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Being Human: The Politics of Identity


Lightyear is a social researcher based in East Asia, who has worked for over two decades with governments, academic institutions, and churches to challenge inequalities, exclusions, and discrimination.

Mission Round Table 18:2 (Jul-Sep 2023): 25-34

To read articles in this edition, visit this post on Mission Round Table 18:2.


The current political crisis in Myanmar has once again thrust identity politics under the spotlight, highlighting the toxic legacy of “divide and rule” policies that sought to create distinct categories of person based on ethno-linguistic characteristics. Christian mission is deeply implicated in many of the systems of ethnic identity construction, and larger Christianized groups exercise a mutual leverage of Christianity and ethnicity to validate political claims. However, a younger generation of revolutionaries, recognizing how these modes of handling difference have contributed to oppression and division, are instead appealing for different “ways of being” that include, but are not defined by, externally given models of ethnicity. This is deeply resonant with both post-exilic prophecy and Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:28, whereby ethnic, gender, and social differences are both recognized and embraced, and yet not considered the basis for generating different categories of human being.

This paper seeks to highlight the importance of awareness of how identities are politically constructed and the dangers of naïve reinforcement of modes of practice that seek to use those differences to make particular categories of human being, often resulting in inequalities and marginalization. The biblical premise of all being created in the image of God means that all are human, in a single category; and that all other differences are, with respect to our relationship with God, simply descriptive. Instead of a “disabled person” where the “difference” of disability is used to generate a particular category of person, the term “person with disabilities” renders the difference descriptive, retaining the primacy of equal personhood in terms of category.

Missiologically, this does not mean a rejection of ethnicity or, indeed, other differences, but rather, considers how we can handle difference differently so that we are not complicit in supporting modes of identity that reinforce exclusion or inequalities, or that suppose which particular expressions of a person’s identity are more “valid” and “authentic”. This can lead us to speak less of “Kachin people” or “Bamar people” or “Buddhist people” and instead to speak of “people”, whose identity may well be made up of multiple differences based on class, gender, beliefs, and background; ethnicity is celebrated, but not used as the defining trait of a person.

Dangerous people: The politicization of identity

In my office, a young research assistant works steadily on her latest research paper. She is a woman aged thirty, from an ethnic minority background that is itself a smaller sub-group of a larger ethnic minority; she is a Christian; she is a wheelchair user. Her journey of the past decade has been one of a crucial realization: that her identity is not determined by her disability, or her gender, or her ethnicity, or even by her vocation. It is determined by her relationship with God, in Christ. However, her daily struggle remains, as those around her continue to impose a particular identity—whether government-issued ID cards categorizing people based on ethnicity and religion; whether being discriminated against in job applications due to her disability (or at times, the opposite—used as a token means to display diversity in the workplace); or the long, hard struggle in a highly patriarchal branch of “Baptist-ness” where women, especially ones with an education, are not permitted to speak. Her daily struggle requires determined navigation of the intersecting, imposed identity categories that others have framed for her, and use to shape their perceptions of her, and how they relate to her.

Arguably, the issue of identity has grown to be the dominant discourse of the past fifty years, fuelled by three phenomena: the sprawling and complex legacy of empires and post-empire independence movements; the growth of consumer culture driving the need for ever-diversified markets; and technological advances transforming health choices and outcomes, communication, and carbon-silicon interfaces. Antweiler points out that “Whereas the term ‘identity’ was already popular in the early 20th century, ‘ethnicity’ and ‘ethnic identity’ have only become buzzwords since the 1960s,” with the increasing trend towards framing claims to economic or political participation around “culture or tradition rather than by invoking [social determinants such as] poverty or basic needs.”[1] Whilst the approaches and strategies to classification and categorization have, to some degree, moved away from more “explicit allusion to corporeal features, the dominant perspectives on human collectives remain categorical and essentialistic.”[2] Identity is, to some extent, experienced “via collective identity,” and such identities are often the “principal means by which to fight for rights, resources and/or recognition.”[3]

Identity is typically defined individually in relation to particular characteristics, socially in relation to  social categories such as class, and collectively in relation to membership of groups.[4] However, whilst much recent scholarship focuses on relatively mobile identities in industrial and post-industrial societies, this analysis to some extent obscures the extent to which these identities are in many cases not voluntary, and frequently collapsed. Thus, whilst van Stekelenburg rightly points out that not all collective identities are politicized in the sense of being used to frame claims to rights or grievances, this again obscures the ways in which some collective identities politicize the identities of others in order to make their own claims (for example, the forms of othering that politicize the category of “migrants”). In this sense, whilst identity, and particularly collective identity, is a crucial element of protest, for the most part, people’s lived experience of identity is given. I would argue that, to a large extent, self-determination with respect to identity is an issue largely correlated to wealth—whilst identity is significant for people regardless of their economic status, and in fact, often has a profound influence on that economic status, identity as an issue, involving (or holding out the possibility of) some form of contestation or choice, is the privilege of the few.

Thus, whilst Klandermans asserts that “collective identity becomes politically relevant when people who share a specific identity take part in political action on behalf of that collective,”[5] the reality for most is that of an imposed othering: their political identity, both individually and collectively, is often pre-determined by others—an imposed reality, serving to delineate a particular set of expected behaviours and limitations, rather than as an issue that one would have much say in. State or other elites, acting as “political and identity entrepreneurs use their power, resources, and creativity to pull a collectivity together and to turn grievances into claims.”[6] This may resemble larger, ethno-nationalist movements: “ethicized versions of collective identity are appropriated in postcolonial contexts, especially by leaders of ethno-nationalist governments and representatives of indigenous minorities.”[7]

What is perhaps neglected in the literature is the ways in which collective identity building by one group also seeks, explicitly or implicitly, to define the identity of “others” who are different from that group. The building of a particular collective identity requires the sharpening of distinctives—this is us, and we are not like them. Where this can be spoken of as politicized is when differences are highlighted as a means to establish and maintain particular patterns of relationship, privilege, and power within a society. Thus, to refer to “politicization” does not refer exclusively to higher, state-level actions. The use of difference to establish and maintain patterns of relationship, power, and privilege occurs on multiple scales: family, village, church, office, city, and nation.

