Vol 13, Num 6 :: 2014.03.21 — 2014.04.03
We know that God is compassionate, loving kindness and all we’re asked to do is to be in the world who God is. In order to make that happen, we create this community of kinship. Mother Teresa, I think, diagnosed the world’s ills correctly when she suggested that the problem in the world is that we’ve just forgotten that we belong to each other. So how do we stand against forgetting that? How do we imagine a circle of compassion and then imagine that nobody is standing outside that circle? How do we obliterate once and for all the illusion that we’re separate, that there’s an “us” and a “them?”
Father Gregory Boyle, from “Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion” (Calvin College January Series)
A while back, my husband Rob and I met someone over lunch at a conference who felt called to work in Washington, D.C., to protect religious freedom at a policy level. While “religious freedom” can be used to justify all sorts of meanness, shouldn’t it be the case, he argued, that a Christian college should have the legal right to hire professors discriminately, in an effort to maintain a particular identity? I don’t get excited about debating politics in the same way Rob does, but the conversation did get me thinking about the complicated relationship between identity and belonging.
From branding to personal mission statements, much of the world today seems to be quite obsessed with identity. Businesses and organizations pour hours of time and loads of money into identifying core values, refining logos and hiring and firing toward a corporate ideal. I get it. *culture is not optional went through a process of articulating our mission statement and core values a few years ago and even though there’s always a tension between words on paper and the living organism of a group, the process has certainly helped us better understand who we are and what we’re committed to as a collective — our identity.
Articulating an identity has opened a door of invitation as people can begin to see the alignment between our values and theirs, but it almost always shuts a window, too, with someone who doesn’t fit left on the outside looking in. And here’s where I always get hung up: isn’t belonging supposed to be a critical mark of identity for Christ-following communities? Consider one of any number of passages I could have quoted from Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche Communities for people with special needs and their helpers:
The fundamental attitudes of true community, where there is true belonging, are openness, welcome, and listening to God, to the universe, to each other and to other communities. Community life is inspired by the universal and is open to the universal. It is based on forgiveness and openness to those who are different, to the poor and the weak. Sects put up walls and barriers out of fear, out of a need to prove themselves and to create a false security. Community is the breaking down of barriers to welcome difference. (Community and Growth)
Vanier is astute, though certainly not original, in naming fear as the primary reason we humans are so fond of valuing identity above belonging. We fear losing ourselves as we loosen our grasp on tightly held conclusions that are bound to be unraveled as we encounter others with different stories from our own, which drives us into ourselves and often into clusters of people with similar fears and insecurities to our own. And yet, the invitation to true community is an invitation not to the annihilation of self, but the fulfillment of it. In Exclusion and Embrace, Miroslav Volf puts it this way:
A catholic personality is a personality enriched by otherness, a personality which is what it is only because multiple others have been reflected in it in a particular way. The distance from my own culture that results from being born by the Spirit creates a fissure in me through which others can come in. The Spirit unlatches the doors of my heart saying: “You are not only you; others belong to you too.”
More popularly quoted, and in the same key, is Desmond Tutu’s explanation of the layered term ubuntu in No Future Without Forgiveness:
We belong in a bundle of life. We say, “A person is a person through other persons.” It is not, “I think therefore I am.” It says rather: “I am human because I belong. I participate, I share.” A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.
I understand all of the millions of reasons we might feel we have to value identity above belonging — in fact, I can hear some of them coming out of my own mouth in very reasonable tones. But when I begin to dig more deeply into the witness that the Christ-following community is called to in the world, I can’t avoid coming to the conclusion that we need to be a little more unreasonable and a lot more embracing. So let us be reckless in our belief that everyone has something to give, that our interpretation is always incomplete, that we secure our identity not by keeping people out, but by letting everyone in. And may it be so that, as Robert Farrar Capon says of the parable of the talents, “The only reason that judgment comes into it at all is the sad fact that there will always be dummies who refuse to trust a good thing when it’s handed to them on a platter.”