I have lived in Indianapolis for almost eight years. Over the years, I have come to this conclusion – our city needs the grace of Jesus Christ more than it needs anything else. Let me explain the reasons I have for making this bold statement. Identity-Markers and Identity-Centers
Everyone has what are called “Identity-Markers”. Identity markers are those things that “mark” one’s identity. Identity markers include one’s race, gender, age, lifestyle, economic status, family/tribe/nation as well as one’s style of clothing or music. These identity-markers are both ours by birth and choice. What I am calling an “Identity-Center” is different from an identity-marker in this way. An “Identity-Center” is an identity-marker that has become the center of one’s identity; it is how a person ultimately defines himself or herself by; it is the lens through which a person views the world. It is easy to see how a good thing (an identity marker) can become an ultimate thing (an identity center). Common sense tells you that when an identity-marker becomes an identity-center it unleashes an unhealthy, destructive dynamic because one person’s identity-center may clash with another person’s.
Christianity explains they inner, spiritual dynamic of how this happens. Christianity teaches that sin is centering your life on anything else but God. When we make identity-markers into an identity-centers we have created an idol, a false God. Our allegiance to our “identity-center” (idol) puts us into conflict with the identity-centers of others. This is the seed-bed of the violence and divisions among people. And, because we are separated from God, who alone is life, we experience the disintegration and decay of our physical life and world.
What Indianapolis Needs Most
There are three areas of great need and brokenness in Indianapolis. First, many people have commented on the harsh, condemning, critical, judgmental “religious spirit” in Indianapolis. In my ministry in Indianapolis, it is common for me to run into people who have been “de-churched” – they have walked away from the church because of this “religious spirit”. Second, Indianapolis has a history of racism. From being a hub for the KKK to segregation in our public schools to what is commonly called “white flight” from the urban core, Indianapolis has a sad history of racism. Third, there is the physical brokenness and shame of the City. When we were preparing to move from Seattle to Indianapolis, many people asked us “why would you leave Seattle for Indianapolis.” They were referring not only to the lack of mountains and oceans in Indy, but also, I believe, to the fact that Indianapolis is much more physically run down as a city. When we moved here we noticed the broken down and boarded up buildings and the empty homes (very different from in Seattle where they were tearing down single family homes to make rooms for multiple-story condos).
My contention is that the Christian church has the only real answer to the great needs of Indianapolis. That answer is the grace of Jesus Christ that deconstructs our identity-centers and constructs a whole new identity and community.
The deconstructing grace of Jesus Christ
In Mark chapter seven, Jesus deconstructs three “identity-centers” and lays the foundation for the construction of a whole new identity and community based on his Grace.
First, Jesus deconstructs the Pharisee’s religious identity-center. The Pharisees were Jewish religious leaders who were passionate about spiritual purity. They sought to guard people from uncleanness by transgressing the Holy Law of God. They did so by observing a multitude of rules that served as “fences” around the law of God. The Pharisees had made their pious, religious observance their identity-center. In Mark seven, Jesus deconstructs the Pharisees identity-center in two ways. First, he teaches that their observance of the rules and traditions of men amounted to their nullifying the Law of God. Second, he points out that their “outside-in” approach to purity did not change the heart, the true seat and origin of all sin, uncleanness and impurity.
Second, Jesus deconstructs the racial identity-center of a Gentile woman. Mark makes a point to point out that this woman is a Gentile; Jesus, we are told, is in the vicinity of Tyre (a Gentile dominated city); a woman comes to him who is a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenecia. For the Jew in Christ’s day, the human race was divided into two parts: The Jews and the Gentiles. And even though God’s election of Abraham, and, through Abraham, the nation of Israel was based on Grace (God chose them because they were the least and weakest of all the people’s on earth and to be his light of salvation to the world), their “identity-marker” had become for them, far to often, an “identity-center” that led them to view Gentiles as unclean.
In light of this, Christ’s response to this woman appears harsh. “’First, let the children eat all they want,’ he told her, ‘for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.’”
One commentator puts Jesus’ response to the Gentile Woman this way: “The whole tone of the sentence is negative to the point of offensiveness, and suggests that Jesus has no intention of helping the woman. The use of kunaria [“dogs”] seems to add gratuitously to the offense, since dogs were regarded by the Jews, and probably equally by their semitic neighbors, as unclean animals. Biblical references to dogs…are always hostile… To refer to a human being as a ‘dog’ is deliberately offensive or dismissive…It is the sort of shocking language a Gentile might expect from a Jew, but to find it in a saying of Jesus is shocking.” R.T. France, The Gospel of Mark
As you look more carefully, however, you see that Jesus is not slamming this woman’s racial identity but probing into her racial identity-center. You see, she has come to Jesus desperately begging him to cast a demon from her daughter. Now, it is good and natural for parents to care deeply and profoundly about their own family. But, is there not potential to value and prioritize our family and their needs over other families and their needs? Is this not the “seed” from which racism grows? What is inherently different from prioritizing your family and their needs over a tribe/nation valuing and prioritizing themselves and their needs over another tribe/nation and their needs?