With respect to identity, we can say that identity is politicized when certain differences are highlighted and used as instruments to determine and regulate social relationships—particularly around access to resources, opportunities and rights, and expected behaviours. At a simple level, even in some churches, differences are politicized: being young, female, or homosexual, or in some cases, ethnically different, may limit the extent of one’s participation in church life. At a national level, gender, ethnicity, religion, and nationality are common discriminatory differences used to justify particular allocations of resources, rights, and privileges, and to frame expectations of behaviour. Pointing this out does not infer that the politicization of difference is inherently good or bad—simply that it happens, and happens much more than we think.

This is important, because sometimes our unquestioning acceptance of certain identities may simply reinforce their power to categorize and constrain, which in turn contributes to the ongoing oppression of those who have little power in society. If I accept common tropes around, say, gender, sexuality, or disability, by using words that reinforce existing social hierarchies, I contribute to the maintenance of those hierarchies and their violence towards the dignity and agency of those who have been placed in those categories. This overlaps with identity, wherein particular differences are codified to more discrete categories—thus, a person may be missing a leg, but that does not immediately make them a “disabled person”. However, social regulatory systems (particularly government assistance schemes intended to help, but also some social or religious systems intended to discriminate) require that the deformity be used to generate a particular category of difference—so, they are now a disabled person, which tends to be the dominant frame through which others perceive and relate to them. The issue is not the existence of difference, but the way in which difference is handled as matter of public discourse and practice. Which differences “matter”, and how are certain differences used to assign status, power, and privilege in society? And what happens, as in the case of Myanmar, when certain differences are used to  justify violent exclusion, oppression, and even genocide?

Toxic legacies in Myanmar

Myanmar is currently in political turmoil, as the coup d’état of February 2021 has ripped apart the last fragile threads of national cohesion. At the heart of the crisis is a wholesale public rejection not only of militarism, but of the notion that disparate groups can be held together only by force. However, the ongoing, violent repudiation of the military’s claims to be the singular force of national unity has led to deeper questioning of the foundations of the disparate nature of Myanmar—specifically, the basis of the historical claims of different ethnic groups in Myanmar to political, economic, and cultural autonomy from the Burmese State. Given that, for decades, citizenship has been based on complex and heavily tilted framings of identity appealing to status as a true “son of the soil,”[8] ethnicity and ethnic difference have long represented a core, but deeply contested, element of identity for people living in, or in relation to, Myanmar.[9]

However, in the current crisis, new voices, particularly from younger generations, are urgently questioning old assumptions about the primacy of ethnicity in identity, appealing instead to forms of belonging that acknowledge, but are not contingent upon, such differences.

Within the Christian community, ethnicity and identity remain problematic. Contra to the establishment of national church structures in Indonesia, and indeed to the ecclesiastical practices of Anglicans or Catholics in Myanmar, the largest denomination in Myanmar, the Baptists, have established their communion on ethno-linguistic lines, with the Myanmar Baptist Convention (MBC) being formed from eighteen language and regional conventions, including Kachin, Karen, Sgaw Karen, Chin, Asho Chin, Tiddmin Chin, Myanmar (Burmese speaking), Mon, Rakhine, Northern Shan, Southern Shan, Eastern Shan, Shweli Shan, Lisu, Lahu, Akha, Wa, and Naga. Whilst the MBC has long been held as a model for promoting an inclusive unity in the face of diversity, the current crisis has also affected this, with an increased emphasis on ethno-nationalist identity preservation and autonomy from the main body. Particularly for ethnic groups engaged in long-standing armed resistance to the Burmese military—mainly Kachin and Karen, but also Chin, Rakhine, Shan and Mon—claims to territorial autonomy and political rights are largely derived from appeals to the relative population size of distinct ethnic groups in relation to particular geographies. Thus, claims by the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), backed by its armed wing, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), are based on being able to claim the support of a sufficient number of people who are identified as Kachin, and who live in, or in relation to, territories claimed by the KIA (mainly Kachin State). The point here is that it is in the interests of ethno-nationalist leaders to maintain distinct, legible categories of subjects. The question is: how can that legibility[10] be maintained?

Even prior to the advent of colonialism, Myanmar’s history had been profoundly influenced by its ethnic heterogeneity.[11] Colonial era concepts of pluralism reflected the Empire’s paternalistic concerns for the “welfare of the natives” alongside more pragmatic tools to govern.[12] Myanmar has a long legacy of racial tensions, most dating back centuries. However, they were amplified in the colonial era by three factors: the need to develop categories of people to determine modes of citizenship; the need to establish multiple categories to maintain division (and therefore ease of rule); and the influence of Darwinist anthropology on social arrangements, where there existed a need to measure degrees of civilization.

To some extent, successive military authorities have assisted in the process of maintaining legibility of identity groups through the persistent, if inconsistent,[13] mandatory recording of ethnicity on the national identity card. This process does, however, mean that the terms of identity are largely controlled by the State—thus, the ID card system also records religion, typically designated by the same immigration officer based either on the recorded religion of parents, or in most cases, the presumed religion of that ethnic group. As a result, most who are identified as Burmese, Shan, Rakhine, Mon, or Pa-O will automatically be recorded as Buddhist; Kachin, Chin, and some Karen would be assigned Christian status. This can lead to some unusual identity constructions, such as an ethnic Burmese Roman Catholic Priest who, despite having his vocation clearly stated on his ID card, was nonetheless assigned to be a Buddhist. The classification system is, however, less able to cope with Hindu or Muslim adherents—many Hindus are simply recorded as “Hindu” in both the ethnicity and religion columns, as are many Muslims with specific, differentiated ethnic heritage, such as Karen or Kaman, who are nonetheless simply recorded as “Muslim”.

