By Matt Reffie
Last year there was an interesting ‘God-story’ in the news you may have missed. It highlighted an unusual case of personal and spiritual transformation I think we can all draw from as we enter the new year. Surprisingly, this story came out of the tumultuous events of the Charlottesville white supremacist rally in 2017, where various groups had gathered to ‘unify the white nationalist movement’ and protest the removal of a Confederate statue. Sadly, these events resulted in violent clashes and even one death.
Among the various white supremacist protestors at the rally was a white military veteran, motivated by the blame he placed on immigrant workers for his lack of job prospects. He was marching with a Nazi group to protest what he saw as ethnic encroachments on his American way of life during the rally day. He was also a leader in the white nationalist KKK (Ku Klux Klan), where he wore a deliberately intimidating green Klansman hood and robe as his uniform. As his attire would indicate, he was actively promoting the Nazi and KKK ideals he believed in, attending rallies, speaking out in public spaces, and devoting his time and energy to their causes. These ostentatious uniforms were what clothed his heart and mind, and served as his primary identity to the world. He was a Nazi and Klansman, clothed in everything those uniforms represented.
In God’s providence, just a year later, this same unhappy veteran received a very new set of threads to clothe himself in, and a new personal identity to match. Not long after that fateful rally, he met a Muslim filmmaker who changed his mind about people of other cultures and ethnicities. Something in their exchanges made him realize some of his supremacist convictions just might be wrong. Not long after, he was invited by a local pastor to an all black church to share his personal testimony as a white supremacist. To his surprise, he was met with love and embracing instead of condemnation and judgment. Through this congregation, God began to really change his heart and his whole worldview, which eventually entailed changing his personal attire as well.
In 2018, this former Nazi eagerly exchanged his shiny green KKK robes for the plain, unadorned baptismal robes of faith in Christ. For likely not the first, and hopefully not the last time, a white supremacist was baptized in a black church. Who would have even hoped such a thing would come from the ugliness of that fateful Charlottesville rally day? What struck me the most was as the local news reported live on his baptism, he said he felt, “...better than I did the last time I had a robe on,” referring to his KKK robe. He had exchanged his Klansman robe, his central identity, for an identity representing faith and life in Christ. What two uniforms could be more different?*
What Uniform Are You Wearing?
The extremeness of these two uniforms might at first cloud us from seeing the disparity between our own daily uniforms and the baptismal clothing God has given us. The beauty in this God-story is that this new-found brother of ours came to realize he was embracing the wrong uniform, a false or misplaced identity. Many times we might not be so different. We embrace our worldly identities and don our earthly uniforms as if they are our best outfits, our true selves. Though less ostentatious, any business suit or work uniform can be just as misplaced and damaging to those around us as a Klan robe. While our chosen uniforms might very well be a large part of who we are and even who we should be, it is the Christian’s Kingdom-issued uniform of clean, pure baptismal robes that is our true foundational attire. We are in Christ, at our very core, cleansed and blessed children of God. Not Klansmen. Not any particular culture or ethnicity. Not merely a profession or any particular vein of theology. Not Republican or Democrat, but children of the living God. If this is not what we see in ourselves and project to others, then we might be doing something wrong. So it makes a lot of sense in this new year for each of us to take time to consider what we’re wearing, just as our new brother has.
Think for a moment, what is your primary uniform in this world? What branding, ethics, logos, or colors do you clothe yourself in literally and metaphorically? How much of that uniform has become your primary identity? Even for those of us in professional Christian ministry, we can too easily slip into wearing our job description or others’ expectations instead of God’s intention in our lives. We all put on different uniforms in this life, and there is typically nothing wrong with taking up these roles as part of our identity. But we need to remember that the white baptismal robes of the Kingdom of Christ are our primary colors, our new foundational identity. Our other roles should never be taken up so completely that they ever fully, or even mostly, cover up our baptismal robes and the roles they represent. Is your baptismal robe a superman cape hiding underneath your work clothes, only coming out in certain situations? Is it just hidden, tucked away and forgotten, exchanged for some other robe? Or is it more like a personal suit of armor, filling out your daily uniform in such a way others take notice that there is something much more to you than what society is accustomed to seeing?
What Are the New Threads?
How we assess our own attire, our personal identity, is far more important than we often realize. It both guides us and presents us to the rest of the world. Your presented attire of pastor, business leader, teacher, progressive, conservative, activist, nonconformist, judge, winner, downtrodden, hard worker, cool, accepted, capitalist, socialist, etc. needs to be secondary. Whatever it is for you, whether it seems like a good look or not, it needs to be subservient and informed by your identity in Christ. The apostle Peter is a prime example of what this might look like practically. He had fashioned for himself the identity of a righteous rebel aligned with the victorious Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, who would enter Jerusalem, overthrow the Roman and Jewish leadership, and establish a new earthly kingdom. He would even have an important role in the new government, a fisherman turned religious politician perhaps. But when Christ was crucified, the vision for that identity came crashing down to reality. He was chased out of the city and for a time returned to being a lowly fisherman. In reality, the New Kingdom was going to be something very different, and his identity in it was something altogether different as well. After his resurrection, Christ called Peter back from fishing to his original calling, the identity represented in his metaphorical baptismal robe, that of servant leader and preacher (see John 21 for Peter’s recommissioning). Even the most devout of us can easily lose sight of God’s calling in our lives.
So what can you do to consider your calling and attire in the new year? Maybe it is time for some new threads, a new (or renewed) vision for who you are in the world. If you’re a mother or father, maybe it means recommitting to finding more ways to be Christ to your children. If you’re in sales, maybe it means simply getting to know your clients a bit personally instead of focusing solely on the sale. Maybe instead of rushing from one commitment or expectation to the next, it means scheduling some time to step back and get more in tune with who God is calling you to be. Whatever your position(s) in life, there is a glorious difference between the way the world sees you, the way God sees you, and the way you see yourself. Consider your baptismal robe as your true self, the way God sees you, the person he calls you to be before and above all else. If one of your daily uniforms isn’t informed by and infused with your identity in Christ, then there is likely so much more you could be experiencing in that particular role. Or, like our ex-Nazi brother, God might change your course and have a whole new wardrobe for you altogether. Take this time of resolutions and reflection to be sure you’ve got the right threads for being your best in Christ. Dressed in our baptismal robes, instead of beginning each day with a list of expectations and to-dos, we may begin anew in partnership with the living God. And what looks better than that?
*For a video of this story, please visit: https://www.nbcnews.com/nightlynews/video/he-attended-last-year-s-deadly-charlottesville-rally-then-a-black-pastor-changed-his-life-1296786499575?v=railb&