Have identity politics gone too far? Rowan Williams is, very properly, making use of his last months in office by saying what he wants to be heard to say, rather than being driven by topics on which others want his to speak. This weekend, he wanted to say that ‘identity politics’ have gone too far. That is to say, if I understand rightly, that people have become so involved in campaigning for the rights of women, black people and LGBT people that they will put those rights forward at the expense of everything else. The overwhelming drive for these things has now passed the point of championing the disadvantaged and now is putting individuals before the greater good of the whole.
I would reply that, as far as I can see that is precisely what Jesus always did. When he found himself with a load of hungry disciples, and one women, Martha, was struggling to get the meal together for them, and her sister was selfishly and most improperly sitting with the men, learning, Jesus championed Mary, the improper learner, and let the good of the group go hang. When a woman with a reputation turned up and anointed his feet, a woman touching a man in public, damaging his good name, and that of his whole movement, Jesus let the movement be damaged. When he was touched by an unclean woman, he made no attempt to hide the fact, and, and, and…
I cannot think of one single time when Jesus in fact put the good of the group before the good of the individual. It seems that each time he had a choice, he went for the individual. It is true that these were individuals, they were not ‘movements’. There is however a reason for movements,and why there are gay pride marches, and not straight marches. It is, generally, that those who have power already do not need to protest.
There are of course exceptions, exceptions where whites and men (who look like the majority) protest. They are generally those who feel disadvantaged, those who have lost a power they used to have. Both the white urban poor become BNP, and those who believe women cannot be priests, and that they contaminate male priests just by being ordained, they both protest. I think that generally the difference between them and ‘rights’ voices is this: the voices of feminists, gay and civil rights are asking for inclusion on strictly equal terms. The voices of those who have had and are losing power are asking for others to be excluded. ‘Don’t have blacks as equal members of society, don’t have women in this or that position of power.’ They are not asking ‘Allow me to be all I can be.’
And that is the thing, isn’t it? Jesus’s overriding concern seems to be that each person should be all they can be; forgiven, healed, learning, acting in love. You might call this ‘the individual’s truth’, their being what they are called to be, and not impeded because they upset others. I cannot imagine any circumstance in which he would ask a person to stand back from office because it would upset others. Instead he asked others to do as he did: to further the individual, and to allow the group to support and care for those who were in any way hurt.
At the same time, I do not think that Jesus’s gospel is very individualistic. He has his ‘twelve’ who are his ‘new Israel’. He is envisaging a new community, living together, holding both truth and possessions as a common good, but not at expense of the individuals within it, rather, through their fulfilment. Group identity should never involve the sacrifice of the individual’s truth.