The process of recording in this way serves to tightly interweave religion and ethnicity, largely reflecting the philosophy of J. S. Furnivall, whose principles of a “plural society” envisioned distinct communities who lived separately, but met in the marketplace. This essentially defined “sum of parts” plurality, described as

in the strictest sense a medley, for they [ethnic groups] mix but do not combine. Each group holds by its own religion, its own culture and language, its own ideas and ways. As individuals they meet, but only in the market-place [..] different sections of the community living side by side, but separately, within the same political unit. Even in the economic sphere there is division of labour along racial lines, Natives, Chinese, Indians and Europeans all have different functions, and within each major group subsections have particular occupations.[14]

Each group followed its own distinct customs in its own social space, but interacted for commercial purposes. Furnival’s philosophy, reflecting the primarily economic concerns of colonial-era authorities, required three things: a legible, credible system of classification; stable, self-contained ethnic communities largely accepting of wider constraints on self-expression; and a powerful, disinterested ruling elite to sit above the “mosaic”.

These requirements themselves provide the seeds of self-destruction. The collapsing of ethnic and religious categories, together with the use of categories for administrative control, has resulted in inequalities and discrimination—perhaps most notably for Muslims. Furthermore, the fixing of categories erased or negated “minorities within minorities,” or differentiated expressions of identity within a particular category (for example, those of a religion different from the majority of those within their ethnic group). Secondly, where such inequalities were seen in the light of constraints on social mobility and legitimate self-expression (for example, prohibitions on Christian and Muslim communities building religious buildings, in comparison to Buddhist communities), the dominance of the ruling elite was questioned—often in violent ways. Finally, the powerful elite became less disinterested and more overtly aligned with particular ethno-religious expressions—mainly Burmese Buddhism—perhaps exemplified by U Nu’s attempts to make Buddhism the national religion, and more recently, the support of Buddhist nationalist movements by President U Thein Sein in 2012–2016, and more overtly by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing from 2021 onwards.

In this context, ethnic and religious identity have been weaponized as tools for maintaining division, and hence result in internal weakness and control by the ruling elite. Many of the reasons given for the current coup d’état pivot around a pushback at the perceived secularism of the NLD party, to the extent that the new leader of the military proxy party (USDP), U Khin Yi, announced on Facebook that “We had to do the coup to save our race and religion. If not for us, none of you would even have Buddha shelves in your house any more.”[15]

What has ensued is a struggle that, at one level, pits a central military junta against a disparate collection of newly emergent resistance fighters and more established militia formed around ethnic identities. However, within this, the claims of both the military, to be the guardians of Buddhism, and by Ethnic Armed/Revolutionary Organizations, to territorial and political rights based on ethnic identity, represent crucial organizing principles for opponents. What this means is that such identity categories are critical weapons to establish and maintain group solidarity on both sides, further reinforcing identity categories as the key shape of social fabric. Once again, this returns to issues of power—not only do we need to be alert to who, exactly, prospers from the maintenance of certain identity categorization systems, but how powerful groups continue to manipulate those systems for their own ends.

This crosses over with Christian mission at several points: firstly, that it runs counter to the dominant theological course of the Old and New Testament, which critically relativizes politically constructed identities in the face of God’s redemptive work; secondly, where Christianity is itself used (and abused) in the service of maintaining particular ethnic identities for political ends; thirdly, where rigid enforcement of assumed religious identities on the basis of ethnicity constrains evangelism, both in terms of preventing converts from being officially recorded as different, and also by legitimizing coercive pressure to maintain a particular performance of ethnicity that entails religious elements (i.e., if you are Pa-O, you are Buddhist; so your entire behaviour needs to be consistent with that identity, or you are not Pa-O. And we need you to be Pa-O, because we need to show that we are a unified, populous community.)

When Christian mission also bases its own strategic approach on distinct ethnolinguistic identities—such as mono-ethnic churches or, like the MBC, ethno-linguistic sub-groupings that supersede geographical locations—to what extent do we reinforce boundaries and systems that are being used by others for political purposes?

Christian mission and ethno-nationalism

Whilst identity politics has played a particularly animated role in twenty-first century social discourse, the issue of identity trouble is not new. At heart are systems of identity construction and labelling that create particular categories of human beings, which are in turn embedded in social systems that confer differing degrees of importance, power, and “human-ness”. Such systems of identity construction include gender, race, sexuality, and class, and have in common the practice of using biological, behavioural, or generational markers to assign categories. Scholars working in Asia and Africa have shown how mission is implicated in the production of ethnolinguistic identities.[16] This is often associated with deeply committed, long-term projects to document language and culture, in some cases generating written forms, alongside the work of proselytization, which itself is frequently accompanied by sensitive, insightful, and reflective processes of cultural adaptation of religious practices in the light of the Christian gospel.

There is little evidence that many mission workers themselves worked with a significant degree of political consciousness[17] in regard to the impact of the production of such identities, but in many cases, particularly in contexts where mission endeavour entered alongside colonial expansion, mission work contributed to wider efforts to identify, categorize, and manage sub-populations. Buadaeng notes how, in relation to the Karen, whilst people considered “different” existed side by side for centuries, “the word ‘Karen’ was never used by the groups that constitute the category Karen today until the Christian missionaries and British colonial officers gave the term respectability.”[18] As the consciousness of the sense of a wider identity grew, this in turn led to calls for a wider expression as “more than a national minority … a nation, with all the essential qualities of a nation.”[19] This has been appropriated into the nationalist, at times secessionist, Karen movement.

