To Be Known as I Know Myself: Identity, Politics and the Gospel
Rev. David W. Loy, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Theology and Ethics, Concordia University Irvine, firstname.lastname@example.org
The Supreme Court’s decision on the question of same-sex marriage does not resolve the larger struggle over the cultural legitimization of alternative sexualities. Some gays and lesbians would (or will) be content to enjoy the legal and social benefits of marriage alongside heterosexual couples. However, others under the LGBTQ umbrella seek not merely equal rights but public affirmation of their sexual identities. They experience public life as alienating, because (they believe) it prevents them from living out their identities publicly as well as privately. To overcome this alienation between their public and private identities, they demand that their fellow citizens recognize their lifestyles as equal to all others. They want to participate in public life without veiling any part of their identities—they want to be known by their fellow citizens as they know themselves.
This article has two modest aims: 1) to situate the more radical demands of the LGBTQ movement within broader debates about democratic theory and 2) to outline the way in which the doctrine of the two kingdoms might guide Christian responses.
The Ends of Politics
Anglo-American democratic theory has historically concerned itself with liberty. It begins with a question: why think any governing regime acts legitimately when it asks its citizens to obey (and punishes them if they don’t)? Early Anglo-American democratic theorists responded by arguing that 1) each individual could exercise unconstrained liberty if we lived in a “state of nature” with no government, 2) life under such conditions would be miserable, and 3) individuals would therefore enter into a contract with one another to surrender some of their liberty to a governing authority. The argument is normative rather than historical—that is, it highlights the conditions under which citizens would agree to be governed. Because legitimacy grows out of the consent of the governed, a regime may claim legitimacy only if it restricts the natural liberty of individuals solely to the extent necessary to protect them from the “war of all against all” that would inevitably erupt if, in fact, there were no governing regime.
This contractarian understanding of democracy has been criticized for ignoring an important part of human life: individual and group identity. Thinkers as far back as Rousseau have suggested that democratic societies need more than formal procedures of justice in order to guarantee the liberty of each individual. Although the critiques come from a variety of theoretical backgrounds, most of them assume that individuals and groups want not merely formal equality but some kind of recognition that they are considered equal partners in the life of their political community, even if they are a distinct minority. Some thinkers zero in on language and culture, arguing that respect for minority cultures permits regimes to override formal equality to protect the culture in question. Other thinkers focus on gender, others on race, and others on the LGBTQ experience.
Whatever tack such theorists take, their goal is for citizens to participate in public life without veiling their identities. Citizens already reveal their full identities within certain non-political circles (friendships, social clubs, etc.). Radical identity politics, however, suggests that citizens should be able to participate in public life without shielding any part of their identity from fellow citizens. In the words of Kwame Anthony Appiah:
If one is to be out of the closet in a society that deprives homosexuals of equal dignity and respect, then one must constantly deal with assaults on one’s dignity. Thus, the right to live as an ‘open’ homosexual is not enough. It is not even enough to be treated with equal dignity despite being homosexual, for that would mean accepting that being homosexual counts to some degree against one’s dignity. Instead, one must ask to be respected as gay.
Some gays seek not merely toleration, but respect. They want to be known by all fellow citizens as they know themselves to be.
Radical identity politics thus embraces a unique understanding of the ends of politics. “The further demand we are looking at here,” Charles Taylor writes, “is that we all recognize the equal value of different cultures”—and not just of cultures, but of lifestyles, sexual proclivities, etc. as well. Radical identity politics demands not only that fellow citizens tolerate those with alternate identities, but actually affirm those identities. Anything less amounts to an attack on the value of those with alternate identities, and every such attack is simultaneously an attack on human dignity. Since democracy entails the protection of human dignity, political institutions must be engaged, on this view, to ward off such attacks. Proponents of radical identity politics thus appeal to democratic principles to limit speech that attacks the identity, and thus dignity, of people with alternate identities.
This line of thinking conflates the value of a person with his or her identity—and further conflates identity with behavior. To condemn the person’s behavior is to condemn the person’s identity, which is in turn to attack the person’s dignity. This tight linkage of behavior, identity, and dignity can be seen, for example, in “The Church and Human Sexuality: A Lutheran Perspective,” one of the ELCA’s study documents on sexuality. As the document points out, some people claim, “To love our neighbor who is homosexual means to love the sinner but to hate the sin. The church should be loving and accepting of persons who are homosexual, welcoming them as members, but clearly oppose their being sexually active” (III.D). The document goes on to say that this response “needs to be questioned on biblical and theological grounds, indeed, challenged because of its harmful effect on gay and lesbian people and their families” (III.E). The document implies that the sexual behaviors of a sexually active gay or lesbian person are so deeply intertwined with the person’s identity that condemnation of the behaviors amounts to a damaging attack on the person. This thesis has its roots in radical identity politics.
Analyzed theologically, this desire to force fellow citizens to affirm one’s identity is a form of idolatry. It is the nature of sinful humanity to tune out God’s voice of judgment against our sins. The Israelite elite who wished to ignore God’s judgment surrounded themselves with prophets paid to reinforce their ideology (see Jeremiah 23; Micah 3), and they often tried to silence those who sought to break through to them with God’s word of judgment (see Jeremiah 26:20-23; 38:1-6). Shutting out God’s voice is tantamount to building one’s own Tower of Babel, where one hopes to make a name for oneself (Genesis 11:4). While democratic values offer some means for responding to radical identity politics, the fundamental challenge is not political but spiritual. Those who are intent on shutting out their opposition will use all the means at their disposal unless their hearts are changed.
