Tuesday, January 08, 2013

When Our Identities Challenge Us

“The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the person who hears the word and at once receives it with joy.

But since he or she has no root, this person lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he or she quickly falls away. The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the person who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful. But the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the person who hears the word and understands it. Understanding produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”

-From the Parable of the Four Soils

I chose to lead with this passage to underscore the challenges that belonging presents. It would be easy for us to deny a part of our identity to prevent criticism, even harsh condemnation. Tearing down by way of scorn and caustic remarks is much easier than believing. With belief comes risk and with risk comes persecution, regardless of what form this persecution takes. We may not be hanged from the neck anymore, nor thrown to the lions, but the emotional and psychological sting can be very painful indeed.

The same sort of instant rebuke arrives for me when I self-identify as both Christian and feminist. The two are not mutually exclusive but years of false prophets have planted the seed of doubt within the minds of many. It’s even fashionable to sharpen one’s one-liners and sarcastic putdowns over the years, aiming for the cleverest insult ever fashioned. The internet has amplified the volume and the number of hecklers in the crowd. Now there are more of them then one could have ever dreamed possibly.

A recent article in Quaker Life’s January/February edition speaks to this phenomenon, albeit from a religious perspective. Author David Johns portrays the complexity of basic identity, regardless of its packaging.
The question ought to emerge as a result of our mission, not as an exasperated effort to hold together an unraveling movement. On one hand is assimilation where the group takes on the characteristics and expectations of the religious world — its practices, its mythologies, its way of governance. Of course, when a group adapts in such a manner it will resemble religion-in-general sufficient to be recognizable in public.

When Quakers gather at this extreme of assimilation they more easily blend into the religious landscape avoiding the bewildering stares of onlookers. Yet, if the motivation for this extreme springs principally from a desire to belong to the spark of life in the movement, it is extinguished. The intention of belonging creates a crippling emotional dysfunction within the group. No group can thrive by simply blending in. [Emphasis mine]

At the other extreme is…identification. If assimilation typifies the tendency of some Friends, identification is the tendency of many, many more. Rather than becoming just like any other religious group, this extreme places its emphasis on being a peculiar people, a people separate and distinct, a people obsessed with distinctives and cryptic speech. Who is in and who is out and what make us distinctly us; these are the overarching preoccupations.

When these [patterns] grow organically from worship and witness they can be life giving to the group and a sign of God’s activity to those they encounter. However, as often happens at this extreme, groups place their hope and their corporate identity in peculiarities. Sooner or later they find themselves defending and protecting what may be the fruit of a life rather than living the kind of life that produces it.
Johns therefore encourages us to let our life speak in place of our labels. We are Christian because we follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. We are feminist because we live the kind of ethical, moral standards thought to be important and utterly crucial to basic human equality. Naysayers and contrarians will always exist. One of the problems with the electronic age is that it has given rise to those who use their relative anonymity to play gotcha games, or I-told-you-so.

More holds us together than separates us, but we must be willing to see the intersections without instantly rushing to a negative, harsh conclusion. We must be better than our foes, otherwise we leave ourselves open for justified, though purposefully baited criticism of us as hypocritical and sanctimonious. This approach challenges us to be better people; the high road must have its devotees. It feels momentarily triumphant to get down into the muck with our adversaries, but the joy is short-lived.

Quakers define their Testimonies individually, as they feel they apply to their own lives. Though any movement or group must specify what it is and what it is not, if only for structural reasons, one could never say that any Friend speaks for any other. My view of Simplicity, for example, means that I seek to be thrifty in my purchases and reuse as much as I can. Another Friend may take Simplicity to mean a taking a job in India to work for widespread potable water and environmental standards in a densely populated, polluted country.

Feminists could be viewed in this context as somewhat more orthodox, often insisting upon a basic understanding of specific terminology and, in some cases, an especially sharp condemnation of a few very taboo viewpoints. Could a group or movement of feminists in good conscience provide a blueprint for what defines and does not defines Feminism? Or, is its approach simply a question of strategically roped and categorized personal anecdotes, sewn together to prove an understood Truth?

I can justify being a Quaker and a feminist very easily. I apply the Testimony of Equality to mean a particularly strong emphasis upon gender fairness. Others before me, men and women, felt the same stirrings and trod the same path I have. But before any of us join forces, we must not create needless enemies predicated on misinformation. We are not as different as others may have told us we are.

Assimilate or identify? The choice is perplexing. Is there a third way, one that avoids this dichotomy? The appeal towards one side or the other may depend greatly upon circumstance and situational confrontation. If knowledge depends upon the immediate, how can we criticize others in the same situation as us?

No comments: