As a Christian, I have come to understand that proper theology includes understanding Self, God, and Neighbor. I invite you to read this text with these things in mind.
– Lu, do you think we can record that song on your phone right now?
With our beers in hand, sitting in that old basement while some friends smoked outside, we set things up to record a song. One of the verses she sang has made me smile for the past two years:
“Pathmaker, there is no road!
Only Atman, only Soul.
This is our great truth:
I am You.”
What does that mean? It is difficult to unpack. It is about identity.
A while ago I saw a Facebook post which asked people to answer the question “Who are you?” without mentioning nationality, religion, race, gender, or profession. You may want to give yourself some time and think about it. Who are you?
Spirituality, whether it be systematized in religion, or wildly experienced in mystical moments, often deals with paradoxes. I admit, I have a strong prejudice when it comes to people making religious statements: one-sided, simplistic approaches, with the pretense of having “figured out” God and Heaven and Hell and souls and what-have-you, tell me that all you have is a system of metaphysical talk that makes sense for you, but you still have no clue about the deeper reality of the great Mystery. My mind goes so quickly from the question “Who am I?” to the idea of the Mystery, which some call God. Who am I? Who, or what, is God?
Yesterday, at Charlottesville, Va., openly neo-Nazi White Supremacists rallied and acted with hatred and violence, in what, sadly, was rather unsurprising, although still shocking, given the recent history of the USA and of most of what has been called the Western World. Although the intensity and precise details and complications may differ from one country to the other, from North to South America, to Europe, and so on, I see a clear general thread since the end of the World Wars, and maybe the Cold War, that led to the events yesterday, and maybe worse to come:
On one hand, a sense of peace, prosperity, and moral superiority: being a good working white capitalist who helped defeat the evil Nazis and the evil communists made you feel quite good. The “right side of history”, some say. This peace and prosperity, giving people the modern luxuries of education, a sense of rights, time for leisure, and so on, with the boom of population, allowed for something amazing: the forgotten and oppressed, the minorities, began to realize they could stand up and fight for their place, fight to be treated equally, fight for rights. It had begun at the end of the 19th century with the first wave of feminism: women fighting for their right to vote. It exploded in the 60s, with black communities rallying for their civil rights, and women fighting against systemic inequality regarding property, marriage, domestic violence, etc., in what is now known as the Civil Rights movement and Second-Wave feminism.
One can easily picture a hard-working middle class white man, used to treating women and black people as less than him, believing false science that said he was smarter and superior, suddenly seeing those people stand up and call him an oppressor, saying they also want to be treated fairly, the way he is. That they are equals. For him, they want to take what is rightfully his. For them, it was never his to begin with, but everyone’s. Why should things remain this way? Religious leaders on one side would say these groups are disturbing the right cosmic order established by God, while religious leaders on the other side would say God has always been on the side of the oppressed, that the present state of affairs is a product of sin, and that God’s justice does not look like white-fenced suburban America in the 50s.
As years progressed to the most recent decades, even smaller minorities began to stand up and organize themselves, becoming loud and powerful, gaining allies from the majority, to gain their space to simply be without being treated as less-than: indigenous peoples, LGBTQ+, refugees, etc.
In a general sense, these movements can be categorized as being part of “identity politics”, in other words, political movements based on identity: calling out against the false propaganda that after the war everyone became equal and the same, groups that are not treated as well as a white middle-class male decided to stand up and shout “BULLSHIT!”, pointing to the clear statistics regarding unemployment, education, police violence, incarceration rates, domestic violence, murder, etc. Several groups have stood up to yell the truth on the public square, while churches that wished to conserve the old order deafened their ears and continually refused to address these issues, instead, simply repeating the false propaganda that everyone is the same, while clearly blessing the powerful and rejecting the oppressed.
While the idea that “everyone is the same” is clearly false if you simply walk the streets with your eyes open, these groups have fought for a society where everyone would, really, be the same. Unfortunately, by doing so, the minorities have tackled those who held the privilege of power, those who did not think of themselves as privileged, those who justify their excess, afraid of losing what they gained unjustly, and who now saw others not like them stand up and saying they also deserve a piece of it.
With that, the identity of the hard-working white man who believes he fought hard for all that he has, even though he was given far more opportunities than everyone else, has also been strengthened. Being unaware of sexism and racism and so on, but suddenly hearing repeatedly that the problem is “white males”, many of these white males decided to own up to it. While many listened with compassion and became allies to the minority movements, others chose to long for the days when someone will “Make America Great Again” (with parallels across the Western world), in other words, days of unchallenged privilege, where money decides whether you deserve medical care, where skin color decides your opportunities, where gender and sexual orientation decides whether you are accepted in your family and church community.
