Identity without Exclusion

By Tim Graves

I always stumble over the question. You know that simple one, "Where are you from?" Not only have my wife and I lived on both coasts and lots of places in between during our thirty-three year marriage, I moved around a lot as a kid.

The failure to provide a simple answer, I know, confounds people. We use place as a marker of identity. We also use education, skin color, political party, Myers-Briggs score, and religion as ways of labeling and identifying others. We seem to be hard-wired to define ourselves. The problem is that we too often define ourselves in contrast to others. 

At their best, identity markers start a conversation. At their worst, these labels  exclude and demonize those who are different. Labeling puts people into a definition. When we label others (or ourselves) we diminish the divinely gifted uniqueness of an individual. 

Political or religious fundamentalism has a tendency to define itself in contrast to the other. If you subscribe to the tenets of the inside group, you're accepted. If you do not you are evil or, at best, misguided and naive. Fundamentalism preys on exclusion and fear setting impenetrable boundaries around itself.

This approach to identity, can result in grandiose claims that hurt others. For example, Dennis Marcellino said in a recent post that "The Bible does say that if a person votes for a democrat (the promoters and supporters of sin) and were to die without repenting of that, he or she is going to hell." Marcellino is identifying his beliefs against the beliefs of others. 

A positive identity does not rely on putting others down. While I share a professed Christian faith with Mr. Marcellino, I identify my beliefs positively. For example, the primary Christian narrative of inclusive, extravagant love and resurrection helps me to make sense of my experience of the Divine. It gives me hope for the future. 

Regardless of someone else's beliefs, I find meaning in the Gospel of Jesus. This positive identification does not dismiss another person's journey or experience. My faith is not contingent upon your agreement or disagreement. (Though, my faith is challenged within the faith by the checks and balances of the Koinonia.)

In our efforts to psychologically and emotionally cope with our changing culture and uncertain times, it is critical that we define ourselves positively. When we define ourselves against others, we risk falling into hatred and dehumanization of others. To fall into hatred or dehumanization of others is to fail to live up to the potential with which we were created.

‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ Matthew 22: 36-40 NRSV (Read this passage in context.)