There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3, 28
“I saw how solidarity and connection grew in the cracks, fractures and fissures in our identities – identities that were both fundamental to us, and yet, somehow, when sharing a sofa, not that important at all.” Rollins (2016)
The Galatians quote above is often cited by radical theologians who see in the New Testament, and particularly the writings of Paul, a critique of what we often think of as religion. In this case, there is a critique of identity, of the labels we and others pin on ourselves to explain who we are, and also to limit the sort of person we will be and the choices we will make. I have in particular seen this quote used by Peter Rollins, reinforcing his argument that, while acknowledging our identities, we should hold them lightly, refusing to let them define us and the way other people see us. His approach of Suspended Space aims to develop liturgies and rituals that help people to think differently about their identities, and relationship to them.
In the essay quoted above, Rollins sheds some interesting psychological light on why this concept is so important to him personally. Growing up during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, being Protestant or Catholic was everything, defining where you lived, where you went to school, who you socialised with and so on. (As someone growing up in London at the same time, the Troubles were in a lesser way part of my life too, in the form of a steady stream of bomb scares, occasional attacks and controversy over government responses. A stepfather who was a Northern Irish Catholic highlighted my awareness of this.) Through his particular experiences of community in his twenties and thirties, Rollins saw this sectarian division overcome, often messily and painfully, by the reality of living together, commitment to each other and to the community.
I think that Rollins is right – labels are best held lightly, and communities of various types can help us to see past them, and the limitations they impose. It is also striking that, despite the text from Paul above, the church over the centuries has spectacularly failed to grasp this idea. For they generally interpret these divisions as being superceded by a new one – Christian and non-Christian. Rather than dissolving identities, the church has simply created a new one, which then divides humanity even more comprehensively than the old ones.
Actually, it gets worse, the category is often narrower than “Christian” and is defined as “Christians who think like us”. “We” are one side of the divide and everyone else, including those falsely calling themselves Christians, are on the other.
Worse still, the church has historically been a champion of reinforcing gender identities and gender roles, and in the present day the more conservative elements of the church are among the strongest advocates of reinforcing the difference between men and women and the different roles they are allowed to undertake, both officially and unofficially. They still get more exercised about differences in sexual orientation than almost any other group.
This is perhaps an illustration of Zizek’s axiom that the church (or at least parts of it) is the biggest enemy of Christianity operating. If Paul were to update his text he might well say that that there is no longer Christian or non-Christian, no longer theist, atheist or agnostic, no longer gay, straight or bi. These identities exist but they are secondary and should be no barrier to forming community. I know this can be done – I have seen it happening. If there hope for us, it lies in “solidarity and connection” and de-emphasising, as far as we can, the labels. If the church cannot move towards doing this, then we need to let it go and develop new forms of community that can.
Rollins, P. (2016), “That which does not kill us: responding to friendly fire”, in Pyrotheology: Living the Afterlife of the Death of Theology, special issue of Modern Believing edited by Katharine Sarah Moody, vol. 57, issue 4.