Breaking Down Identities

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The other day I was filling out a survey and came to the questions about my race and gender.  I paused for a second, “what am I today?”  And decided to select what applied to me in that moment, which is the answer that I would typically use when asked those questions, and yet continued to ponder this question of identities.

I understand why these categories exist, we do have tendencies and traits as a part of a demographic group.  Generalities and stereotypes certainly do have some basis in reality and I won’t deny that.  However, what makes me bristle a bit is what this grouping too often does to relationships across category lines.  It is divisive, it robs us our uniqueness as individuals and also puts us at odds with those deemed to be different from us.

It is too black and white.  Too simplistic and encourages a distorted picture of reality in emphasizing that one similarity we share in common (or one difference we have) over everything else.  The labels themselves are even dumb.  I’m not actually white.  My skin is a shade of brown.  Furthermore, I probably only ever started identifying as white because someone told me to fill in that box as a child and I mindlessly complied.  

The idea of “whiteness” is a social construct and has come to mean much more than it ever did before.  Now some claim that everything from work ethic and politeness to mathematics is somehow a part of being white.  Which is appalling ignorance, unexcusable, given the contributions of people of all skin shades and cultural backgrounds to civilization as we know it.  All people should be offended by that nonsense.

I had a classmate, a Jamaican immigrant, brilliant at math, well-spoken, very polite, the son of an engineer or university professor as I recall.  And, by the current color obsessed paradigm, he’s more ‘white’ than I am.  It is a backhanded insult to the many, like him, who have natural talents that don’t fit within the narrow categories or grievance culture narratives of the racially prejudiced left.

Which is the crux of the matter.  I hate these categories because they lie.  As Mark Twain quipped, “there are lies, damn lies, and statistics.”  Sure one color group may, collectively, produce more elite athletes, another more classical musicians, and another mathematicians.  But those group statistics tell you absolutely nothing about individuals nor why some individuals achieved these outcomes.

Much being attributed to color is actually culture.  In Europe, in Africa, in Asia, and America, there are as many cultures as their are shades of skin color.  Some European regions are known for their industriousness and superior engineering, others for their laid-back attitude and art.  The same is true of Asian cultures.  The same is true of African people.  So how do we know color has anything to do with these differences?

The two biggest lies of our time…

1) The myth that skin color is synonymous with culture.

2) The myth that group statistics determine individual outcomes. 

Yes, there may be some statistical correlations between certain behaviors and skin color categories.  But that doesn’t mean that what applies to one of a certain category applies to all.  For example, many women love pink, but that doesn’t mean the most or even many women are fond of that color.  My younger sister defies many of those sort of feminine associated things, she’s not afraid of any critter, has reptiles for pets, and that does not make her less of a woman than those who freak out at the sight of a spider.

Correlation is not equal to causation.  And the late George Floyd has more in common with me, as a working class schlub, than he does with the Harvard educated, son of a privileged WASP mother, who calls himself Barack Obama.  It’s true.  Look it up.  One half of Obama’s lineage is as Yankee as you can get, a great great […] grandfather being the first to build a gristmill in the State of New Jersey, back in the 1600s, later elected to the state Congress.

It is a complete farce that a coal cracker kid, raised in rural West Virginia, is advantaged over a college educated “person of color” working as a Wall Street broker.  Nah, I’ve been around, I know how the cultural elites sneer at ‘deplorables’ and work overtime to make sure that they know their place.  Class privilege is often misidentified as color privilege and misidentified by the very people who benefit most from spreading out the blame for their own sins.

The son or daughter of an immigrant wage-slave has more in common with the ‘black’ category than the trust fund babies of any color pointing the crooked finger.  This is what grates me the most.  In the real world blacks and whites work together.  Out on the road, hauling commodities for the man, I swung the sledgehammer as much as that ‘black’ fellow beside me.  

So do I really need my prissy, Che Guevara T-shirt wearing sociology professor cousin, son of a doctor, who could somehow afford to travel the world taking photos while I worked for $7.50 an hour, lecturing me on things that I don’t understand as a white male?

No, no I do not!

Those who associate certain outcomes or behaviors with certain colors of skin, who only ever see skin color in their analysis, are the true racists.  There is a stronger correlation between fatherless homes and negative outcomes than there is between skin color and negative outcomes.  In other words, things commonly categorized as a color privilege is more strongly correlated with family structure.  