This perhaps reaches the heart of the paradox—the power of the gospel, in relativizing, displacing, and replacing more localized beliefs and customs, has served to break down divisions and enmities between peoples, often leading to new affinity bonds that, in time, generate larger and more politically relevant categories. This does, in a way which can be traced with positive and negative trajectories, intertwine Christianity with the new collective identity, as Sakhong describes eloquently in relation to the Chin people of Western Myanmar:

Within the process of transition in beliefs from micro-level to macrolevel … people’s identification with each other was shifting as well from clan and tribal identities to a wider level or macro-level of Chin national identity or Chin-ness, … In this way, Christianity provided the means of overcoming clan and tribal identities, and at the same time helped to create a new society where people identified each other as brothers and sisters in one faith, or members of the community of faith … this community of faith was identical with “Chin-ness” or a Chin national identity. Thus, Christianity and Chin-ness were inseparably intertwined in a new Chin society.[20]

This inseparability is critical in the framing of “otherness” by co-existent groups, and Sakhong’s excellent analysis highlights this:

The reason [for the intertwining] is, in my opinion, that Chinram was surrounded by peoples of other faiths – Burman Buddhists in the east, Bengali Muslims in the south, and Indian Hindus in the west – different races and different religions. As a result, the Chin had no immediate link or direct connection with peoples of their own new faith, other than of their own nationality, with whom they could identify as brothers and sisters.[21]

The political framing of identity plays a significant role in how different collective identities are stacked, or played off, against each other. The identity of the “others” who represent the greatest threat tends to influence which particular differences are mobilized in the service of a counter-identity. Thus, wider national policies play a part, and the existence of a wider Chin consciousness, enabled through the unifying power of the Christian religion, was critical in shaping Chin collective identity within the newly formed State of Burma:

When U Nu became the leader of Burma and the country moved to establish Buddhism as the state religion, Chin self-awareness and a common identity became the phenomena which then intertwined inseparably with Christianity. This Chin “political identification with Christianity” was … important for the Chin … when they joined the Union of Burma in which they faced a new environment of multi-racial and multi-religious pluralism.[22]

However, Christian mission endeavours were not always directed towards the creation of singular collective identities. Connolly describes the approach of the Christian Missionary Alliance amongst the Dayak in Indonesia, where there was a deliberate decision not to limit their mission field “to a single linguistically defined Dayak sub-ethnic group” but instead to “propagate a national, multi-ethnic Indonesian church.”[23] This enabled the development of a “pan-Dayak” identity that affirmed and included different, distinct sub-groups. As a result, “even as their Christian identity has made it easier for Dayaks to see their commonalities and unite on the basis of a pan-Dayak ethnic identity, this same Christian identity has also helped to create ties with other Christian groups.”[24]

As with Karen and Chin in Burma (Myanmar), a significant influence on the creation and maintenance of collective identities linked to Christianity was the need to differentiate themselves from others—in this case Muslims—but unlike the Chin described by Sakhong, the pan-Dayak identity enabled adherents to become part of “a larger Christian community.” In the case of several of Myanmar’s larger ethnic groups, Christianity continues to play a key role in maintaining a collective identity, which is itself leveraged to legitimize territorial and political claims. The maintenance of a coherent, validated performance of identity amongst a significantly large population remains crucial to these claims.[25] However, this leads to another critical issue regarding collective identities: Who determines what constitutes a valid expression of that identity? How are particular identities—especially ethnic ones—constructed, and on what terms? What criteria are used to differentiate people, and to validate a particular identity? Crucially, who is it that determines, defines, and maintains those criteria? To put it succinctly, who are the “guardians” of authenticity?

Guardians of authenticity: Learning from Butler

Orthodoxy is not a given, but is a particular, discursively constructed power relationship.[26]

Whilst not without controversy, the work of Judith Butler has informed recent debates on identity by drawing attention to its performative construction.[27] One of the problems emerging from the generation of categories of person based on particular markers is that of validation. Again, gender is a more obvious choice—we say that this child is a boy or a girl, and, based on that, there are a set of cultural norms and expectations of how that child will dress, behave, speak, and think. Butler speaks of performativity in the sense that gender becomes inscribed on the body by means of the repetition of “validated scripts”—particular behaviours that are considered by wider society to be consistent with whatever identity is being represented. This means there are ways to be a woman (or not), and these are known, and so when one performs/acts consistently with those scripts, the performance is validated, which in turn reinforces the link between the behaviour and the body. In this sense, a person acts out in a way that draws approval from those around, and approval reinforces the validity of that performance.

This is found also in relation to ethnicity (itself a deeply complex and contested notion)—there are particular scripts associated with particular ethnic designations. If you are born into this particular group, society, or clan, there are myriad “scripts” that provide the template for behaviours and identities that are validated. Whilst this is often referred to as culture, and often either reified or at best treated as neutral, the contribution of theories of performativity has been to interrogate those scripts, and in particular, to ask who is responsible for their generation and maintenance, and to what purpose? From the gender perspective, this fairly quickly pointed to issues of patriarchy. But rather than simply expose the extent to which men maintain control over the scripts of social norms, performativity explores how this takes place, and points to possible means of evasion, manipulation, or transformation of validated scripts. Such scripts refer not simply to documented rules and norms, but to the entire range of conscious and subconscious information that is used to justify or reject certain acts, symbols, and practices as legitimate or not with respect to a particular identity. This often exists as what sociologist Pierre Bourdieau called doxa, which refers to

a set of unquestioned beliefs by which aspects of the world and its constituents (people, things, one’s own social situation and practices) are grasped as “natural”, taken for granted.[28]

Thus, what it means to be Singaporean, or English, or Muslim, is itself derived from a set of ideas and beliefs that tend to exist in relatively unchallenged, subconscious collective spheres—there is rarely a published, agreed definition, but somehow, we all know it when we see it.

However, what is less acknowledged is the extent to which the scripts of doxa are deliberately and carefully curated—as Østebø notes above, orthodoxy is discursively constructed. Thus, in different countries and contexts, what it means to be a citizen of that country, or to be a man or woman in that country, is constructed within a discourse. Think of people speaking of “British values” or “American values”, almost always in relation to “others” (usually immigrants) whose performance is considered threateningly different. But what is important is to trace the source of the discourse: Who, exactly, is speaking of what “British values” are, and from where do they derive the authority to speak? Who are the cheerleaders? What are the symbols and scripts used (such as reference to historical events, or, in many cases, religion)? Butler’s point on performativity is that the game is already tilted—there are performances that are recognized and validated, and ones that are not. Crucially, however, these are not fixed—they continue to evolve and change as public discourse changes. But public opinion is not an emergent phenomenon—things happen, things are said, in particular ways, by particular people, which change the doxa, the scripts.

