Magazine article The Christian Century

Making for Home

Magazine article The Christian Century

Making for Home

Article excerpt

WHEN I WAS a child I spoke as a child, understood as a child, reasoned as a child. I knew my parents loved me best and assumed my several siblings all agreed. I mistook abundant love for especial favor and blessings for entitlements, and I took pride in things I ought to have been simply grateful for. I mistook good fortune for God's approval and worldly outcomes for the will of God. Kennedy won because God was on our side. When my grandfather died, I assumed it was me-something I'd done or failed to do. Maybe the first time I ate meat on a Friday, at Bobby Bacon's house. It was baloney.

I believed that ours was the one true faith and that I ought to disabuse my unenlightened neighbors of theirs. They said theirs was the way and truth and light. One even claimed to be chosen by God. We all called each other vile, hateful, childish names. "Bile and rancor," my mother called it and sent me off to see the priest. I was passionate and undismayed.

It is in childhood that we come by our identities--those elements of tribe and sect, people and place, race and creed and geography that tell us who we are, where we come from, to whom we belong. These identities align us with one crowd and separate us from others. In childhood we learn the power of naming and its perils. Irish Catholics, Missouri Synod Lutherans, Reform Jews, Sunni Muslims--this taxonomy makes safe the way for later variations: right-wing evangelicals, radical Islamists, secular humanists, Zionist Jews. This "naming and claiming" can be a comfort and scourge, the way both God and the devil inhabit details. The same for every baptism, every initiation ritual: it marks us as aligned with some and at odds with others.

So much of our experience is grounded in this "denomination"--this sorting and separating each from the other. It began in the garden and may never end. But whence comes the impulse to name one's kind the blessed and elect while others become, by default, the savage or pagan, deluded or damned? These are the bittersweet fruits of identity politics: we are defined and divided by it. Google Baghdad, Belfast, Darfur or Detroit, the cities of men and of angels--sounding brass, tinkling cymbals, without charity.

One of you says, "I follow Paul"; another, "I follow Apollos"; another, "I follow Cephas."

So lamented Paul to the Corinthians, bedeviled in their own times by such divisions. He had been around this track with the church at Rome, where the locals wanted to quibble about circumcision. …

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