with a prejudice against Nigerians. In my years in business we periodically received a letter from someone in Nigeria wanting to purchase some of our product. What I discovered by talking with others in business is that all they wanted was for me to respond on my company letterhead with my signature. They could then use this to build a less obvious scam to get money from someone.

I was looking for a car for one of my daughters before I left for Morocco and met a Nigerian doctor in the parking lot of a mall who wanted to sell his car. He did not have papers to drive it outside of the mall parking lot and his story was so complicated, I walked away. I didn’t trust him.

But when I arrived in Rabat I met Uchenna Anyanwu, a pastor from Nigeria, who became one of my closest friends. Together we led the association of churches in Morocco. I learned so much from him about living my life as a Christian. He inspired me. Uchenna was deported from Morocco in 2010 and is currently studying to get a PhD from Fuller Seminary in the US. I met with him on my trip last month.

Another exceptional man is Clement Yoro from Côte d’Ivoire, Ivory Coast. He has a PhD in microbiology from a university in France and was called by God to work in Morocco. He took over when Uchenna left and he too is a great friend and encouragement to me.

Elliot Lamptey is a third friend and my relationship with him is very precious to me.

I am different from Uchenna, Clement, and Elliot. We have different world views, different cultural ways of praying, different cultural expectations about how a church should operate, different cultural views of the Biblical texts we study. There is so much that could separate us but I am bound to them in a powerful bond of love because what is most important to me and what is most important to them is that God is our father, we have been given the privilege of working with Jesus as he builds his kingdom, and we are heading to our eternal home. Our common identity is more powerful than our differences. We are not Nigerian, Ivorian, Ghanian, or American. We are brothers in Christ.

I am a follower of Jesus and when I talk with a Muslim in Morocco, my identity expands even further. I am a seeker of God. When I talk with a Muslim, I don’t want to engage in a fruitless debate about who is right and who is wrong. I want to talk about what we hold in common. We both believe that God created the world and we are distant from him. What am I doing so that when I die, I will be with God? What is the Muslim I am talking with doing so he or she will be with God after death? We are both seeking to be with God. That is a healthy dialogue.

I am highly conscious that every person I meet is loved by God. Jesus is working in the life of every person I meet. Jesus is doing everything he can to encourage the people I meet to open their heart just a crack so his love can come in.

People who irritate me, people whose politics offend me, people I do not like are people Jesus loves as much as he loves me. Jesus died for these people and wants them in his kingdom. I have been a recipient of God’s grace and mercy. His grace and mercy is being offered to all the people I meet.

When we expand our identity and begin to see other people through the eyes of God, our relationships become transformed. When we take on the heart of Jesus for the world, we grieve with those who suffer injustice. We stop judging and begin reaching out. We become the hands and voice of Jesus as we love people in his name.

I want to work with Jesus by loving people in his name, not against him by letting my prejudices and self-interests determine who I interact with. I pray for you and for me that we will increasingly see people with the eyes of Jesus and take on his heart of compassion for those he sees. I pray that we will look past our own selfish self-interests and see into the kingdom of God.

There are many new students who have come to study French and then go on to get a university degree in one of the cities in Morocco. When we are new to RIC, our identity is firmly rooted in our country of origin. It is good to be proud of our country. It is good to cheer for our national football team. But my prayer is that each of you will begin to see others in the church with the eyes of Jesus. Jesus prayed before he was crucified that we would learn to love each other as he loves us. We have a wonderful opportunity to broaden our identity while we are here at RIC. I pray that your identity as a beloved daughter of God, as a beloved son of God will become more powerful than any other part of who you are.