Ben Carson’s Complex Identity

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Ben Carson’s Complex Identity

I can still remember my mother reading to me from the book Gifted Hands, Dr. Ben Carson’s chronicle of his rise from the ghettos of Detroit to Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he served as the director of pediatric neurosurgery. It was a story so powerful that it resonated with even me: a white kid in the suburbs of Denver, Colorado. The book’s likely appeal was the fact that our family had recently come to share the same Seventh-day Adventist faith as Carson.

For inner-city African-Americans in particular, Carson’s story is the embodiment of the reality that, through faith, focus, and self-discipline, one may overcome the most difficult of circumstances. It is not an uncommon occurrence, then, to hear black voices echo similar stories of triumph over adversity—stories that Carson himself inspired through that old paperback with the gilded letters on the cover.

Carson’s venture into the political arena was preceded by a different kind of book. America the Beautiful was released weeks before his controversial National Prayer Breakfast speech in early 2013. Fourteen months later he released One Nation, and in another fourteen months he announced his candidacy for president. His most recent books have largely appealed to a white, Republican readership, a demographic that he is dependent upon if he hopes to receive the Republican National Committee’s nomination for the presidency.

It takes a unique person to transition from addressing the National Rifle Association to launching a presidential campaign in the heart of one of the largest urban African-American populations in the United States. With such wide appeal, one would think that Carson is a candidate with whom the nation could identify on multiple levels. But this is not the case when one facet of Carson’s personhood is pitted as mutually exclusive against another in the political arena.

Carson’s identity has been sculpted by his upbringing, his education, his associations, and his faith. But there is also the identity imposed upon him from the outside. Different races, simplistically divided along traditional lines, view him as an icon in two different senses. The unfortunate reality is that these two perceptions of Carson’s identity embody a cultural clash not only between Democrats and Republicans, but also between inner city and suburbs, the underdog and the establishment, and labor and capital.

Visionary W.E.B. DuBois, the first black man to earn a doctorate degree from Harvard and founder of the NAACP, termed such tension between a person’s self-perceived and others-perceived identity as “double consciousness.” DuBois wrote that, in his day, this tension threatened to tear a person apart (The Souls of Black Folk).

There is a real concern that the impact of Dr. Carson’s social and educational legacy will be torn to shreds as he steps into the fray of a likely large and contentious coterie of candidates. However, a greater concern relates to how Carson will handle the pressures of an identity that is imposed upon him. How will Carson situate his political aspirations within his professed faith? There is a real danger that Carson’s religious identity as a Seventh-day Adventist Christian will be swallowed up in the nationalist rhetoric of the current conservative dialogue.

It’s Not Just Carson’s Problem

Scripture records the human tendency to put our national identity above our spiritual identity. In John 11, the Sanhedrin expressed its concern for the threat that Jesus posed to Jewish political and religious autonomy in occupied Palestine. The high priest responded that “it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish” (John 11:50, ESV).

The Jewish nation became all too willing to preserve their national identity in place of their spiritual calling, and as a result, the Messiah was rejected and sent to a Roman cross. We should remember how quickly the crowds turned from waving palm branches—a potent symbol of their national identity—and seeking to coronate this popular Teacher during the triumphal entry to crying out for Pilate to crucify the same Man they had applauded.

This same phenomenon also takes place on a personal level. As Jesus described His mission to lay down His life for the human race, Peter was incredulous. Perhaps he wondered, Who will deliver us from the despised Romans? Peter had the audacity to rebuke his Lord, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You.” Jesus swiftly responded: “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s” (Matthew 16:22, 23, NASB).

According to Jesus, there is a real danger that we may place national interests above the prophetic identity that He has given to His people. American Adventism’s greatest concern is not securing the borders of the United States, overturning the Affordable Care Act, or streamlining the tax code. More important than the preservation of national identity is the establishment of the kingdom of God and the proclamation of the everlasting gospel. Of course, there is doubtless a diversity of opinions on these issues within the American Church. But American Adventists are part of an incredibly diverse, worldwide movement, and we should not allow nationalist tendencies to rip apart the global spiritual unity that Christ desires for us to have.

Dr. Carson’s presidential bid comes at a time when the Adventist Church in North America is largely divided along lines of worship culture, the ordination of women, and, embarrassingly, race-based parallel administrative structures. Will Dr. Carson’s political aspirations introduce a new point of contention that follows political party lines? Perhaps in this case Peter’s response is more appropriate: God forbid it, Lord!

With church membership at more than 18 million and a presence in about 230 countries, Adventist identity is a complex thing. There is little doubt that, in surveying the world church, one would find a wide variety of political orientations and social practices. But while such things are a part of Adventists, these elements should never define Adventism. Rather, our identity as a church should be hemmed in by the testimony of the Scriptures alone.

The North American Division, already sensing the complexity of an Adventist running for president, has affirmed the denomination’s commitment to the separation of church and state. Church officers are wisely admonished to keep the church a “neutral space.” This statement should remind us that the aspirations of any political candidate—even a Seventh-day Adventist candidate—can never completely reflect the values of One whose “Kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36, NLT).

Dr. Carson does not fit nicely into the boxes to which any number of groups attempt to relegate him, and that’s OK. It’s likely that you and I don’t fit into the boxes of others’ expectations, either. But as followers of Jesus, we should fit squarely into the ideology of Christ’s kingdom. We should find ourselves advocating for a citizenship that transcends earthly territories (Philippians 3:20). If our lives are hidden with Christ in God, then we will be found examining the various facets of our own political, cultural, and racial identities, submitting them to our Savior, and seeking to bring them into harmony with mind of Christ.

[Photos from Wikimedia Commons. Left: V. Aceveda; Right: Gage Skidmore (flipped)]

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Jarod Thomas pastors two churches along the shores of Lake Michigan, where he lives with his wife and two children. He holds a degree in Near Eastern Studies and Arabic Language and is currently pursuing an MA from the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University. You can catch up with him on Twitter @beans4breakfast.