The debates around identity politics often require Christians to define who they are and what they believe, but more important than even this is the question of what place Jesus has in our lives and does identity in Christ supersede all else? Ronji Tanielu from The Salvation Army Social Policy and Parliamentary Unit shares his conclusions with us.
Jesus is the white man’s god; forget Jesus and Christianity and go back to our old gods. That’s the idea many people, brown and white, have thrown at me since I became a born-again Christian at the age of 18. In today’s modern society that is obsessed with identity politics, culture and race, I’ve seen these ideas become even more popular and entrenched. For example, my wife Rabena serves as a missionary at the University of Auckland campus, leading Bible studies and supporting students navigating their faith journey and tertiary study. Students have reported to her that many lecturers are very critical and cynical of Christianity and the Christian worldview. Other Pacific students shared how Pacific lecturers actively promote disregarding this ‘white Jesus’ and Christianity, and encourage Pacific people to go back to worshipping pre-colonial Pacific gods. My wife has a strong response to these ideas: If you want Pacific people to return to our pre-colonial gods, then let’s go the whole way and return to child sacrifice, cannibalism and polygamy, which were common and used in the worship of these old gods.
A Proud Heritage
I am a proud Samoan, Tokelauan and son of Mangere. I love the food, languages and (most) of the customs and protocols connected to these things. Therefore, the contest and clash of ideas centred around culture and identity are critical for me. My great-grandparents received this so-called ‘white Jesus’ and were so transformed that they left Samoa and travelled as missionaries to Tokelau to plant a church in Atafu. My grandfather was born in Tokelau, married a stunning local girl and then returned to Samoa to train as a minister, focusing on printing Bibles and other teaching materials in the Samoan language to be spread across the region.
Fast-forward to the twenty-first century, and the story picks up in Aotearoa. I was born in Samoa, but raised in the capital of the universe, Mangere. I think I identify more with Mangere than Samoa and Tokelau because so many life-forming experiences—growing up in a state house, drugs, violence, overcrowding in my home and neighbourhood—happened in Mangere. In 2017, my wife and I returned home after serving as missionaries overseas that involved Bible smuggling, serving persecuted Christians, supporting local churches and indigenous missions.
I am passionately committed to the parts that make up my culture and identity. But I also understand there are serious social and spiritual challenges facing these things. I refuse to romanticise my Samoan, Tokelauan or South Auckland identities because I know the realities. And as important as my cultures and identities are, I strongly believe all of this is secondary to who I am in Christ. In my view, the culture and unique identity I have because of God’s Kingdom as taught in God’s Word supersedes my Samoan, Tokelauan or South Auckland culture or identity.
To reject this because of colonialism, identity politics and a twisted idea of a white Jesus is foolish. That doesn’t mean I hate or reject my cultures. If anything, I use these God-given elements to help in my worship and service to him and others. But when they come in conflict with biblical truth (embracing pre-colonial gods), then God’s truth surpasses everything and anything. As the Messiah says, ‘Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth’ (John 17:17). Biblical truth does not change just because of societal trends and shifts. Biblical truth is steadfast regardless of the times.
Identity in Christ
The Apostle Paul constantly wrestled with these ideas of culture and identity in his writings. He was a proud Jewish man, calling himself ‘a Hebrew of Hebrews’ (Philippians 3:5). He was deeply connected to his Jewish culture and identity. And he had risen to the proverbial top of his culture and religion, being a Pharisee and student of the great teacher Gamaliel. After Paul had set out his cultural credentials, in Philippians 3:7-10 he boldly states:
‘But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.’
These are amazing statements from Paul. He was super-proud of his Jewish heritage. But he basically says that nothing he’s attained in life—through his culture, identity or achievements—comes close to knowing the person, beauty and righteousness of Christ. Paul is in effect submitting all his worldly identities and successes to the privilege of knowing Jesus. Paul didn’t stop being a Jew or being from the tribe of Benjamin. But there was something else of the utmost surpassing value—knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.
He hammers these points further in verse 8, where he claims the things he’s suffered loss for Christ, he counts those things as rubbish. The Greek word used for rubbish is skybalon which means dung, refuse, excrement or something that’s worthless. Paul isn’t despising his heritage or culture. Instead he is explaining that his identity in Christ, and the culture of the Kingdom of God, was more important than the things of the world that were gain to him. Being found in him and in Christ (verse 9) was more significant than his earthly or human identity or culture. That’s why Paul used this idea of union with Christ—in Christ, in him, in Jesus—over 200 times in his letters.
I agree with Paul. I absolutely love my own Samoan, Tokelauan and Mangere heritages. But these are secondary to my identity in Christ. And I reject skybalon ideas like a white Jesus and embracing pre-colonial gods, because they are divisive and destructive, not unifying in Christ. As the powerful hymn reminds, ‘Rock of ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee’.