the shape of leadership

Born (Again) in the USA

As people of the Spirit, how should we think about immigrants, foreigners and others who are different from us?

A friend once asked me to name my favorite holiday. I think he expected me to mention Christmas or Easter. After all, I am a Bible college professor. He seemed surprised when I said it’s the Fourth of July.

Perhaps fireworks in the summertime remind me of my upcoming birthday later in July. But beyond that, there is something special about this holiday, when Americans from all backgrounds, races and ethnicities join together in unity, celebrating the birthday of our country.

Born and raised in the United States, I grew up in a family that believes in service. My grandfather was a Marine. My father is a military contractor for the Navy. My mother has worked for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for more than 30 years. I had planned to enlist in the military or pursue a civil service career myself, until I gave my life to Christ and answered His call to ministry.

Although I am an American and English is my first language, I am also Chicano, a Mexican-American. This is as much a part of my life and heritage as my American identity. It is, however, in this intersectional identity that I experience the most conflict — not only between my ethnic and national identities, but also with my Pentecostal and theological understanding of the Christian life.

I sometimes wonder, What does it theologically mean to be born in the USA? How does our identity as Pentecostals and Americans shape or influence our notions of nationality and ethnicity and our views of foreigners?

Like so many others, I love this country because it represents freedom and democracy for all people, not just for its citizens, but for the world. America is a place where anyone, regardless of his or her background, can succeed with hard work. In this land of opportunity, we truly can strive for a better future.

But when we talk about being American in today’s global and racially divided society, it means different things to different people. I’ve noticed with increasing concern that the championing of national identity can inadvertently sponsor desensitization or even dehumanization of others who do not look or talk like those in our neighborhoods.

As people of the Spirit, how should we think about non-Americans? Should our Pentecostal experience influence the way we view immigrants, foreigners and others who are different from us?

It grieves me to see the hostility many people in the U.S. face, especially minorities and immigrants. Of the 7,175 hate crimes reported in 2017 (the most recent year for which statistics are available), about 60 percent were racially or ethnically motivated, according to the FBI.

Of course, such issues aren’t unique to our American culture or our time in history. They represent an age-old sin problem. We can trace stereotypes and caricatures of foreigners all the way back to antiquity, when Greek writers devised theories to explain why outsiders looked different.

Hippocrates reasoned that soft terrain produces weak people and that those who reside in harsh climates are more courageous and intelligent. Plato and Aristotle went a step further, advancing the idea that Athens was divinely situated in a perfect region, producing Greek people who possessed the greatest wisdom on Earth.

Later, the Roman writer Vitruvius similarly claimed that “the races of Italy are the most perfectly constituted” in both “bodily form and in mental activity.” And Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who lived around the time of Christ’s birth, said Romans were not born from barbarians but were descendants of Troy.

These perspectives gave Greek and Roman people the perception that they were smarter and stronger than others. A person’s birthplace in the ancient world was more than just a geographic location. It carried connotations of inferiority or superiority.

This was true in Israel as well. Gentiles could, and sometimes did, convert to Judaism, but this did not mean birthing relations became irrelevant. Shaye Cohen, a professor of Hebrew literature at Harvard University, notes that rabbinic writing reflects the inferior position Gentiles had in Jewish society, where tracing one’s lineage to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was extremely important. The location of their birth, their foreign identity, and their non-Jewish ancestry kept Gentiles in Israel largely on the societal fringes.

I wish I could say we’ve moved past such divisions today. Yet we can’t deny that many people still look down on those they see as outsiders. Whether the differences are geographic, ethnic, racial, socioeconomic, or political, relational fractures persist. And when fractures show up in our churches, they keep us from functioning as the united body of Christ that God intended. How do we address this as ministry leaders? Jesus’ words in John 3 help light the way.

Born of the Spirit

Even Jesus knew what it was like to have His mission and character questioned based on things like His familial ties or hometown (Matthew 13:55; John 1:46). Nevertheless, Nicodemus the Pharisee came to Jesus at night and confessed, “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God” (John 3:2).

In response, Jesus said, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again” (verse 3).

The statement caught Nicodemus off guard. “How can someone be born when they are old?” he asked (verse 4).

Jesus again affirmed that “no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit” (verse 5).

Participation in the kingdom of God is not a matter of pedigree.