Jesus presses this Gentile Woman because he wants to see if her “identity-center” will remain her daughter (family) or if she will open herself up to the Grace of God. Jesus short, seemingly harsh response, unfolds God’s gracious plan of salvation: God has chosen a people (Israel, his “children”) to be the special bearers of his salvation for all mankind; through Israel would come a special person, the Messiah, who would first come to bring salvation (bread) first to God’s chosen people (Israel) and then for all people (the Gentiles).
What is amazing is this woman’s response to Jesus’ pressing! Rather than assert her daughter’s great need or her “rights” to access to Jesus power, she accepts, by faith, Jesus grace mission to the world and asks him to extend his grace to her and her daughter: “’Yes, Lord’, she replied, ‘but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’” In Matthew’s account, Jesus magnifies her faith: “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted” (Matthew 15:28).
In the third story in Mark seven, we see Jesus deconstructing our physical identity-center. A crowd brings to Jesus a deaf man who can hardly talk. Now, it is easy to imagine how a physical disability like this man has experienced could become the identity-center of his being. How easy would it be for his condition to define him and his family? In his grace, Jesus took him aside, put his fingers into the man’s ear, spit on the man’s tongue, and looks up to heaven and with a deep sigh says “ephphatha” (which means “be opened”). After he heals the man, he commands the crowd not to tell anyone. In what way in this story do we see Jesus deconstruct this man’s (and our) physical-identity center? By taking him away from the crowd, by not performing his physical healing in front of the crowd, and by asking for the people to keep this miracle of healing a secret, Jesus is saying that there is something bigger going on here. Jesus does not want this isolated physical healing to distract or deflect him from his bigger mission. His mission is more ultimate than just healing people of their physical disabilities. It is bigger than even the healing of a deaf and mute man. Jesus’ grace mission is the restoration of the whole physical cosmos. In Isaiah 35: 1-7, we get of glimpse of this greater mission.
1 The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, 2 it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the LORD, the splendor of our God. 3 Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; 4 say to those with fearful hearts, "Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you." 5 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. 6 Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. 7 The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.
How would the Grace of Jesus heal Indianapolis?
My contention is that Indianapolis needs the deconstructing grace of Jesus Christ more than anything else. Let me take a moment to spell out a few ways that the deconstructing grace of Jesus would change Indianapolis.
First, if many people and churches were converted from their “religious identity-center” and accepted the verdict of God’s word that their hearts were unclean, and if they also accepted the radical purifying work of God’s grace through Jesus Christ – dying in their place and giving them his purity – there would be far fewer harsh, critical, condemning, nasty “religious people” and “religious churches.” Rather, Indianapolis would be full of Christians who were humble (because they are aware of how great their sin was and what it cost God to purify their hearts) and joyful (because they know God’s love for them is forever and based, not on what they do, but on what Jesus did for them). A city full of humble and joyful people and churches is a good thing. Furthermore, these people and churches would be set free from their religious “identity-centers” and able to enter into grace-filled relationships with their non-Christian neighbors, friends, and associates.
Second, if many people and churches were converted from their “racial identity-center” and accepted the grace of God that has come to them through a particular people (Israel) and person (Jesus Christ), then both racial inferiority and superiority as well as racial exclusivity would be melted away. Our shared identity in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, our unity in his blood and body, would give us the courage needed to begin to repent of our racism, our racial superiority and inferiority. It would give us the courage needed to not only look after our own families, tribes, and people, but also to look out and care for the needs of other families, tribes, and people. As Tim Keller says, “Christianity has within itself remarkable power to explain and expunge the divisive tendencies within the human heart” (The Reason for God, 18). What would happen if the Christian churches in our great city became known for the front-lines of repentance for Indianapolis’ dark history of racism? What would happen if the Christian churches in our great city began to show how Christ’s blood trumps our natural blood-lines and brings us together in a spiritual family across race and denominational identities? What if the Christian churches came together to care for and fight for good for – not only our own children! – but all the children of our city?
Third, if many people and churches were converted from their “physical-identity center” and accepted their role in the mission of Jesus (to someday restore the entire cosmos by his healing grace), then there would be a host of people who were now longer fixated on or defined by their physical disabilities or defects or flaws. Instead, they would be joyously participating in the physical healing of people and neighborhoods and entire systems in our great city. They would see that their desire for “healing” is not a bad thing, but that it must not be made ultimate. They would see that their healing will someday come, when Jesus returns and restores all things under his reign as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Until then, they would be satisfied simply to be the healing hands and spit of Jesus Christ in a city so physically broken and boarded up. And they would work and wait with the ultimate hope that they too will experience physical healing when their King returns.