The apostle Paul says that “enemies of blood and flesh” (Ephesians 6:12) are not our greatest challenge in life. In other words, any struggles with Creation or humanity, as they simply exist in themselves, are not the critical factor of life. Paul identifies our encounters with “rulers,” “authorities,” and “cosmic powers” (sometimes translated as “principalities and powers”) as our most crucial and consequential opponents. In a biblical and traditional view, they are spirits, messengers, or angels of God that give communities life, relate the principles that organize them and give a sense of unity to the various and diverse aspects that make up the elements of our existence. They were designed for good. Today, some of these forces are good, some are neutral, and some are evil.
The problem is that, in a world that strays from its purpose, the things which make life possible can begin to compete with the power and authority of their source, God. When they do this, when they seek to become more important than God, misery, pain and evil are born. The ancient sages taught that this is the source of idolatry, granting honour and service to things that are created instead of offering them to the Creator.
To help clarify these forces for modern readers, theologian William Stringfellow described them as ideologies, institutions and images. With some caution, I would like to add another “I”: identity. Like the others, identity is a spirit that clearly serves an essential service. Identity gives a sense of belonging and purpose in a community of others. It can build esteem and ignite compassion. It is so important, so much a part of who we are, that it often operates unnoticed. At its best, it can motivate the sacrificial love that Scripture and our experience affirm is the heart of both Creator and creation. At its worst—when it becomes an idol—it is the source of endless division, mayhem, and, so very often, death.
When identity is an idol it despises and demeans the other. Communal identity, if not held in its proper balance with our duty to God, enables the oppression of others. As identity spreads through the various aspects of a shared culture, it creates the systems that exclude, control, and subjugate others. This is at the heart of what is called racism and is one of the greatest factors in the motivation of colonialism.
The life, death and resurrection of Jesus shape identity towards its initial purpose in Creation and its ultimate goal in the World to Come. Further, the Holy Spirit infuses identity with the sacrificial love which is the creative force that gives birth to life. In Christ, identity, as it comes forth in the various diversities of our life—family, community, nation, for example—becomes a source of unity for humanity and creation. Our identity is neither despised nor obliterated in the life of Jesus. Instead, it is raised with him to a state of communion and healing. At a time when it has become so clear that one identity has been idolized to the devastation of others, may God grant the Church the grace to become the example of institutional authority it was meant to be.