Two Kingdoms and Democratic Politics
Confessional Lutheran responses to the political debate about homosexuality have been framed in terms of the doctrine of the two kingdoms. According to this doctrine, our gracious Father is ruling this world in two different ways: in the so-called “right hand” way, according to which He seeks the salvation of sinners through the proclamation of the Gospel and the administration of the means of grace, and in the “left-hand” way, according to which He who has given us “eyes, ears, and all our members, reason and all our senses” directly and indirectly preserves sinful humanity and all creation this side of heaven. God’s right-hand rule in the world thus relativizes left-hand work without demeaning it. We understand that God’s left-hand rule in the world is important for several reasons: it relieves human suffering, provides for human needs, and permits humanity to continue enjoying God’s good creation despite our sin. At the same time, this left-hand work does not provide all for which humanity was created. Our sin fractures our relationships with one another, and nothing in the left-hand work brings us to that faith in Christ by which we become dearly loved children of God. We invest this sphere with our blood, sweat and tears because our family and our neighbors need us. However, we do not expect the institutions of God’s left-hand work to effect salvation for anyone.
Politics falls under God’s left-hand work. It is therefore not the purpose of politics to bring salvation to any human being—in fact, the means proper to God’s left-hand activities is the law, which cannot work salvation. Thus, when Christians engage political debates, they should not do so in terms of their own salvation or the salvation of their fellow citizens. Rather, they ought to engage public debates in terms of God’s desire to preserve sinful humanity and all creation this side of heaven. We expect our political communities to seek the welfare of those who live within them; we pray that they afford Christians the opportunity to worship our risen Savior without fear of our enemies; and we strive alongside our fellow citizens to live “a peaceful and quiet life” in our political communities (1 Timothy 2:2 ESV). We invest political life with our love to help maintain peace and to live the best life possible in our society. Given the diversity in modern democratic societies, this will mean engaging fellow citizens in debate about laws, morality, and policies. It will not, however, mean using the power of the state to establish any kind of godly community.
Lutheran theology, then, gives us tools to approach the political debates about homosexuality with both nuance and sensitivity. Because God is still active in his right-hand work, we know that the world is full of sinners who would gladly flee any condemnation of their sin. We give thanks that our Savior redeems us from sin and that the Spirit calls us to repentance. In that repentance, we no longer seek to be known as we know ourselves (1 Corinthians 13:12). Instead, we come to know ourselves as we are known by the Father: as sinners reconciled to the Father by the blood of Christ. We should never be surprised when any sinner (whether Christian or not) finds it difficult to swallow criticism of his or her sin. Knowing that we are in the world but not of it, and knowing that our Savior “is head over all things” for the church (Ephesians 1:22), we can defend liberal-democratic political values, such as freedom of speech, even if doing so means acknowledging that we will at the same time find ourselves living among sinners who deny not only the salvation we have in Christ but the law of God as well. Said differently, when faced with proponents of radical identity politics, defending the right to confess one’s beliefs publicly, engage others in debate, and participate in political processes may be as important for us and our fellow citizens as arguing about homosexuality itself.
Identity Politics and Identity in Christ
In the end, our current debates about the place of homosexuality in society are just that: political debates. When Christians engage these debates, we do so with political means, and we do so for political purposes. We are therefore working under God’s left-hand rule when we engage in these debates. As indicated earlier, such work is important. At the same time, our work in this sphere is not of ultimate importance. Even as we engage in these debates, we keep in mind that our gracious Father also uses us to carry out his right-hand work in the world. Not only must sin be restrained by left-hand means, but sinners must be called to repentance and salvation by the proclamation of salvation in Christ and by the administration of the sacraments.
If, as I argued earlier, the fundamental challenge in responding to radical identity politics is spiritual, then we must develop a spiritual response that takes into account the particular form of idolatry inherent in the movement. The movement’s idolatry has two distinctive features: first, it so tightly links behavior and identity that condemnation of the one is perceived as an attack on the other; and second, it demands recognition from all citizens for this allegedly irrefragable identity. The individual becomes the center of the social universe whom all others must affirm, and the individual’s identity becomes the fixed point around which the social universe revolves. Neither the individual’s identity nor the behaviors which flow from that identity may be called into question. They become, in a sense, the formal principle of the movement.
There is reason to question the tight linkage between behavior and identity. If the two are as tightly linked as radical identity politics supposes, then it is not clear why a person should ever feel regret. Regret is evidence that one’s values and one’s behavior are misaligned, which suggests that one’s behavior can, in fact, be called into question without thereby calling into question the person’s entire identity. In fact, having one’s behavior questioned may be an important step in developing a mature identity. This observation opens up space for exploring the new identity the Spirit bestows in and through Christ. In Christ the tension between behavior and identity is heightened: Christians embrace the righteousness which is ours through faith in Christ while faced daily with the incontrovertible evidence of our unrighteousness in thought, word, and deed. Christians therefore need not seek recognition of their already existing identities in order to feel that they have dignity; rather, we receive both dignity and identity through the Father’s loving recognition of us as his heirs and coheirs with Christ. Because of who we are in Christ, we regularly call our own and others’ behavior into question. In doing so, however, we do not attack one another’s identity, but actually encourage one another in our new identity in Christ. Our moral judgments about homoerotic behavior should have the same character: they should not be an attack on the person, but an invitation to a new and richer identity in Christ.
Assuming that the proponents of radical identity politics do not get their way, losing the political argument over gay marriage may not be the catastrophe that some Christians believe it to be. Obeying the law of God will not gain anyone salvation, nor will outlawing sin (and even punishing it) guarantee God’s blessings for our nation. The high court’s decision still leaves our work cut out for us: to seek the good of the society in which we live and to call sinners to repentance and salvation through the Gospel. In this we find ourselves in the same situation as our brothers and sisters throughout the ages and around the world: living as children of the light in a world sometimes ambivalent and sometimes hostile to the Gospel.
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