Together, the words “birth” and “born” appear eight times in the dialogue. Scholars have offered various opinions on why Jesus chose this imagery. But I believe it reveals a truth that is easy to overlook in this passage: Jesus challenged the birth privileges and ethnic ideologies of the ancient world.

At a time when Jewish traditions collided with Greco-Roman theories of birth and identity, Jesus crossed dividing lines to build His Church. Reading His words to Nicodemus with this in mind, Jesus’ call for spiritual renewal also becomes a call for inclusion. Participation in the kingdom of God is not a matter of pedigree. In fact, it requires a change of identity, a new birth — not a physical one, but one that is “of the Spirit” (John 3:8).

This language justifies the place of foreigners in God’s family. It offers a strong defense for including those who do not have a Jewish lineage, heritage or land claim. It breaks down barriers that elevate some and sideline others. As the apostle Paul later wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:28-29).

This was a revolutionary idea, both theologically and culturally. As the late Bible scholar Bruce Malina noted, historic ancestors played a large role in shaping people’s identities in the ancient world. From birth, a person’s ethnicity, level of familial prestige, and ancestral heritage determined his or her place in society.

Without an understanding of this, we can miss the full implications of Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in John 3, and the power of John’s statement in Chapter 1: “To all who did receive [Jesus], to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God — children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (verses 12-13).

In the ancient world, birth included a real reception of privileges, inheritance and prestige. People often viewed anyone who was not born of the same family and land as a foreign threat to the community. They treated foreigners with suspicion, fearing their practices and customs, as well as the possibility of intermarriage. There was an assumption that outsiders threatened the stability and ethnic solidarity of the community.

As the gospel spread in the late first century, the apostles shared Jesus’ message that Gentiles could become part of the family of God solely through the Spirit’s birthing activity. It was, and is, a profound and far-reaching declaration. “Born again” isn’t just a cliché́ or slogan to put on a T-shirt. It’s a work of the Spirit that makes us new creations and brings us together in Christ.

A Call to Action

When Jesus told Nicodemus of the necessity to be “born of the Spirit,” the claim was one of inclusivity. Nicodemus had a choice to make. His ancestral privileges and membership status did not grant him automatic entrance into the kingdom of God. The good news is that God so loved the world that He made a way for “whoever believes” to receive eternal life (John 3:16).

Jesus’ words challenged Nicodemus’ understanding of others and his relationship with them. They should challenge our thinking as well. Jesus proclaimed a new spiritual lineage that destabilizes all human birth privileges. For the first-century readers of the gospel, this had major implications. Samaritans, Romans and Greeks learned that their relationship with Christ defined their identity above all else. And through the Spirit, they became members of the same community.

John 3 certainly has implications for us today as well. As Pentecostal leaders, it challenges us to cultivate communities that have an expansive understanding of what it means to call one another children of God. The birthing activity of the Spirit grants rights and privileges of the Kingdom to all who come to Jesus.

We can be proud of our American identity and celebrate its history and heritage, while reminding people that this pride should never become an excuse for hostility or contempt toward others.

An eternal perspective never champions the location and privileges of human birth at the expense of our common birth from the Spirit. The exclusion of others based on their race, nationality or ethnic identity is in opposition to what Jesus taught. This is why we must continue to call out racism as sinful.

Our Pentecostal churches should be places where people from diverse backgrounds feel at home. We are welcoming to all people because the Spirit is welcoming to all people.

The message we proclaim is the same one Jesus shared with Nicodemus: the necessity of being born again by the transforming power of the Spirit. This gospel calls all people into a Kingdom that will always supersede cultural privileges and rights.

There are many great things about this nation that have created the opportunity for the gospel to spread throughout the world. But during difficult times when our freedoms and opportunities are not equally experienced, we must be cautious about our loves and loyalties.

We must remember that the gospel we preach has no boundaries or borders. And we must never forget that xenophobia, racism and exclusion are not merely wrong for morality’s sake; they are destructive ideologies that bring about division and animosity toward those whom the Spirit has embraced and seeks to give new life.

Many issues and challenges press upon the Church, even as national debates continue on immigration, globalization and foreign policy. But we can count on this: The Spirit who has given birth to the people of God throughout the ages is the same Spirit who continues to give birth to the people of God throughout the nations. And we are part of this diverse spiritual community.

Let us hear in Jesus’ words to Nicodemus a call to remember our identity as born-again believers.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 edition of Influence magazine.

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