Again, we ask: What is the relevance to Christian mission? There are at least three points. Firstly, the need for alertness to the ways in which we ourselves subtly adopt and promote particular doxa that are themselves counter to gospel identity. For example, reference to “Asian values” or “Western values” needs to acknowledge how these doxa are themselves rooted in particular discourses of power, largely to gain strategic advantages by framing the “other” as inferior.

Secondly, we acknowledge that Christian mission has itself played a significant, often explicit, role in shaping the discourse around ethnic identity. Thinking of the examples cited earlier of Chin and Karen identity, the creation of these collective identities involved a complex and ongoing process of validation, particularly where Christian symbols and modes of practice replaced those associated with the previous religion. The often-delicate process of transforming or substituting a range of practices and symbols sought to preserve, and also redefine, the essence of being Chin, Karen, or Dayak. In some cases, Christian identity became a key element of the performative script of being Chin or Karen, in turn introducing a mutually dependent relationship between ethnic and religious performative elements. Thus, if to be Chin is to be Christian, the extent of “Chin-ness” is in some way related to an adequate performance of Christianity—with the caveat that those who are not Christian are thus less “Chin” than those who are. Where Christianity is intertwined with collective ethnic identity, Christian “performance” becomes an integral part of ethnic performance, and likewise, ethnic performance becomes an integral part of Christian performance.

Thirdly, whilst Christian mission may not be so explicitly involved in the creation of ethnic identities today, the question remains how our ongoing practices contribute to the reinforcement of particular “validated scripts” of authentic ethnic expression, and whether those scripts are in fact promoting ethno-nationalist identities instead of Christian solidarity. A useful question to ask is: Who benefits from a stronger, collective ethno-linguistic identity? Returning to the Myanmar context for a moment, the creation and maintenance of particular ethnic categories in their current forms—for example, the “pan-Kachin” identity that has subsumed numerous smaller groups, such as Rawang, into a larger collective[29]—is a critical component of claims for territorial and political rights in the area called Kachin State in Myanmar’s northeast. Maintaining a unified larger collective sustains the legitimacy of those claims and, in this particular case, Christian religion is a key component. The key beneficiaries, however, continue to be business elites, for whom territorial claims translate into access to Kachin State’s natural resources.

The first chapters of the Pentateuch describe the act of creation, where male and female humans are created in the image of God—one image, but two forms, both equally human, with no category differentiation. Here, gender difference is both descriptive (how they are, not what they are), and designed to reflect trinitarian models of unity, where three Persons are one God—all are in the category of “God”, but express different “ways of being”. The post-exilic prophets, in particular, foresee the dismantling of particular categories of being shaped around ethnicity. Zechariah’s visions foresee the time when “many nations shall come to God” and will be called his people. This foreshadows the more specific work of the New Testament of the subtle relativizing of human categories of being, culminating in Paul’s programmatic statement of Galatians 3:28. Here, the point is not that maleness, femaleness, or ethnic difference do not exist, but that these differences do not translate into different categories of humans—in Christ, all are “one,” i.e., all are simply children of God.

Paul: Not so radical after all?

Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:28 is, at one point, explosively novel, and at the same time, entirely anticipated by a careful reading of Hebrew Scriptures—particularly the post-exilic prophets. In saying that “in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free,” Paul is not dissolving all human distinctives, or flattening differences in the service of monochromatic uniformity. Rather, he is affirming the work of Christ in destroying the barriers between people, which shatters the politically and economically constructed identities used to codify and control populations.

This is anticipated by numerous post-exilic prophets. From the bold proclamations of Isaiah of full, unfettered and, indeed, feted inclusion of outsiders in the innermost zones of the temple in Isaiah 56, to the slow unveiling of the future promised “new people of God” in Zechariah, where “many nations will be joined to the Lord and will become my people” (Zech 2:11). A cyclical view of the history of God’s people highlights the ongoing tension around identity—the persistence of God in affirming the nature of his people as made in his image, as chosen, and as belonging to him, over and against the claims of clans, cults, and states that tenaciously seek to impose particularized and polarized identities as a means of control.

The God-centric model, given in broad outlines in the opening chapters of Genesis, insists that human identity is derived from our origins in the mind of God—actualized in creation. The process of creation set humans aside as distinct from animals, but, from the outset, classified differences in form (male, female) as descriptive characteristics within a single category (humans), rather than as determinants of specific categories.[30] As scholars note, both male and female forms of humans were required to properly express the image of God as one of complementary diversity, rather than competitive hierarchy.[31]

Abram is called from the land of his ancestors to be a wanderer—he is called away from an urban life to one in which the identities of humans are again shaped by the call of God. But Egypt ensues, and food insecurity leads to land grabs by the Pharaohs; the anxieties of scarcity fuel fears of the “other”; and the descendants of Abraham are categorized by race and enslaved as a sub-class. Their identity is no longer determined by their calling; it is designated by despots, and daily reinforced by forced labour and population control—what today would be classified as structural violence. Freedom, then, by the Exodus, is not simply escape from forced labour, but from having your identity imposed from above, and used against you and those like you by a group of “others” who enjoy the privileges of being classified differently. Thus, as the Hebrews trekked across the dry wasteland, one of the skins to be shed was the deeply ingrained groove of being oppressed, which history showed to be a reliable predictor of becoming an oppressor.[32] The formula “you shall be my people, I shall be your God” smashed all interstitial categories. There were no degrees of being God’s people—God was present to all. Even the details of sacrificial procedures, allowing for more modest animals to be presented with equal intent and approval by poorer people, affirmed the trajectory of God’s people as resisting political categories of being.

The largely tragic history of the monarchy was built on differentiated being and belonging. One explanation of God’s extreme reaction to the census taken by David is the abhorrence of God towards the reduction of humans to units of taxation or conscription. As the splendour of the kings grew, so too did the tax burden; by Solomon’s time, a key cabinet position was taken by Adoniram, who was in charge of forced labour. Here, categories of people were also determined as the basis for freedoms—ethnic minorities were the conscripted labourers, whilst pure-blooded Israelites were the conscripted soldiers.

