Watching Wimbledon last week, it struck me how our identities and world views shape every aspect of our life and behaviour – from sports to politics and everything in between.
There was a particular moment during the fourth round of the competition that made headlines. Ukrainian player Elina Svitolina had stated ahead of matches that she would not shake the hands of players from Russia or Belarus in protest against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However, when she came head-to-head with Belarusian player Victoria Azarenka, some of the crowd had failed to realise that this was the case. This unfortunately resulted in Azarenka being booed by people in the crowd as she walked off court having not attempted to shake Svitolina’s hand out of respect for her decision.
Putting the poor crowd etiquette aside, it was fascinating to see how identity, politics, and sports came together in this moment. By making the decision not to shake the hand of Russian and Belarusian players, Svitolina was making an important political point and staying true to her identity in her matches. It was a clear example of how players’ deep-rooted beliefs and sense of identity play an important role in how they conduct themselves both on and off the court.
The role that identity plays in public life
Watching Svitolina’s pre and post-match interviews, it was evident that there was an expectation that she would carry her identity and worldview onto the court with her. She was asked by the media over and over again what it meant to be a Ukrainian playing in grand slam competitions as her country continues to be at war.
To hear Svitolina talk about how the unrest back home was spurring her on was really inspiring. However, it struck me watching this that while there are some aspects of our identities that we are expected to celebrate in public life, there are some which we’re expected to leave at the door. Often our Christian faith fits the latter category.
Even though not always explicit, the message is often clear: Christianity is tolerable if it doesn’t affect your politics. The most prominent example in recent months was the treatment of Kate Forbes during her leadership campaign in Scotland. Forbes had always been honest that she was a Christian, but when more details emerged of how this shaped her views, she was ostracised by some of the people who had previously been her allies.
The side-lining as a result of faith is not isolated to top level politics, it’s something that Christians face in differing contexts. Maybe you have been told by a friend, colleague, or course mate that they are content with you being a Christian as long as it doesn’t lead you to believe X, Y or Z? I have certainly experienced this, and it can be discouraging.
Our identity should ultimately be in Christ
As Christians our identity is in Christ. Galatians 2:20 “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me”. Any other characteristic that makes us who we are, despite being important, is nowhere near as life-changing and worldview-shaping as being a child of God. To compartmentalise this key part of our identity is impossible. The gospel should be the lens through which Christians view the entire world.
Although we may come to different conclusions about what our faith means in everyday life and how it shapes our political thinking, for Christ followers there is no doubt that our faith should be at the centre of all we do.
Just as Svitolina can declare that winning for her country is what motivates her in tennis matches, we should be able to declare that it is our faith that motivates us in any area of public life that we operate in.
Standing firm in the faith within public life
Being open about our faith does not mean we should expect others to accept and share our views when they do not agree with us. But we should strive for the public square to be somewhere where people are not forced to hide their religious beliefs and convictions. The only way I believe we will achieve this is by having more people of faith in the public square who stay true to their identity in Christ.
In Paul’s letters to early church leaders, he often encouraged them to stand firm despite operating in contexts where it was hard to be faithful. I think God also calls his children today, whether operating within the church or within public life, to stand firm in difficult contexts. Therefore, I conclude with this encouragement from 1 Corinthians 15:58:
"Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain."