One thing I’ve been thinking about lately is group identity, and what group identities we cling to, which we shed, and when and why we do either. In my thesis work, where I’m attempting to speak about the group of people of I grew up in – white, working class, rural, Protestant, conservative – the issue of group identities plays a big role. In essence, the work I am doing is asking why these people claim certain identities first, and background others.
Practically, I want to explore how to bring to the fore those “other” identities, before and even in place of the the ones currently foregrounded. The identities I see embraced first and foremost – in public, at least – are conservative, Republican, American, white. These are first order identities that establish notions of loyalty and, more importantly, distinguish who those “out” are – in essence, the groups that will be treated as a threat.
Crucially, this isn’t unique to white, working class, conservative people. On the left, people’s first identities are progressive, Democrat, liberal, among others. In America today, everyone does this. Our identities are dictated by political and social commitments, and we define ourselves against others who are in groups not our own.
What I want to do in my thesis is get my people – who almost all identify further down the list as some form of Christian – to make that their primary – maybe their only – group identity. I think this is what the Gospel demands of us. As Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
This isn’t to minimize the importance of difference in people. Especially in a time when global capitalism demands that everyone conform to certain ideals of human existence in order to get ahead, the vital differences – and the resulting multiversity of experiences and ideas and appearances and talents and beauty that is produced – is crucial to lifting up and making whole each and every being.
But, when it comes to how we define ourselves in relation to other people and the way those definitions shape our interactions with others, then the call of Christianity to knock down all barriers of difference and avoid othering one another becomes a moral imperative.
So what it means to say that, in Christ, we are no longer Jew or Greek or slave or free, but rather that we are disciples of Christ, is to say that we are human, first and foremost, because Christ was also human, but that we are also all caught up in the Divine, just as Christ was. That is what defines us, and makes us who we are. And that knowledge – that feeling of being irreducibly human – comes before anything else, in how we think of ourselves, and how we think of others as well.