Post-exile, the tension persists. Much is made of Ezra’s ethnic purity drive, segregating those of mixed heritage from Israelites who had maintained purer bloodlines. But this strikes an odd note against the backdrop of the grander proclamations of Isaiah and Zechariah, where Gentiles are, by virtue of their obedience and faith, offered full membership of the people of God, with no further comments on their non-Jewish heritage.

I would argue that this is also the underlying concern of the latter sections of Revelation, and the call to come out of Babylon, and to resist the mark of the beast. From the start to the finish, we can trace a strand of God’s purpose through the Bible—of God’s insistence on the identity of his people as being defined by him, and him alone; and his resistance to other totalizing claims that impose new categories of being on people, as a means to discriminate and control.

In our world, such totalizing claims are both prolific and nuanced. We would do well to take a few moments to consider how different categories of humans are constructed, for what purpose, and to what ends. The more obvious categories are those called “biological”, such as sex, or ethnicity. The development of gendered categories based on sex (or now, not so much) is perhaps the most consistently historical example of a political category of being. The particular chromosomal, and subsequent anatomical and future functional differences, are used to guide cultural framings of gendered identity: what you should wear, what you should do, your role in society, and whether you have the right to speak, vote, or become a religious leader. Presumed ethnicity is another. Whether accompanied by biological distinctives or not, being born in relation to a particular group within a certain context is used to frame particular characteristics, rights, and relationships—again, what you can and cannot do, how you are expected to think, speak, and behave, and the range of your freedoms. Whilst there is a certain reluctance in some circles to discuss issues of class (for fear perhaps of being labelled as a Marxist), class represents one of the more nuanced ways in which a person inherits membership of a particular category of being. Most dramatically, this refers to slave or free, which many twenty-first century scholars and activists consider a very contemporary issue, with distinctions that are merely extreme poles on a spectrum of enslavement or dominance.

But what does any of this have to do with the work of cross-cultural mission? Firstly, we should be alert to the subtle ways in which different societies and thought regimes continue to construct multiple categories of people based on a range of so-called gender, ethnicity, and class markers, and how these are in turn used to create or maintain systems of control and discrimination, and based on our theological understanding, affirm that this is definitely not what the Maker intended.

Secondly, the need in our speech and practice to consider how we handle difference “differently”, even in terms of the words we use to speak of people. There is a vast gulf between speaking of a “person with disabilities” or a “disabled person”. There are huge relational and communicational differences if we view, speak of, and relate to a person-who-is-a-Muslim, as opposed to a Muslim, or indeed, if we even refer to the religious affiliation of a person for whom it is, in fact, not significant. In the first instance, the object is the person; the descriptive comes next. The semantic pause is critical. It means we first encounter that person as a person, and as a person who has many different things about them that are significant for them in terms of their identity. As soon as we speak of and relate to them as a “disabled person”, or a “Muslim”, we have chosen a particular set of conditions or markers by which to frame their identity in relation to us. Yet, for that person, it may well not be the most important or defining thing. Moreover, by our choosing of the way we categorize them, we express a forceful “othering”—framing them in ways typically based on markers distinct from ourselves. This can often result in a relational approach which is set on our terms, and which treats the person not as a person, but as the category of person that we have determined them to be. This, in many ways, lies at the heart of much subconscious prejudice: the two-stage process of, firstly, making assumptions of a person’s identity based on a particular set of biological or behavioural markers; and secondly, making assumptions of a person’s likely behaviour, values, and character based on that presumed identity.

Doing difference differently

Reconciliation … is achieved by eliminating enmity, not by eliminating difference. People of distinct identities are brought into unity through a reconciliation in which identities and differences are retained and celebrated, but also deprived of their ultimacy as they are sanctified and incorporated into the broader identity of God’s community.[33]

The debates on culture are complex, multi-faceted, and, to some extent, self-repeating and self-fulfilling. The core argument of this paper is not the negation or marginalization of culture or cultural identity. Far from it. The grand vision of Revelation 7 of people from all tribes and nations, and speaking all different languages, is evidence enough that there was something distinct about the people whom John could see and hear that led him to conclude that it was a truly comprehensive and inclusive congregation. Given that all were engaged in the same action (praising the Lamb) and ostensibly dressed the same (white robes), the suggestion is that the evidence of diversity was in something other than their external appearance or performance. Culture, language, and difference are clearly celebrated and treasured—what they do not do, however, is translate into separate, specific categories of people. Whilst John could clearly see that “all were present,” it seems unlikely that this was associated with any particular groupings and gatherings. As with Galatians 3:28, since they were in Christ and before the Lamb, the only thing that matters is belonging.

The argument of this paper is not anti-culture, or opposed to the promotion of ethnic, linguistic, or cultural aspects of identity. What I argue against is the tendency for these characteristics, or markers of difference, to lead to, or maintain, identity constructions that easily lend themselves to making categories of people, and the “othering” that ensues. But the relativization of difference does not mean the elimination of difference. John Barton (quoted above) rightly highlights the dangers of harnessing Christianity to a post-ethnic society (such as was being promulgated in post-genocide Rwanda), where prior identities are simply erased or dismissed as abuses or errors. Reconciliation hinges on the elimination of enmity, not of difference—where “identities are retained, but deprived of their ultimacy.” However, I think Barton understates the need for a rigorous interrogation of how particular identities have been constructed and manipulated by States or elite actors. This need not result in the wholesale rejection of all that was contained in those identities—rather, it focuses on issues of power, particularly where differences were codified in ways that led to categorization of people based on those differences, and differential treatment based on those categories. This, in some sense, leads to the redemption of difference, freeing it from being a tool for control, coercion, or discrimination.

In a way, this brings us back to Galatians 3:28—the point is not that the differences around gender, ethnicity, or class disappear in themselves; it is that they cease to have the power to define that person’s identity, either with respect to God or to others. I believe this is precisely why Paul in Ephesians can give specific instructions to slaves and masters—because, having assumed that class differences no longer define social relations between those “in Christ”, the principle of mutual submission can apply; once that is in place, the over-riding directive shaping slave-master relations is mutuality. They are, in effect, treated as equally relevant, and equally responsible. The slave is not a slave, but a person (in Christ) who works for a particular master. The master is not one who owns the bodies of others, but a person (in Christ) who has a particular responsibility to those who work for him.

