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Sunday, 30 June 2013

Transcending tribal identities

On Thursday, at St John's Seven Kings, we hosted a fascinating meeting of the East London Three Faiths Forum looking at the topic of Marriage and the Family. There was a high degree of consensus among the three speakers for what we tend to think of as being the traditional view of marriage and family life i.e. marriage being the lifelong union of one man and one woman for the procreation of children and the family unit as the foundational building block of society. From this perspective, the diversity of forms of relationship which we find today within society is viewed as a sign that society is disintegrating and that we have moved away from God’s pattern for human flourishing.

Yet, as Christians, we claim to follow someone who poses some very significant challenges to our understanding of the place of family (Luke 9. 51 - 62). "The obligation to bury one’s father was regarded by many Jews of Jesus’ time as the most holy and binding duty of a son; but Jesus says that that is secondary to the call to follow him and announce God’s kingdom." This call cuts across family life and our traditional understandings of family. Here, even saying goodbye to your family before you leave seems to be criticised by Jesus!

In Matthew 12, when Jesus was told that his mother and brothers were nearby, we read that he said: "Who is my mother? Who are my brothers? … Whoever does what my Father in heaven wants is my brother, my sister, and my mother." Then in Matthew 10 we read of Jesus saying: "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the world. No, I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. I came to set sons against their fathers, daughters against their mothers, daughters-in-law against their mothers-in-law; your worst enemies will be the members of your own family."

Tom Wright notes in his commentary on this passage that Jesus is quoting from the prophet Micah (Micah 7.6) who predicts the terrible divisions that will always occur when God does a new thing. "Jesus came to bring and establish the new way of being God’s people, and not surprisingly those who were quite happy with the old one, thank you very much, didn’t like it being disturbed." "He didn’t want to bring division within households for the sake of it," Wright says, but "he knew that, if people followed his way, division was bound to follow."

So what is this new way of being God’s people which challenges our more traditional understandings of family life? I’ve recently read the latest book by Peter Rollins called ‘The Idolatry of God’ which I’ve found very helpful on this question, so I’d like to share with you some of his thinking.

"There are so many divisions in society, divisions between political parties, religious traditions and social groups. This is perfectly natural, of course. From birth, we experience a pre-existing matrix of beliefs and practices that differentiate us from others.

We discover early on that we have been given a mantle, that we are part of a tribe, one with a rich history, deep hopes and a variety of fears. The world is full of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Some of these divisions have deep histories that span multiple generations, while others are very new. Some are serious and others border on the ridiculous. But, at their most extreme, these divisions can result in local and global conflicts."

Rollins argues that to leave these divisions behind we need to transcend our given identities:

"Whether we are Conservative or Labour, rich or poor, male or female, these various bearers of our identification do not fully contain or constrain us and all too often prevent us from truly experiencing our own humanity."
He suggests that that is what St Paul teaches when he writes to the Galatians saying, "there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles, between slaves and free people, between men and women; you are all one in union with Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3. 28). "Here Paul mentions six distinct tribal identities that were ubiquitous in his time; six identities that can be further subdivided into three, namely the religious (Jew and Gentile), the political (slave and free) and the biological (male and female).

It was not that these different groupings were totally isolated from each other, but the way that each of these groups related to the others was clearly defined and carefully regulated.

These distinctions were justified by the authorities either in terms of a natural law or a divine plan; thus the difference in roles and responsibilities were non-negotiable and were required to maintain social stability."

In Jesus’ ministry though "we find a multitude of references to one who challenged the divisions that were seen as sacred, divisions between Jew and Gentile, male and female, and slave and free. Jesus spoke to tax collectors, engaged with Samaritans and treated women as equals in a world where these were outrageous acts." In our Gospel reading today we see Jesus refusing to perpetuate the divisions between Jews and Samaritans when his own disciples want to see revenge enacted on a Samaritan village for rejecting them.

More than this, though, in the incarnation we are presented with a picture of God coming down to earth as Jesus and being progressively stripped of all his prior identity as God’s Son. In Philippians 2 we read that he "made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!" (2.6-8).

Rollins writes that, "This is called kenosis and describes the act of self-emptying. This is most vividly expressed in the crucifixion, where we see Christ occupying the place of the complete outsider, embracing the life of one who is excluded from the political system, the religious community, and the cultural network."

To do this is to cut through the divisions which exist in society because of our different tribal identities. This is what Jesus means when he says he brings a sword into the world. He cuts into "the very heart of all tribal allegiances, bringing unity to what was previously divided":

"There is no change biologically (male or female), religiously (Jew or Greek) or politically (slave or free). Yet nothing remains the same, for these identities are now drained of their operative power and no longer hold us in the way that they once did. These identities no longer need to separate us from each other."

Our "concrete identity continues to exist, but it is now held differently and does not dictate the scope and limitations of one’s being. Paul expresses this powerfully when he writes:

What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away. (1 Corinthians 7.29-31)

What we witness here are concrete references to three different categories: (1) relationships, (2) the things that happen to us, and (3) the things we own. For Paul, these continue to exist, but we are to hold them differently from the way we previously did. We are no longer to act as though we are defined by the things we own, the things that happen to us, or the relationships we have. While these continue to be important, we must hold them in a way that ensures they do not have an inescapable grasp upon us.

Paul understands this radical cut as emanating directly from one’s identity with Christ, for Paul understands participation in the life of Christ as involving the loss of power that our various tribal identities once held for us."  

Last weekend our curate, Rev. Santou Beurklian-Carter, took on a new identity, that of a priest. But she does not do so in order that she can then define herself over against the rest of us. Her role as priest is not that of ‘Father’ or ‘Mother’ knows best. Instead, her role as priest is to lead us into our commemoration of the act in which Jesus let go of every identity by which he was known, becoming nothing, in order that we might come into a new life within the family or kingdom of God where all are one and where there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male or female.


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