Identity and Faith # 28 04/05/2021

Out of Many, One People

Welcome. This week’s Blog is a slightly enlarged version of my contribution to the May edition of The Voice. As always comments, criticisms, commendations and especially new subscribers are very welcome.

Identity and Faith.

‘You know the heart of the stranger’ is one of the most haunting verses in the Bible (Exodus 23, verse 9). God says it to the Israelites to remind them that even when settled in the Promised Land their roots lie in their history of enslavement in Egypt. Being a stranger, then, is written into their history, their hearts, their very DNA. How could they not then be hospitable to immigrants who had come to live in their land?

Another intriguing bible verse captures their vision for life in the Promised Land, to ‘sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees’ (Micah 4, verse 4). To modern city dwellers that just sounds quaint, but it has a powerful political meaning. God’s aim is that the people should have the right to their own home, and the means to put food on the table – even wine and figs! That is at odds with our society where so many people have to rely on food banks, or where the scandalous shortage of housing means people can never have a secure home. ‘Coming Home’, the report of the Archbishops’ Commission on Housing, has recently produced a challenge to the government over housing policy that addresses the issue. With the forthcoming local and mayoral elections candidates should be quizzed about how they intend to address such basic questions of justice.

For the Israelites these basic rights of a home and a piece of land to work gave them dignity and a settled sense of identity. Today as homes and work have become more precarious and uncertain, and hopes for change disillusioned, ‘identity’ and identity politics have come to the fore. The Jews were secure in their identity as the people of God. The fluidity, insecurity and unfairness of modern life now make people more intense about defining their identity – in terms of race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, social background or whatever. 

In today’s focus on identity, it is worth looking back to St Paul. Like us he lived surrounded by people of different, cultures, languages and religions. He began his evangelistic travels in Syria, met simple peasants in what is now Turkey, and sophisticated Greek intellectuals in Athens. His life probably ended after a time in prison in Rome, the capital of a cruel and vast empire. In this flux his basic identity was that he was ‘in Christ’; but he also had to work out his ethnic identity as a Jew.

How he handles that, I believe, gives us a guide to how we understand our ethnic or racial identity in an even more mixed, cosmopolitan world. First of all, he had a strong emotional commitment to ‘my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel’ (Romans 9:3). You can feel the tug on his heart as he prays for their salvation. So too, we are right to value our families, our background culture, the places we or our forefathers come from.

My family moved to London from Merseyside when I was eight, and I have lived here virtually all my life since. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. But nothing will stop me supporting Liverpool F C. People naturally support the West Indian or Pakistani or Indian cricket teams if that’s where our family roots are. Familiar music, food and accents warm our hearts.

But Paul didn’t stay locked up in his own culture. His faith in Christ drew him into a wider world. In order to serve God in that world he had to cross cultural boundaries, to learn to identify with people whose life experience was very different. ‘I become all things to all people’ he says (1 Corinthians 9:22), so that he can share his faith with them. One of the privileges of living amongst people of different cultures is that we adapt, and learn and borrow from them. ‘Appropriating’, when it is done respectfully, helps us grow as people. We are enriched as we develop multiple identities. 

But sooner or later when we mix with people of different cultures our shins get banged. There can be things about us that get up the nose of other people. Maybe some of the things that we have learned to value or do are just wrong or arrogant. Paul discovered that much as he cherished his Jewish identity in some ways, yet there were other ways in which he had to abandon what he had been taught to be proud of. Pride in his family background, his religious zeal, his achievements had prevented him relying completely on Christ (Philippians 3, verse 7). They had to be thrown away like rubbish.

It can be painful stepping away from elements of our own culture, when we see they are not helpful and need critiquing; especially if we have experienced that culture being devalued. As Paul made his journeys around the Roman Empire amongst a rich variety of ethnicities and cultures, he had to work through what to keep and what to leave behind from his Jewish identity. A parallel pattern of affirm/transcend/chasten for the New Testament’s understanding our identity is spelled out at several points in Aaron Kuecker’s excellent study ‘The Spirit and the ‘Other’: Social Identity, Ethnicity and Intergroup Reconciliation in Luke-Acts’.

The upshot is that, unlike other holy books, you really need maps as you read the Bible. Because so often it is about people on the move. It is about people who are immigrants, exiles, refugees. From Abraham to Paul, it is about people who make journeys, who learn about God ‘on the road’.  It is no coincidence that the word we use today to refer to groups who have settled in new countries, ‘diaspora’ or ‘scattered’, comes from the New Testament, where it refers to all Christians - we are all on the move, looking to our real home with Christ. 

The sociologist Stuart Hall, of Guyanese background, wrote of his “experience of being inside and outside, 'the familiar stranger'. We used to call that 'alienation' or deracination. But nowadays it's come to be the archetypal late-modern condition. Increasingly it's what everybody's life is like.  . . Postcoloniality, in a curious way, prepared one to live in a 'postmodern' or diasporic relationship to identity. . . Since migration has turned out to be the world-historical event of late modernity, the classic postmodern experience turns out to be the diasporic experience." Feeling that experience lies behind the world-wide appeal of blues and reggae. Here in Britain we may or may not feel we are strangers, but the heart of the Christian faith tells us that, however physically settled some people may feel, we are all strangers here. Our final home and destiny is to travel with Jesus into God’s everlasting presence.

(The disruption of having decorators at home means that my intended blog on issues of theological education raised by ‘From Lament to Action’ is delayed until next week.)