Identity politics shares with King the insight that fault and guilt must be addressed, but it rips them from their Christian theological context, and instead conceives them in worldly terms alone: as a relationship between the source of fault and guilt (white male heterosexuals) and those (women, gays, Hispanics, Muslims, and so on) whose innocence is measured by their distance from that source. In this framework, there is one original sinner: white male heterosexuals—either alive or haunting us from the grave in the form of the Dead White Men studied in old Western civilization courses. Everyone else gets to sigh with relief; whatever their guilt may be, at least they are not that.
King knew, of course, that sin has worldly consequences and that groups often sinned against other groups. But he would not have rested there, satisfied with a permanent debt that could never be repaid. God did not place man in the world so that he would dwell forever on his faults, but rather so that he would respond to them with repentance and forgiveness. Within the identity-politics world, there is only the permanence of debt. Within King’s Christian view, the worldly impossibility of paying back debt is superseded by the Christian possibility of repentance and forgiveness. Only through these can debts be canceled and life be renewed; only in this way can the balance sheet be zeroed. That such a rebalancing is possible, for King, was evidence of an awesome religious mystery, which gave hope and counseled patience.
Identity politics is only quasi-Christian. It begins from the observation that there is worldly fault and debt. That, every Christian sees. But identity politics stops there, content that we need go no further than call out fault and debt and use political power—worldly power—to settle the score. I doubt that this quasi-Christian viewpoint, which refuses reconciliation, is a stable one. Without straining our imagination, we can discern that we are either going to return to some variant of King’s Christian account, in which fault and debt are overcome through repentance and forgiveness, or we are going to move to a truly post-Christian world in which we no longer care about fault and debt. In such a world, the terms “oppressor” and “oppressed” will cease to have any meaning, and historical wounds—American slavery in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, European colonialism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, German aggression in the first half of the twentieth century—will be met with the cruel words: “and we would do it again, for the world is nothing but force and fraud and the will to power.” That is the world that Nietzsche staked out in the late nineteenth century, in the hope that we would find the courage to move beyond Christian guilt. It is no small irony that today’s political Left, which owes more to Nietzsche than to Marx, has so badly understood him: the fault-and-debt points that identity politics tallies are precisely what Nietzsche wanted post-Christian man to repudiate. Our post-Christian Left, however, wants it both ways: it wishes to destroy Christianity by using the battering ram of (white male heterosexual) fault and debt.
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