Of course, in that situation, as in many contemporary situations, the status in Christ does not immediately overturn the physical realities of the identities imposed and maintained by the State. Even if the believing master chooses to free his slave, to some extent, that slave remains defined by his/her class. A Jewish or Gentile believer may well experience a relativization of ethnic identity difference within the Christian community, but identity categories are reimposed outside the church doors. Or are they?

This points to an inherent tension in Galatians 3:28. To what extent does the prefix “in Christ” limit the relativization of identities either to vertical relations between individuals and God, or to horizontal relations between Christian believers? The thrust of the passage, taken together with programmatic statements in Ephesians 2, points to the principle representing at least a radical re-organization of social relationships between believers. However, if taken as a missiological principle (which I believe it should be), the inference is towards an extension of this relational radicalism beyond the church walls. Surely, and especially if connected with creation principles outlined in the early chapters of Genesis, the movement represents an expanding circle of influence, where the relationship with God impacts the relationships between believers and between believers and others. And as believers performatively express a different way of being and seeing difference, so that in turn impacts prevailing social norms. If we learn to cherish difference, but deny its power to categorize and control, a new way of “doing difference differently” is expressed.

Aside from the imperative of Galatians 3:28 to reject attempts to categorize people based on difference, I would argue for four further considerations in relation to cross-cultural mission, particularly in relation to the issue of performativity, authenticity, and validation.

Firstly, there has been a tendency to unquestioningly accept, and at times naively reinforce, identity framings around ethnicity without considering the issues of power and control. In other words, who exactly is it that determines what being a “true” Kachin is? And why is it important to maintain that particular identity in that particular way? Who benefits from the maintenance of that particular validated script? To what extent does the production, preservation, or maintenance of a particular identity serve the interests of controlling agents, such as the State or local elites?

Secondly, and related to this, is the extent to which Christianity is implicated in and becomes a co-dependent actor in new identities, whereby ethno-linguistic “scripts” are embedded in scripts relating to Christian belief, practice, and norms, and likewise, the expression of Christian “being” is embedded in particular ethno-linguistic scripts, such that being part of a particular ethnic group is synonymous with being Christian, and, vice-versa, that Christianity is a crucial tool in maintaining elements of language and culture. The same is true of other religious and ethnic expressions. And whilst the role of Christian missions in codifying and preserving languages is rightly lauded, interdependent relationships between Christian belief and practice, and ethnic identity have repeatedly implicated Christianity in ethno-nationalist movements and faith-based xenophobia.

Thirdly, where Christian mission/church emphasises the importance of a particular ethno-linguistic performative identity as validated script, there is a potential undermining of a key plank of the gospel itself, which is the radical relativization of such identities. This is perhaps most important in diaspora work—a major concern of diaspora communities remains the preservation of ethno-linguistic identity, evidenced by often exaggerated emphasis on particular clothing, customs, and festivals. Anxious parents and grandparents fret over their children not speaking their “mother tongue” and Christian religion frequently plays a key role in maintaining that identity. But to what extent should a second or third generation Korean American, or Chin Australian, consider Korean, or Fallam, their “mother tongue” and “heart language”? To what extent does diaspora ministry emphasize particular validated scripts of Christian identity over the more fundamental scripts found in the New Testament?

Fourthly, and again related to “validated scripts”—just as with particular ethnic expressions, we need to have a deeper awareness of the powerful discourses which shape this in relation to more obvious “ethnic” culture. There is also a need to be more aware of the extent to which globalization has led to particular expressions of Christian faith and identity that are derived from dominant cultures. What constitutes a “spiritually alive” performance is often closely correlated with particular styles of worship rather than biblically-informed spiritual practice.

Reflection questions

  1. What are your experiences of being “othered” (i.e., been involved in a situation in which somebody related to you based on a particular difference, like your ethnicity or nationality)? How did that feel?
  2. Can you think of times when you have related to other people differently based on assumptions you made about their “type” of person? For example, we often relate to people we perceive to be “Asian” or “Western” in a certain way based on our assumptions about what “Asian” or “Western” people are like. How does this impact our relationships?
  3. How could you “do difference differently” in your context? What subtle changes to the words you use, the way you communicate, or the way you organize meetings, could help prevent treating people based on the assumptions we make about their categories? For example, when I relate to a person with disabilities, instead of making assumptions about what they need or what they cannot do, I need to take time to find out how they can contribute, and how I can partner with them better.


[1] Christoph Antweiler, “Ethnicity from an Anthropological Perspective,” in Ethnicity as a Political Resource: Conceptualizations across Disciplines, Regions, and Periods, ed. University of Cologne Forum »Ethnicity as a Political Resource« (Bielefeld, Germany: Transcript, 2015), 25, (accessed 13 May 2023).

[2] Antweiler, “Ethnicity from an Anthropological Perspective,” 25.

[3] Antweiler, “Ethnicity from an Anthropological Perspective,” 26.

[4] Bernd Simon and Bert Klandermans, “Politicized Collective Identity: A Social Psychological Analysis,” American Psychologist 56, no. 4 (2001): 319; Jacquelien van Stekelenburg, Anouk van Leeuwen, and Dunya van Troost, “Politicized Identity,” in The Wiley‐Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social and Political Movements, ed. Donatella della Porta, Bert Klandermans, Doug McAdam, and David A. Snow (Boston: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013).

[5] P. G. Klandermans, “Identity Politics and Politicized Identities: Identity Processes and the Dynamics of Protest,” Political Psychology 35, no. 1 (February 2014): 2.

[6] Van Stekelenburg, van Leeuwen, and van Troost, “Politicized Identity,” 2.

[7] Antweiler, “Ethnicity from an Anthropological Perspective,” 26.

