What is Christian identity? // Gerald Liu
Is there such a thing as Christian identity? Well, Christian identity exists because Christians exist. So, it’s definitely a thing. The trick is determining what kind of a thing Christian identity is. It becomes a complicated matter and an unlimited exercise because the people summoned by the Holy Spirit and who call themselves Christian continue to live and die in faithful ways that foil any finite definition. And the Christ whom Christians follow evades our human understanding eternally. Even as close as Jesus comes with infinite and free love for each one of us exactly as we are. It’s no wonder that the polytheists first derived Christian from Christos (anointed one) and the hellenized Latin term, -ianus (follower). They coined, Christianos, “follower of the anointed one.” Of course it would be the case that believers in many gods would know precisely how to describe the one God who “will be what I will be.” The simple formulation says enough without presuming too much. And I suppose that’s how I feel challenged with my own Christian identity. To identify as a Christian says more than enough to the people who are curious to know what I believe. And yet, as soon as I reveal the faith that defines my entire life and my neighbors try to square that knowledge with how normal they thought I was, I find myself scrambling to explain it. I struggle to make it real in ways that prevent other people from presuming too much, presumptions that are, more often than not, over the top, negative and disappointing. Maybe all of this is because only God knows how to make Christian identity clear.
I’m also an American-born Asian, hailing from the peculiar state of Mississippi, teaching worship and preaching at the more peculiar institution of Princeton Theological School. I am an ordained United Methodist too. My identity is manyfold: I belong to an ethnic minority that is associated with white privilege, but receive only meticulously measured amounts of it, I am a teacher of ministerial practices at an institution associated with privilege but far removed from the lives of most Christians, and I am a pastor in a limping Mainline protestant tradition. My existence in all of these aspects leads me to understand Christian identity as an interplay of competing commitments, a mosaic of political negotiation, and the fruit of continuous personal and professional evolution. I have come from the poorest state in the United States to a flagship seminary of the Presbyterian Church (USA). I teach Christian worship and preaching to ecumenical students even though I am the son of Buddhist immigrants from Taiwan. I serve the United Methodist Church. It boasts a global membership of approximately 7 million people who are mostly in Africa and Asia. Yet the North American membership is almost half the size it was when it started in the United States (1968). It also remains roughly 94% white even though the book of Revelation literature paints a picture of all people before the Lamb (Rev 7:9). Those aspects of my identity - and I have only selected a few to share here (for our identities are composed of so much more than what our ethnicity is, where we are from, what we do for a living, and others also often know more about our identities than we do, or at least they often see what we overlook) - make sorting out my identity as a Christian a maze within which I am obsessively trying to find a better way.
So, while I find it self-evident that Christian identity exists, I am constantly searching for more honest and more uplifting ways to express it in my life. Ironically, my attempts to do so as a pastor and a teacher haven’t done the trick. But I feel grateful to God for those channels of vocation and faith. Going forward I hope to articulate more precisely within and beyond congregations and classrooms how wider cultural factors shape what becomes recognizable as Christian identity. I keep appealing to the Holy Spirit for accessible and muscular words, art, and other actions able to convey the panoramic, polyphonic, multivalent, and random nature of following the anointed one.