It never fails. Whenever I talk to family or friends in the United States via Skype or FaceTime, someone will comment on my accent. If scientists could collect genetic material from both Rocky and Crocodile Dundee and paste it all together in some twisted laboratory experiment, the resulting chimera might sound something like me. You could take it to a party in my place and have it walk around drinking craft beers and making small talk. I doubt most of my friends would notice the difference.
An accent is a marker through which others establish your identity and background. It helps people to tell whether you’re ‘one of them’ or not. But my many years as an international vagabond (my mother-in-law once called me a ‘hobo’) has made my accent hard for others to I.D. It’s not purely American. It’s not purely Australian. And I’ve kind of enjoyed exchanging my old identity for something new and different.
That idea might not sit well with some readers, though. Many of us, thanks to a steady diet of patriotic indoctrination, identify strongly – or we could even say ‘exclusively’ – with our political nation states.
Taking the Mark?
St. Paul addressed a similar issue in his letter to the churches in Galatia, assemblies which he had planted and some of the first predominately Gentile churches in the world (Remember, this was still innovative, as the first Christian assemblies were more or less entirely Jewish in composition).
Here’s what seems to have happened. A group of Jewish Christians had arrived in Galatia after Paul’s departure and insisted to the new believers that they were only halfway along. They needed to fully accept the marks of Jewish identity: keeping the law, following kosher practices, observing the Sabbath and Jewish festivals and, of course, becoming circumcised (gentlemen, take a collective breath through your teeth). Only then would they truly ‘belong’ in the Messianic community.
From our modern perspective, we might be tempted to see this as a simple error in doctrine, a relatively minor point of order, easily sorted out. Yet Paul viewed it as a fundamental and existential threat to the fledgling Jesus movement. Why, exactly?
Because key to Paul’s understanding was the formation of a worldwide family, comprised of all races and nationalities, in the Messiah¹. The death and resurrection of Jesus, for Paul, eliminated the barriers and distinctions that stood in the way of this family’s creation and unity. So to suggest that these ethnic divisions still mattered was to say that the Messiah died for nothing (Gal. 2:21, 5:6).
In his letter, Paul surmised the reasons that these ‘pro-circumcision’ teachers sought to impel the Galatian believers toward embracing Jewish identity. For one, they held on to national and cultural pride. They wanted to maintain their own perceived exceptional status. Along with that, they hoped to convince their own ‘tribe’ that they were still ‘good Jews’ and so avoid persecution from living in a conspicuously different way (Gal. 6:12-13).
The apostle’s response was to remind the Galatian believers that he had surrendered his own national and ethnic pride and sense of identity to the Messiah. And he called on them to adopt the same outlook, through passages like these:
I have been crucified with the Messiah. I am, however, alive— but it isn’t me any longer; it’s the Messiah who lives in me. And the life I do still live in the flesh, I live within the faithfulness of the son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
Galatians 2:19-20, KNT
You see, every one of you who has been baptised in the Messiah has put on the Messiah. There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no ‘male and female’; you are all one in the Messiah, Jesus.
Galatians 3:27-28, KNT
As for me, God forbid that I should boast – except in the cross of our Lord Jesus the Messiah, through whom the world has been crucified to me and I to the world. Circumcision and uncircumcision is nothing. What matters is new creation.
Galatians 6:14, KNT
Paul’s point was and is clear: a follower of Jesus has become a completely new entity, a new sort of being, no longer bound to national or ethnic solidarity or division.² Furthermore, they now belong to an international and intercultural Messianic family, through faith¹ and the Spirit, with no room for divisive ideas of cultural superiority.
No More ‘Us’ and ‘Them’
Sure, these days we tend not to make an issue out of circumcision. But if Paul wrote us a letter, he might feel compelled to remind us that, in the Messiah, there are no more Americans and Mexicans, no more Chinese and Japanese, no more Westerners and Middle Easterners, no more rich and poor, no more Republican and Democrat, no more black and white, no more citizen and immigrant.
In short, there can be no more ‘us’ and ‘them’ in the Messiah.³
So when we stress our national identity above our identity in Jesus, that’s a problem When we fixate on interests and agendas of the state over against the international outlook of God’s kingdom, that’s a problem. When we consider citizenship more important than membership in the worldwide family of God, that’s a problem. When we obsess over our own nation’s sovereignty and security at the expense of our brothers and sisters in all parts of the world, that’s a problem. When we put exceptionalism above solidarity with the people of the Messiah from every race and region, that’s a problem. When we set a flag above the Messiah’s cross, that’s a problem.
Have we really been crucified with Jesus? Are we really a new creation? Do we really have a brand new identity? If so, it might be time to adopt a new accent.
¹ This is actually the key to understanding Galatians and indeed, Pauline theology as a whole. The essence of that theology, despite many protestations of Reformed thinkers, is not ‘justification by faith’ (which tends to make things all about ‘going to heaven’), but about the formation of a new family of God through faith in the Messiah – or, in an equally viable translation, through the Messiah’s faithfulness.
² He stresses this in other letters as well. At one point, he opened a sentence to the Corinthian Christians, ‘You know that when you used to be ἔθνη…’ (I Corinthians 12:2), which literally translates to ‘You know that when you used to be Gentiles…’ In other words, he assumed that they had surrendered their previous distinction and identity and become a new being.
³ Importantly, this is not a plea against diversity, but for it. Ethnic, cultural, gender, socio-economic and other kinds of diversity are essential to the family of God. The argument here is against national and cultural superiority, believing ourselves to be ‘better’ or ‘more important’ due to our citizenship or membership in a particular group, and similar ways of separating ourselves from others.
- Feature Image: Just a bunch of stupid memes I grabbed from the internet and stuck together without paying any attention to where they came from or who took the trouble to put them online.
- St. Paul Writing his Epistles, Attributed to Valentin de Boulogne (vAHBpCifHgxB7g at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23590521)
- Apostle Paul, circa 494–519 C.E. Mosaic, Museo arcivescovile di Ravenna, Italy (from https://www.bibleodyssey.org/tools/image-gallery/p/paul)