I was born and raised in Arkansas. Last month I began my 37th year (having turned 36), and it occurs to me that I have now lived almost as much of my life outside of Arkansas as in it. I’ve spent years in Illinois, Texas, Tennessee, and now Virginia. And yet, if anyone asks, I tell him without hesitation that I am Arkansan. It is my identity, and I experience it as such in the marrow of my bones.
But I also realize that the experience is an illusion. My family’s connection to Arkansas goes back 150 years—a paternal great, great grandfather was a McGehee, Arkansas, stonecutter and fought in an Arkansas artillery regiment during the Civil War—but in the grand sweep of history that duration is but an instant. Before that, the Spanish legally possessed Arkansas (mostly in absentia), and the land was inhabited by the Quapaw Indians, among other tribes. What does it mean, really, to be an Arkansan?
I’m currently reading Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World, which chronicles the messy peace process subsequent to the First World War. MacMillan uses as her launch pad Woodrow Wilson’s much celebrated—and derided—Fourteen Points, the most famous of which includes, “…a strict observance of the principle that in determining all such questions of sovereignty, the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the government whose title is to be determined.” In other words, self-determination. In carving up Europe, and indeed the world, Wilson proclaimed that people would be able to align based upon their natural identities.
On the face of it, it sounded great. In reality, it was, and continues to be, a nightmare. (Conflicts as recent as the 1990s Balkan wars can be traced Wilson’s ill-fated concept.) The Allies quickly learned that identity is an ephemeral thing. When the lines of such new countries as Yugoslavia were created, or when ancient countries such as Poland rose again from the ashes of history, there was no neat and clean way to determine who was, for instance, a Pole. Indeed, in much of central Europe the Allies discovered that people did not always conceive of themselves by way of nationality. As one example, the Galician territory ultimately ceded to Poland was populated by Polish-speaking, Roman Catholic Ukrainians who had long been subjects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. So what were these people? Each one asked gave a different answer. For some, identity was political; for others, religious; for yet others, identity turned on language or race. The Allies assigned these and other peoples whatever identity made the most sense to the experts in Paris. In the decades to come, the Allies’ work had near-demonic consequences, as some people rebelled against the identities hoisted upon them and others embraced those same identities with nationalistic fervor.
The point is that identity is not so concrete as we might imagine, or even as we subjectively experience it to be. While that might at first be scary, it should not be news to us as Christians! Scripture teaches us that all human sources of identity are fleeting. The only abiding identity is found in relationship with and to God. St. Paul reminds us, “There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28 )
Paul proclaims, Jesus proclaims…God himself proclaims in the First Commandment…that our identity and allegiance are found first and firmly in our covenant relationship to God. I am not an Arkansan, or even an American, ultimately. I am a Christian, one who finds my identity in relationship with the Incarnate God. But there is choice here. It is the profoundest of choices. It isn’t exactly self-determination, but it is a volitional act of both submission to and cooperation with God. It is a choice by which I determine that all other loci of identity are secondary to the Christian one. When these come into conflict, I will affirm (with God’s help, I pray!) my Christian identity and my obligations to it even if doing so means that I must disavow (in the most extreme circumstances) other facets of identity. Jesus understood the radical nature of finding one’s identity in God-in-Christ. In the tenth chapter of Matthew, he poses the uncomfortable scenario in which identity in Christ conflicts even with basic family identity. As strange as it sounds, I am a Christian before I am a Thompson. If one or the other must go, I will be a Christian still.
Returning to the level of national identity, in our hyper-patriotic American ethos I wonder at what depth we who claim to be Christian truly accept the primacy of our Christian identity. Too often, we assume that our faith and our patriotism are in sync. Too often, they are not. If the pursuits of our nation are in conflict with our lives in Christ—or the pursuits of our particular political party, be it Republican or Democrat—to which basic identity do we retreat? Are we Americans first, or are we Christian? Do we attempt to conform our faith in the service of our politics or our social outlook rather than conforming these things to the requirements of our faith? I’m indicted by Abraham Lincoln’s response to one who asked if he thought God was on the side of the Union. “Sir,” Lincoln responded, “my concern is not whether God is on our side. My greatest concern is to be on God’s side.”
This has become a longer post than I intended. I have more to suggest about what it might mean to be faithful to our Christian identity as it is expressed through our particular church—The Episcopal Church. I’ll tackle that next time.