What happens to your identity if you bear the name of Christian? Do you lose your identity? In Colossians, Saint Paul says that, in the renewal of the “new self,” “there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free, but Christ is all and in all” (3. 11).
I have given thought to this matter over the years, coming to the conclusion that, well, you lose your identity as a believer in the Lord. The loss of identity is part and parcel of the start of the “new self” Paul mentions in Colossians. Our identifying markers have gone the way of the wind. How can one love the neighbor if one still holds onto identity? “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2. 20).
Now, I am not so sure this is what Paul is saying. This is true, but also partially true. Let’s think about this as if we were living in the first century Roman Empire.
In many regions of the Near East and Eastern Mediterranean, clothes function as social markers, but also tell a story. Clothes are an indication of social status as well as location. For example, just by being able to read the design on a traditional headscarf (i.e., hijab), one could know from which village someone comes.
Slaves wore or did not wear certain clothes; for example, they were often deprived of shoes. The higher social classes dressed better, of course. Does this now mean that if a slave became a disciple they would then have new clothes?
Likely not. Their identity remains the same, this is who they are socially in the Roman Empire. Someone from the Galatia region of Asia Minor does not change their clothing, which may be specific to the region in which they live, to look like the clothes, say, from Galilee or Antioch. Why should they?
So I think Paul is saying that your identity remains the same. What changes is the power one identity has over another person or tribe — it no longer has this power! The Gentile believer who eats with the Jewish believer forgoes the power of their identity over the other, since they are both seated at a table that is not theirs, i.e., at the Lord’s table.
So in loving the needy neighbor, there is then no need or place for you to assert your identity. Jesus told a parable about a Good Samaritan (Luke 10. 29 – 37). As the hearers, we need to know his identity as a Samaritan, as this is part of the tension of the parable. But in his service to his fellow suffering human within the parable, the Samaritan’s identity doesn’t matter.
In the next post, we will see how this mechanism functions in Paul’s Letter to Philemon.