Is intersectionality compatible with the gospel?
About 30 years ago, UCLA Law Professor Kimberle Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” in an academic paper on feminism. To hear Crenshaw define the term in her own words, click here. In the years since, the idea has grown legs and run away with what used to be the common cultural thread of American individualism.
Our country was uniquely built on Enlightenment values, rooted in a Judeo-Christian worldview; America believed that each person is created by God and for His service and that our world is one that can be understood. Our history hasn’t been perfect, because people are not perfect, but the great experiment of these United States has been fixed on a shared compass of principles. Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Columbia, and yes, even Ms. Crenshaw’s alma mater, Harvard, all began as colleges to train ministers of the gospel, bearers of a message rooted in scripture. Whether Crenshaw intended for her idea to influence the culture as it has, I’m not sure (but I’m guessing that was her hope.)
If you’ve noticed the rise in language ending in “ism” the last few years, this is what I’m talking about. Racism. Sexism. Classism. Ageism. Go ahead and throw in there any subsection of identity politics (and the real or perceived discrimination they’ve received) and add it to the ever-growing list: LGBTQ+, immigrant, religious, disabled, etc. The idea is that certain oppressed persons have special qualifiers for describing and living out who they are. Within the construct of intersectionality, these qualifiers come with social points, kind of like an identity politics video game, and these imagined points derive from the amount of discrimination or abuse they supposedly provoke. I, for example, am a woman, so I gain ten points of oppression per feminist theory. I am also white, so maybe that deletes 5 of those points. I’m also a Christian, so that takes away about 50 points…am I even allowed to play this game anymore? The theorized baseline of human rights value would therefore be the dreaded straight, white male. Man, those guys have everything!
Get the idea now? If you’re still a little lost (and I wouldn’t blame you, because it plays out like a game with the rules constantly changing), watch this.
Regardless of Crenshaw’s intentions, intersectionality has invaded almost every area of our woke-2019-life. It has morphed into a multi-headed taskmaster. It has become the litmus test for nearly every interaction between groups and individuals– affecting companies hiring practices, shaping how the media (and everyday conversation) navigate current politics, coloring almost the entirety of higher education (and seeping into the lower levels), and even changing how we make friends. Is it any wonder that intersectionality has come for the doors of the church?
But here’s the thing. Anyone who disagrees with this paradigm for understanding humanity, anyone who rejects the automatic ascribing to a script of rules (and assumption and adding or subtracting valuation) for how to interact, gets labeled a bigot. Which is why Christians are feeling the heat right now.
Its as if the Western Church is waking from a dead sleep, from a coma, rubbing her eyes and looking around like, “What is going on?” We’re scrambling to address the crisis of our culture, a crisis that has been slowly building for decades, without stopping to consider– what do we actually believe about this? What does the scripture say about it? It’s time to hit pause on the outreach strategy. We need to get back to basics.
The Apostle Paul wrote to a young, growing, multi-cultural Church. To the church at Colosse, he wrote,
“Therefore if you have been raised with Christ [to a new life, sharing in His resurrection from the dead], keep seeking the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind and keep focused habitually on the things above [the heavenly things], not on things that are on the earth [which have only temporal value]. For you died [to this world], and your [new, real] life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory…for you have stripped off the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new [spiritual] self who is being continually renewed in true knowledge in the image of Him who created the new self— a renewal in which there is no [distinction between] Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, [nor between nations whether] barbarian or Scythian, [nor in status whether] slave or free, but Christ is all, and in all [so believers are equal in Christ, without distinction].” (Col. 3:1-4, 9b-11 Amp)
Here Paul is adamantly addressing the new believers (“if you have been raised”), the ones who have chosen to reject the old life and it’s identity and take on the new life in Christ. He is exhorting them to leave the old ways of thinking and acting behind and to not be embroiled with the categorical distinctions (and assumptions) that humans give one another. These labels, while they might give a temporary permission to cry victim and demand respect, or to lord over another of supposed lesser distinction, actually minimize the individual person and further relegate them to an anonymous box. While a law might be fashioned to provide a surface level of protection around an identity, a law will never ordain the individual with inherent value and worth. While the various identity-groups may offer a counterfeit solidarity, they only insulate the members in a silo of their own making. The demands of intersectionality can not sustain a facade of unity. It simply won’t work. And further, the Christian way says that we “died [to this world], and your [new, real] life is hidden with Christ in God.” Our old identities have been cast off -no more boxes to tick, no more prejudices to hide behind- and we have found our new life in one distinct life– the life of Jesus Christ, the Messiah.
Again Paul addresses the issue with the church at Galatia,
“For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ like a garment. There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise.” (Gal. 3:27-29, HCSB)
Here Paul leaves no room for finding value in our old distinctions. The language is clear in both passages: we died to our old self, we stripped off the old self, we are hidden in Christ, we were raised with Christ, we have been baptized into Christ, we have put on Christ like a garment. The lens of intersectionality literally divides- into categories, under labels, creating an US vs. THEM dynamic. The reality for Christians however, is a true and complete unity- because we are all in Him. Our salvation is in Him, our life is in Him, our future is in Him. He is “over all and through all and in all.” (Eph. 4:6) He is “before all things and in Him all things hold together.” (Col. 1:17)
The basis of American liberty was founded on the idea of defending scripture’s assertion of the Imago Dei in humanity. It is shored up in the Declaration of Independence (“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness….”) But now, ironically, the quest for equality has been hijacked by the idea that my unique, individual experience and person-hood doesn’t matter as much as my qualification in the game of intersectionality. To synchronize the principals of a traditional American worldview (one that values the life/motivations/dreams of the individual and encourages the overcoming of odds!) with intersectionality is precarious; to try and layer the gospel (one that values the individual willingly dying to self for the sake of glorifying Christ) with the underpinnings of intersectionality proves incompatible.
It is time for the Church in our nation to pay attention. Whether we like it or not, America is a leader for the rest of the Western (and emerging) world…and we have been distracted, doltish, and dormant. We must understand history, both of the scripture and of our country– people are just people and we haven’t changed that much throughout the centuries. We are motivated by the same things; we want to be both known and loved. Nevertheless, the Church cannot give this to the world if she doesn’t know Christ herself, if she doesn’t love Him fully.
It’s about time to light our lamps and be alert. To know what it is that we believe and why. To know the One who called us, named us, and unites us, in Himself.