Have you ever had one of those annoying conversations where someone asks you to try to define yourself without mentioning your job, your relationships, your abilities, your interests, or your appearance? It’s hard. We tend to always identify ourselves in terms of the other – “I am a husband” (in relation to my wife), or “I am a musician” (in relation to tone-deaf people, but not so much in relation to real musicians), or “I am a Child of God” (in relation more often to those who are ‘not a child of God’ than in relation to God Himself). This desire to distinguish ourselves is virtually unavoidable, but I believe it’s damaging on many levels.

For one thing, defining identity as in relation to the other almost always leads to some form of pride and/or persecution. We need not even go into the history of slavery, colonialism, apartheid or any such tragic realities. The insidious draw of nasty national pride is something every internet-using Springbok rugby supporter understands first hand. Who has not gone into a chat room or an online poker game and said, “Hey all you wallabies, kiss my green and gold butt! Tri-nations champions 2009, woohoo!!!”?…. Well maybe that’s just me. It’s worth noting though that virtually every nation has at some stage publicly voiced that secret “truth” that ‘we’ are just better than ‘them’. Consider:

    Cecil Rhodes on the British: “The British race is sound to the core and… dry rot and dust are strangers to it”

    Thomas Babington Macaulay on the English: “[we are] the greatest and most highly civilized people that ever the world saw”

    The United States Journal 1845 on the US: “We, the American people, are the most independent, intellegent, moral, and happy people on the face of the Earth”

    Strabo on Europeans: “I must begin with Europe because it is both varied in form and admirably adapted by nature for the development of excellence in men and governments”

    South Africans at any large sporting event: “Ole, ole, ole, ole, We are the Champions, We are the Champions!”

Of course, as an English-speaking South African, I can laugh at this national sentiment a bit easier than most, feeling always a pilgrim, lost somewhere between the Isle of Wight and the Johannesburg Zoo. I can agree more easily than most with Dean W.R. Inge that “A nation is a society united by delusions about its ancestry and by common hatred of its neighbours”.

Who are we really?

Christians are citizens of another Kingdom too. And the lure of national (religious) pride there is as strong as in any other ‘nation’. We feel the same sort of ridiculous pride at Angus Buchan open-airs as we do at the Springbok rugby games. As if we had had something to do with being born South African… or being born again by His grace. In truth we have about as much right to be proud of being tall or having blue eyes. I reject this kind of identity in terms of the other. I will not sing with the Smalltown Poets: “Call me Christian”. I will not nod my head stupidly at the speakers at youth camps when they tell me “Your identity is that you are a child of God – nothing else matters”.

It’s not that I don’t value that adoption. It’s just that it can be a substitute. I spent years in the church nodding stupidly at altruisms that I didn’t understand and at the same time desperately trying to suppress the sinking feeling that I didn’t have a clue who I was. Identity is not an objective expression of relations between individuals. Identity is a subjective experience. I had just such an experience one day as I lay sobbing my eyes out and shaking my fist at God for abondoning me to my depression. I can hardly describe it in words, but I want you to understand that in one moment I was very aware of God’s nearness and love and in the next moment I was thoroughly aware of how mistaken I had been about everything in my life. I had a peace and a clarity that has never left me. I knew who I was.

And that is why I say that identity is an experience.

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