Look into mass shooters.  

Not at all excusing their violence, but many of them were estranged from their fathers, struggled to fit in, and it is hard not to see this as being an insignificant factor in their outcomes.

Think about that when discussion of privilege comes up.

Unfortunately, there is not much to be gained as far as political power in a “the fatherless unite!” campaign.  Racial division, by contrast, is an easy sell.  Skin color, indeed, is the low hanging fruit of human difference.  Tribalism comes naturally, all you need to do is convince people that they are somehow fundamentally different because of something superficial and their confirmation bias will do the rest of the work for you.

Breaking the Bonds of Designated Identities

I’m not going to minimize the importance of life experience and family inheritance in shaping our identities.  I was born into a conservative Mennonite home and that identity was very important to me.  In public school it made me a religious minority, subjected me to many inquiries, what would now be called micro-aggressions, and some bullying later in life too.

The strange part is that, while being the Mennonite kid amongst my school peers, I never really felt like I fit in with my ethic church peers either.  After years of rejections, both in romantic endeavors and even as far as filling offices or missionary opportunities.  Finding my place, complete acceptance, within the Mennonite culture had eventually become an obsession.  I desperately wanted to be the good Mennonite for reasons that I can’t fully explain.

That pursuit came to an end with a young woman who declared, “I can’t love you the way that you want to be loved.”  

Mercifully, over the same time, a truly fatherly figure, Fr. Anthony, an Antiochian priest and college professor, took me under his wing to help me through this collapse of my Mennonite identity that had left me with a meaningless existence and suicidal.

I had to break from my ethnic and religious identity because I had no other choice.  It was not pleasant.  I loved, and still do love, many parts of the Mennonite culture.  My parents are wonderful.  My church was not one of those Pharisaical nightmares all too common in that denomination.  But, as Fr Anthony offered, maybe I had simply “outgrown” the tradition.

And, truly, in Christ, we are all called to a higher common identity:

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

(Galatians 3:26‭-‬29 NIV)

St. Paul, in the context of the tumultuous days of the early church, spent much time addressing the many competing identities within the church.  He took on the religious elitists, bluntly telling them to castrate themselves in one letter, and spoke up for those being excluded on a class or ethnic basis.  That’s what he’s doing in the passage above, emphasizing that in Christ we can all be “children of God” and share one identity together.

The astounding part is that the church then, like the church now, still struggles on this point.  Even in the conservative Mennonite church, where we were basically all from the same ethic and cultural background, there were definitely tiers of acceptance.  Some simply check more of the ‘right’ boxes, are more popular, find the beautiful adoring wife, have all the opportunities, work their way up the ranks quickly and others not so much.  In short, the words to the Galatians are as relevant now as were then.

Christian Identity Makes Difference Beautiful

One of Mennonite cultural distinctives that I had rejected early on is that of uniformity as a part of Anabaptist non-conformity teaching.  My own church wasn’t nearly as strict as some.  But there is an undercurrent, undeniably, that if a girl talks more than average she’s a “flirt” or a motorhead guy with a nice car was somehow materialistic compared to a wealthy business owner with three farms.  Pity the artistic types in those churches more traditional than mine.

By contrast, an Orthodox Christian friend, gave this wonderful description:  The church is like a garden, full of different plants and plants, all watered by the same source.

That is the ideal.  

Unity in Christ is not about erasing all differences.  Galatians 3:28 is not turning us into an androgynous ‘multi-cultural’ blob of completely equal outcomes.  Jesus was not a Communist.  Having “all things in common” was not about forced wealth redistribution or reparations.  Certainly not about getting mine.  Rather it was about bringing our diversity of talents and abilities, bonded together as the body and blood of Christ, to the church.

Diversity can be a strength.  Not talking about superficial skin deep token ‘diversity’ achieved through quotas either.  Instead, what I love is those of many colors, many backgrounds and classes, working voluntarily towards a common goal, having found a shared identity that transcends all others and allows the entire group to reach full potential.  Competing identities keep us in conflict, but through Christ we could create the most beautiful harmonies.

In the end we must free ourselves from identities that keep us at war with each other.  However, that is not something we do ourselves. There are many misguided efforts.  Many are embracing divisive political ideologies, like critical race theory, that will only produce more hate and mistrust.  Condemning “whiteness” or heaping praise on “people of color” and otherwise playing favorites on those currently deemed to be victims is never going to do anything besides add to the confusion.  