Strangely, a new mantra began in evangelical circles, particularly the neo-Calvinist ones: Identity in Christ. The answer to any problem became to not think of the problem, but realize that your identity doesn’t matter, but instead all you need to remember is that you’re a Christian. It’s ok if the one black family in your church is struggling to go by month by month while your well-tithing white families can save up to send their teenage girls to a mock-mission trip to Peru, all you need to remember is that you’re all Christians and it’s all for Christ. Whatever that means. It’s ok that Christ told you to invite the beggars and drunkards and prostitutes of your city when you throw a feast, you should still tell your teenagers not to mix with “those people” and that what really matters is that they’re “good Christians”, whatever that means. [I hope you see I’m being sarcastic in these lines]
The churches I grew up in decided to ignore the social problems and offer a meaningless solution, an empty mantra. While people really suffer outside, you have privileged people crying over their sins that are, really, just the product of consistent guilt-tripping, repenting every week for the same false problem, paralyzed, never truly loving their neighbor, too busy caught up in their own empty puritanism.
Identity is a complicated thing. It is one of the deepest human paradoxes. On one sense, we have a desperate need to belong. I am my mother’s son, I am Brazilian, I am Canadian, I am white, I am male, I am a Christian, etc. On the other hand, I am much more than any of all these things. It’s the adolescent cry that says, “I am not just my parent’s child! I am myself”. We want affirmation of our own existence, not simply to exist contingently. As a Christian, I see this longing as a reflection of the God who says, “I Am that I Am”.
It is a blessing to exist and be told we are welcome, that there is nothing wrong with being, that we can go and do what we want, as long as we don’t hurt others. When you are born white, wealthy, male, in a planned family, you hear that. Sure, you will also have other struggles, but you don’t hear that you need to watch out for the police because they may shoot you due to your skin color, or that you need to work twice as hard to get recognition because you happen not to have a penis, or that your loved one won’t be allowed to see you at the hospital or be buried next to you because he’s not family, even though you wish you could marry him, if only you had the right to.
On one hand, I want my friends who are from minorities to stand up and own up to their identity, to live and exist boldly. I want them to feel as secure and fearless as I am. I want my girlfriend to talk back to bullies who will mansplain everything because she’s pretty. I want my gay friends to kiss and hold hands in the streets. I want my homeless friend to walk in to the restaurant and not worry whether his clothes are appropriate. On the other hand, I want them to feel so secure that I won’t ever hear my black friend worried for not being “black enough” if he chooses to pursue a master studies, or my bisexual friend worried for not being “gay enough” if he admits he finds women attractive. I want to be proud of my nation and culture, but I don’t want to measure who is a true or false Brazilian, or be greedy about my nation’s resources and reject refugees because I value profit and money more than their safety.
I want everyone to understand it’s ok to be, and own up to who and what they are.
But I also want everyone to understand that we are all equal. That I am You. That I can love my neighbor as myself, that nations don’t exist, they’re just imaginary lines we put on a map. That race doesn’t exist, it’s just melanin. That we are one great family under God. That there are no enemies, no “us and them“, but always “us for them“.
But I also don’t want empty words. What use is to say we’re all the same, while we close our eyes to those treated unequally, telling them to “go back to their place”? How can I say it was God’s will that someone was born in need, while I was born with privilege, if my privilege is due to my forefathers stealing from that someone’s forefathers?
Maybe there is, indeed, something to the idea of my “identity in Christ”. God, and Human. Eternal, but Mortal. One with God, bu crying “Father why hast thou forsaken me?”. Ever present, yet absent. Loud in all of Creation, yet so silent in the face of tragedy.
Christ, who died as a human for all of humanity, but who also died as an oppressed Jew from Galilee in the hands of the mighty Roman Empire and of his religious leaders, for disturbing the good order of society.
May we not lose sight of a Kingdom where there is no more male and female, Greek or Jew, Black or White, and yet, at the same time, live our incarnate lives seriously, with real tangible mercy and justice. Let our Word not be just an idea, but Incarnate.
Featured image: African-American university student Vivian Malone entering the University of Alabama in the U.S. to register for classes as one of the first non-white students to attend the institution. Until 1963, the university was racially segregated and non-white students were not allowed to attend. Font: Wikipedia