The Two Covenants (1)

We are not writing today about the Old and New Testaments, but about the two stages of ethnic identification in a Christian's life. Whereas a non-Christian may be born into a given national/ethnic/racial identity, mature and die in that same identity, the situation for a Christian is more complicated. There is a second stage (or covenant) that he or she encounters as a part of one's faith walk. It is not correct to say that stage one is Bad - like the flesh, the sin-nature. In fact, both covenants are essential to coming to maturity in Christ. However, in practice, many Christians get stuck in stage one and never progress to the second covenant. Or they become aware of the second covenant and try to live in both realms simultaneously, mixing together Old Covenant practices with New Covenant beliefs. An example would be professing to love people of all nationalities, but associating only with those of one's own background.

We will describe each covenant in turn, and then explore the role each one is meant to play in the Christian's life.

Stage One -- Affirmation

This stage is the creation covenant. It is Ps 139:14 played out in each life -- "I am fearfully and wonderfully made." Every physical and demographic detail, every variety of skin color and language, every genetic inheritance is included here. "And God saw that it was good". God expressed Himself in the variety of human differences, and this stage not only acknowledges the differences, it expresses and develops them to their full potential. The individual knows himself/herself in one's own particularity, as the member of a specific community and the bearer of a specific cultural heritage.

"When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, when he divided all mankind, he set up boundaries for the peoples..." (Deut 32:8). Thus we see that these characteristics are God-ordained, even God-chosen. He does not just create ex nihilo, He creates a child from two selected sets of genes and places it in a specific cultural environment, set apart from others by boundaries. Every child learns these boundaries from his parents and his peers -- who is "inside", a part of the group, and who is "outside", an alien, a non-member. Of course we participate in numerous groups simultaneously: family, gender, neighborhood, tribe, language, dialect, nation, race, and so forth. Collectively, these attachments form our identity. As we mature, we gain consciousness of each component of our identity, and make choices. Some aspects of ourselves we cannot change -- family, native language, skin color. Other components are changeable -- we can move to a different country, or at least a different neighborhood, we can study a new language, or join a different religious faith -- all of which modify our identity. We are not merely passive heirs of our biological and cultural ancestors, we have the capability to add to or decrease what we have received from our forebears. Not only that, but even in those characteristics that cannot be changed, we have the choice of accentuating or minimizing their importance. My gender, my language, my skin color -- these can all be primary loyalties in my life, or merely minor factors that are outweighed by other commitments.

The development of an individual in the Stage One identity formation inevitably brings him or her into friction or even conflict with others who are working out their own identities. Social groups compete and collide, and individuals within those groups compete for dominance and influence. Much of modern political and social disorder is a record of this conflict of identity loyalties.

What role do Christians play in the social melee? At first glance, the addition of "Christian" to one's list of identity components means little. It is just one more attribute which connects us to some individuals, and divides us from others. But "Christian" is seldom a single trait, inherited or self-chosen, because it brings with it a host of qualifiers or sub-categories: Protestant/Catholic, liberal/evangelical/fundamental, denomination. The addition of religion to the identity mix complicates the social order because of religion's possible potential to draw together identity components that would normally conflict with each other. Under the banner of a particular religious identity you can find a variety of races, genders, languages, economic classes working for a common cause.

This brings us to a consideration of the second stage of Christian self-identity, the New Covenant. (This article is continued in the next post).

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