Only in Christ, in repentance, in faith, can our differences in gender, culture, color or class be something beautiful. 

What does Charleston say about us?

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There are many who react to the church shooting at Charleston’s historic Emanuel A.M.R. Church by blaming availability of guns and decrying racism.

But one thing missing from the discussion, that is a victimhood mentality and the idea that all people of a particular race are guilty because of the acts of a few. 

When Dylann Storm Roof walked into the doors of that church he was armed with two ideas: 1) his tribe (white people, women, etc) were the victims, and 2) their tribe (black people) were collectively responsible for black rapists, perceived injustice, etc.

It was the ideas that this depraved young man harbored in his heart that were dangerous.  However, these ideas are not unique to him or just to unreasonable and angry white men.  These are ideas accepted accepted in mainstream thought that divides people into falsely dichotomous categories.

Who kills the innocent? We do!

Ideas that white is equal to privilege or black is equal to victimhood are equally dangerous.  When we feed the martyr complex and victimhood mentality we are giving license to those of an even more deranged mind to take it a step further. 

The problem with Roof and those like him (of all races, genders, etc) is not what they do—but that they feel justified to do it.  We can fret about availability of guns and a multitude of other factors, but until we address the heart issue we are only treating the symptoms.

We won’t stop a person bent on evil and destruction with more legislation.  If anything more law will only create the next inequity and give some other person reason to feel disenfranchised.  But what we do need is to unravel the false dichotomies and prejudice assumptions that fuel hatred.

Being on the ‘right’ side of history…

We are urged to be on the “right side of history” yet the problem is that everyone (including Roof) feels they are on the ‘right’ side and justified.  Jesus encountered this in the Pharisees who thought themselves better than other people and superior to their own ancestors:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!  You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous.  And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’  So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets.”  (Matthew 23:29-31)

There are many sanctimonious today who think they are superior to other people.  They may decry the injustices of the past, support punishment for those they hold responsible and blame, but they themselves often as guilty or more of similar abuse.

Is an anti-abortion activist who calls women entering a clinic names or murderers a provider any better than those they accuse? 

Is a person who labels others as “racist” or “homophobic” or “hateful” in response to a disagreement over opinion less abusive than a person who uses the n-word?

I say, no and no. 

The solution to hate is not to be hateful.  As Mahatma Gandhi wisely observed: “An eye for an an eye only leaves the whole world blind.”  What he observed is the same as when Jesus quipped that those who live by the sword will die by it (Matthew 26:52) or ‘what goes around comes around’ in essence.

We make a difference by being different…

Everyone has reason for their own abuses.  Many of the most abusive people in history believed they served a righteous cause.  Many people can identify the sins of other tribes or the prior generation, but few seem able to see their own abuses.  We prefer to keep the spotlight on those whom we perceive to be worse than us than we are interested in searching out the wickedness of our own hearts.

Ben Carson spoke well:

“You know, we have a war on women, race wars, income wars, age wars, religious wars. Anything you could imagine, we have a war on it… And we’re giving people a license to hate people who disagree with them.”

We need to stop arming ourselves with contempt and be committed to loving as we wish to be loved.  It is easy to love our own and hate others, but divine love seeks unity rather than encourage division.  It sacrifices self rather than perpetuate cycles of violence.  It brings grace to the fight even when vengeance feels justified.

Grace saves us…

It is the Spirit of love like that of Marcus Stanley, who was shot eight times but lived, and chose grace in response to hate:

“I don’t look at you with the eyes of hatred, or judge you by your appearance or race, but I look at you as a human being that made a horrible decision to take the lives of 9 living & breathing people. Children do not grow up with hatred in their hearts. In this world we are born color blind. Somewhere along the line, you were taught to hate people that are not like you, and that is truly tragic. You have accomplished nothing from this killing, but planting seeds of pain that will forever remain in the hearts of the families that lost their lives and countless hearts around our country.”

Let’s not fall victim to those who would divide us into categories, but instead seek the unity of all people only possible with a love that tears down walls, bridges divides and believes when others say it is impossible. 

May those seeds of Roof’s hate stay dead and the love of Jesus in Stanley’s gracious response grow in us.  The answer is not more or less guns nor petitions against flags and protest, it is less hate and more Jesus.

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  (Romans 12:21)