Dylann Roof and the Danger of Identity Idolatry

Nine people are dead. Before we move on to the theological implications and the clarion calls—the social media posts and the half-baked diatribes—let us mourn. Let us pray because nine God-image bearing persons were massacred in Charleston, South Carolina. To describe the horrors, our words fail us.

But God does not. And his Word speaks to the terrors of identity idolatry. It speaks to how we demonize the opposite of what we idolize; we devalue the opposite of what we treasure; we hate the opposite of what we love. And Dylann Roof—the Charleston gunman, the domestic terrorist—ultimately loved his ethnicity. He rang out with the worst manifestation of his hatred: he took the lives of those who were the opposite of white, yet who bore the same image he did. Again, our words, so feeble, and our experiences, so limited, can hardly speak to this. But we don’t need our words or experiences to engage this because we have the Word of God.

Consider its commentary on the beginning of human history. What hand did Satan play in Eden? He laid his regular ace: attacking identity. He tempted Eve to believe God was not who he said he is. Adam negated his identity as a male, as one who was to protect and lead; Eve wandered outside of Adam’s authority, foiling her womanhood. Both actors took a good thing—identity—and made it an ultimate thing, which is the essence of idolatry. Both attempted to rise above their author, grasping for his identity, grasping for God-likeness. The tragic irony? They were already like him, for he had made them in his likeness (Gen. 1:26–28). But still they grasped, and so they died. God removed them from his fellowship.

The Tragedy of Identity Idolatry 

Identity idolatry leads to toil and enmity. It leads to death. Worst of all, it leads to separation from God. This is at least one lesson we can learn from Charleston. And yet, to lesser extents, we see this lesson all around in different manifestations.

Dylann Roof’s rampage comes on the high heels of Vanity Fair’s reveal of Caitlynn Jenner, one who seemingly has everything yet is enveloped in a poor identity he trusts will satisfy. Roof’s horrible actions also trail Rachel Dolezal, a former NAACP chapter president who was caught lying about her ethnicity. She seems to elevate being black, a good thing, above anything and anyone else. All these are people. All these people are in the wrong place of hate and mental disillusion. And that’s partly due to their sinful self-loving, which violently turns into a loathing—possibly of self or of others—but certainly of God and the image he has so graciously bestowed on humans, the crown of his creation.

The tragedy, as my friend stated so well in this loving piece on Jenner, is that the snake is eating itself. The faux identities will not last, nor will the fleeting satisfactions they promise. To root our identity in self or self-realization is to choose rotting roots that plant us in the wrong before God. And lest we fool ourselves, speaking only of the Jenners, Dolezals, and gunmen, let us remember: this wrong location is every person’s standing before God. We were all his enemies (Rom. 5:10). We all idolized our selves.

The Only Saving Identity 

But God offers to relocate people into his fellowship. Not through becoming black or becoming male, but through becoming like Christ. Only his identity leads to joy, peace, and love. Only his identity leads to a right relationship with God and with others in bliss forevermore.

And this is such good news because the offer still stands for Jenner, Dolezal, and even Roof as long as they have life. Who are the Jenners, the Dolezals, the Dylann Roofs in your life? Are you praying God would take them out of themselves and locate them in Christ? Brothers and sisters, let us pray that God might stop them, yes, but save them too. It wouldn’t be the first time God saved a mutilator, racist, or terrorist for his glory. Let’s labor to graciously help them see that self and self-realization cannot save but that Jesus Christ can; that they are on a losing path headed to eternal darkness and pain; that only God’s love can drive out the darkness their identity idols drag them into; and that the idol of identity is as stable as the wind.

And let us examine ourselves. For example, I scoffed at Rachel Dolezal rooting her identity in race because people cannot even agree on what race is. Yet I know I’ve tried to root myself in my blackness before. What might your identity be founded in? How does it shape your thoughts and your loves—of self, of others, and of God? What does Jenner, Dolezal, and even Charleston reveal about your heart?

Eternal Hiding Place

While I cannot concretely define what it even means to be black, I can say with confidence that any human identifiers (race, gender, etc.) cannot satisfy or save. God pushes back on our proclivity to over-treasure identity, reminding us that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Paul is not abolishing the constructs of ethnicity, gender, and class. He’s simply saying Jesus so exceeds these identifiers—he so defines and unites his people—that to hold any allegiance to them above him is unthinkable.

From Vanity Fair to Charleston, we are surrounded with the idolatry of self. We may be tempted when looking in the mirror, or at our phones. But Christian, “You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). May others come to know this same hiding place, the place we trust the Charleston nine now enjoy fully.

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