[8] Nick Cheesman, “How in Myanmar ‘National Races’ Came to Surpass Citizenship and Exclude Rohingya,” Journal of Contemporary Asia 47, no. 3 (2017): 461–83.

[9] The historical background to this is long and complex. Readers are directed to Sarah L. Clarke, Seng Aung Sein Myint, and Zabra Yu Siwa, Re-examining Ethnic Identity in Myanmar (Yangon, Myanmar: Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, 2019), (accessed 15 May 2023); Robert H. Taylor, “Perceptions of Ethnicity in the Politics of Burma,” Southeast Asian Journal of Social Science 10, no. 1 (1982): 7–22; Robert H. Taylor, “British Policy towards Myanmar and the Creation of the ‘Burma Problem,’” in Myanmar: State, Society and Ethnicity, ed. N. Ganesan and Kyaw Yin Hlaing (Singapore: ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute, 2007), 70–95; Ardeth M. Thawnghmung, “The Politics of Indigeneity in Myanmar: Competing Narratives in Rakhine State,” Asian Ethnicity 17, no. 4 (2016): 527–47, (accessed 15 May 2023); Matthew J. Walton, “Ethnicity, Conflict, and History in Burma: The Myths of Panglong, ” Asian Survey 48, no. 6 (2008): 889–910; Matthew J. Walton, “The ‘Wages of Burman-ness:’ Ethnicity and Burman Privilege in Contemporary Myanmar,” Journal of Contemporary Asia 43, no. 1 (2013): 1–27.

[10] Legibility refers to a process of making people visible to state and other authorities in legal terms—for example, through national ID cards or household registers.

[11] Michael W. Charney, A History of Modern Burma (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[12] Hock Guan Lee, “Furnivall’s Plural Society and Leach’s Political Systems of Highland Burma,” Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia 24, no. 1 (April 2009): 32–46, (accessed 16 May 2023).

[13] The actual designation comes down to the recording immigration officer, based on his assessment of parental origins. The practice is at times laughably random—people assigned one ethnicity at birth may progress through several completely different iterations in their lifetime, sometimes simply on the basis of an immigration officer thinking their grandmother’s name “sounds a bit Indian”.

[14] J. S. Furnivall, Colonial Policy and Practice: A Comparative Study of Burma and Netherlands India (New York: New York University Press, 1956), 304–305.

[15] The Irrawaddy, “Leader of Myanmar Military’s Proxy Party Visits Nationalist Monk for Advice,” The Irrawaddy, 28 December 2022, (accessed 15 May 2023).

[16] Jennifer Connolly, “Christian Conversion and Ethnic Identity in East Kalimantan,” in Casting Faiths: Imperialism and the Transformation of Religion in East and Southeast Asia, ed. Thomas David DuBois (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 175.

[17] There are numerous examples of mission workers who more explicitly identified with particular ethno-linguistic movements, or at least sought to align their mission efforts to secure rights, freedoms, and privileges for groups whom they felt to be marginalized or oppressed. However, this tends to remain fairly marginal in mainstream mission discourse at least.

[18] Kwanchewan Buadaeng, “Ethnic Identities of the Karen Peoples in Burma and Thailand,” in Identity Matters: Ethnic and Sectarian Conflict, ed. James L. Peacock, Patricia M. Thornton, and Patrick B. Inman (New York: Berghahn, 2007), 76.

[19] Buadaeng, “Ethnic Identities of the Karen Peoples in Burma and Thailand,” 76.

[20] Lian H. Sakhong, In Search of Chin Identity: A Study in Religion, Politics and Ethnic Identity in Burma (Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, 2003), 244.

[21] Sakhong, In Search of Chin Identity, 244.

[22] Sakhong, In Search of Chin Identity, 225.

[23] Connolly, “Christian Conversion and Ethnic Identity in East Kalimantan,” 176.

[24] Connolly, “Christian Conversion and Ethnic Identity in East Kalimantan,” 176.

[25] Note that the same can be said for Rakhine, Pa-O, Mon, Shan, and, to some extent, Mon—in this case, it is Buddhism that is an inseparably intertwined performative element of ethnic identity, which has led to the promulgation of specific laws on the protection of race and religion (for Burmese Buddhists), and a focus on Buddhist primacy by Mon nationalist cultural associations, for example.

[26] Patrick Desplat and Terje Østebø, eds., Muslim Ethiopia: The Christian Legacy, Identity Politics, and Islamic Reformism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 13.

[27] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, 2nd ed. (New York and London: Routledge, 2011); Judith Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2015).

[28] Konstantinos Vakalopoulos, “Shedding Some (More) Light in Bourdieu’s Habitus and Doxa: A Socio‐Phenomenological Approach,” Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 52, no. 1 (2022): 8, (accessed 15 May 2023).

[29] For the role of Christian mission in creating, or at least encouraging this wider collective identity, see Herman Tegenfeldt, A Century of Growth: The Kachin Baptist Church of Burma (Pasadena: William Carey, 1974); Mandy Sadan, Being and Becoming Kachin: Histories beyond the State in the Borderworlds of Burma, British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship Monograph (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); Pum Za Mang, “Christianity and Ethnic Identity in Burma,” Journal of Church and State 61, no. 1 (2019): 78–105.

[30] Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek interprets Galatians 3:28 as Paul’s claim that “ethnic roots, national identity and so on are not categories of truth.” Slavoj Zizek, Living in the End Times (London: Verso, 2018), 406.

[31] Walter McConnell, “In His Image: A Christian’s Place in Creation,” Asia Journal of Theology 20, no. 1 (2006): 114.

[32] Some scholars suggest that the term “Hebrew” may have roots in a term used by Egyptians and Canaanites (Hapiru or Apiru) at the time to describe people of diverse origins and backgrounds, but who were generally considered outsiders and foreigners. Whilst unlikely to refer specifically to those later known as Hebrews, the term generally had negative connotations, indicating an ‘Othering’ of those who are different by lumping them into a particular category of person.


[33] John Barton, “Confusion and Communion: Christian Mission and Ethnic Identities in Postgenocide Rwanda,” Missiology 40, no. 3 (2012): 233.

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