Who are you?  An essay on race, religion and politics

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A few weeks ago, my husband and I each sent off a saliva sample to have our DNA extracted for the popular Ancestry.com profile.  We haven’t yet gotten back our results, so this isn’t going to be an essay on my heritage or the surprising places that my distant relatives come from.  Instead, this piece will address the question “Why do I want to know?”

Racial tensions are higher than I have ever seen in my lifetime.  The death of George Floyd seems to have ignited fires literally and figuratively.  Reports indicate that there have been violent protests in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City, Jacksonville, Minneapolis and other cities.  Outrage over decades of profiling and injustice victimizing the African American community have led to thousands of people spilling onto city streets, clashing with police and even the National Guard.  We have become a country at war with itself.

I’ve spent the last few days really contemplating what has happened.  I’ve been in prayer for peace and I’ve tried to examine my own heart and mind.  I keep coming back to one word that I think is the linchpin for our nation: identity.

The sentiment of “proud to be an American” is no longer a unifying rally cry.  Instead, pride in nationalism has largely been linked with a political party and is viewed as a threat to diversity and non-conformity.

We human beings long to be part of something bigger than ourselves.  Isolation and independence can be sustained for only a short time.  We need each other.  We need community.  We crave acceptance and actively look for a place where we belong.  Most of us find our identity in our community.

Community is not just the location where we live or the people we come from.  It might also be our gender, generation, religion, political affiliation, profession, sexual orientation or social status.  If we are honest with ourselves, we have a list of factors that combine to form what we see as our identity.  What is your combination?  My combination is white, woman, 40-something, wife, mother, Christian, ministry employee. . . .

The more we can narrow down the categories of who we are, the more like-minded our community becomes.  It feels good to be part of a group.  We want to be liked and accepted by the people we surround ourselves with.  Conversely, it becomes very easy to see our differences from the people who aren’t in our community.

What we don’t understand about them can often lead to fear.  Fear, in turn, can lead to all sorts of evil.  Spend a moment in honest reflection on places your mind has gone during times when you feel afraid of someone.

While it’s true that we may put ourselves in many different categories, there is an inherent danger in finding our identity there.  The narrower the niche that our categories become, the more people are excluded from our “identity.”  Those on the outside vastly outnumber those on the inside.  When outsiders don’t accept or understand our “identity,” judgment starts, and we’ve now created a deep divide.

It’s not just the division between groups that make categories of identity a danger.  What happens when one of your categories changes?  You might get a divorce, lose your job, become disillusioned with your political party, etc.  Does this shift in identity change who you are and who you belong to?

One issue that I’m struggling through right now is my category of Mother.  My older daughter has graduated from high school and the younger is now a senior.  They have less and less interest in spending time with me, and the reality of their leaving our home looms nearer with each passing month.  The first day when I find myself an “empty nester,” am I going to lose my identity as a mom?  Of course I’ll still be my daughters’ biological mother, but when my role and responsibilities change as they enter adulthood, will I lose a part of myself?  The danger is there if I don’t consciously fight against finding my identity in motherhood.

But it’s safe to identify with your race, isn’t it?  After all, your race isn’t going to change.  Nothing will befall you that will lead to a shift in your ethnicity.  Well, that’s true; but the more you find identity in your race or ethnicity, the more difficult it becomes to love and accept others.  We tend to gravitate toward those people who seem to share a “proper” understanding of who we are.

So, back to my DNA test for a moment.  When I get back the results, let’s say that I find out some percentage of me is Irish and Scottish.  It would be only natural that I set out to learn about those cultures.  Even the advertisements for the various DNA/ancestry-tracking companies show the pivotal moments when people learn that their roots are in unexpected nations.  They might want to cook the food of those countries or look for the traditional dress from those particular regions.  A simple tube of saliva will suddenly add categories to my “identity.”  Are the results I get back going to fundamentally change who I am?  Only if I ascribe part of my identity to them.

I was going to conclude that there is one identity that is safe from the risk of division and judgment: child of God.  But quickly, I thought of friends who are agnostic or atheist and would see this identity as the greatest issue of separation there could possibly be.  And in many cases, they would be right.  So instead, I close with a challenge for all of us, especially those who share my faith.  Be mindful of where you find your identity.  Is your affiliation perpetuating discord?

If you are a follower of Jesus and find your identity as a child of God, let it not become a badge of pride that allows you to look down your nose at those who do not.  We have to remember the great responsibility that comes with that identity: to love as He loves, in word and deed.  John 13:34-35 says, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.  By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (English Standard Version).

It’s easy to love our own.  Let’s now be purposeful in loving others.  What a day that will be when our identity is rooted in love!

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