Magazine article U.S. Catholic

The Great I Am? We May All Be One in Christ, but That Doesn't Mean Our Individual Identities Don't Endure

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

The Great I Am? We May All Be One in Christ, but That Doesn't Mean Our Individual Identities Don't Endure

Article excerpt

Take a moment to write down 10 words that best describe you. If you're stuck for ideas, you might start with the basic information on your driver's license: name, gender, age. Some of us will quickly include nationality and religious affiliation, race or political leaning. Others will go straight for the adjectives central to our self-understanding (or perhaps self-idealization): honest, bold, kind, helpful, creative, funny. Few of us will choose to go all confessional and include the other side of our personal equation: pandering, fearful, self-congratulatory, judgmental.

Consider this list merely a stick figure of your ego (literally, your "I am"). For the record, on this particular morning, my "I am" goes something like this -.female, Catholic, articulate, graying, book-lover, storyteller, sister, aunt, playful, serious. Some of these words describe what I am and others what I like to do. Still others situate me in relationships that are central to my life. I have a boatload of siblings and no children of my own, and my roles as sister and aunt have defined my sense of belonging in the world most profoundly.

If you'd asked for this list 20 years ago it surely would have been different. Ask me again next week and it might be shuffled a bit. But according to St. Paul, all of these details must be put aside. He views categories as potential obstacles in our common identity as church. After a spirited exhortation, pleading with the Colossians to "put to death" all earthly drives and attachments, Paul ends with an emphatic declaration: Here "there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!"

Sometimes it's clear why Paul made such a good missionary: He had to keep moving around when his zeal led him to make statements so deeply unpopular! Just imagine what it would take for you to crush your little list of 10 prime identifiers and toss them away for the sake of being church. In Paul's society, it was no easier. Hellenized citizens were as proud of their superior Greek culture as the often separatist Jews were adamant about their moral superiority. Circumcision was not only a line drawn boldly in the sand, but an intimate scar dug into the flesh. Barbarians were defined as those who spoke no Greek: From the perspective of the Roman Empire, such a person was a lesser form of human. Scythians from north of the Black Sea were, to first-century historian Josephus at least, even lower: "slightly better than wild beasts." A Roman slave was property and not a legal person. Roman society depended on the upholding of these distinct classes, and Jewish culture was by no means less interested in maintaining these boundaries.

One wonders, then, how Paul got up the gumption to brush these all-important categories away in his premiere model of church. If you are in Christ, you are Christ, Paul asserts. No part of the Body is less Christ than another, no matter what role he or she plays, finger or toe. And if Christ is all and in all, then whether you've been marked in your flesh with the sign of the covenant or are branded as your master's household property is an irrelevant detail. One supposes that, to the son of Abraham and to the slave, such a detail was quite relevant. Paul's breezy erasure would have been stunning to both.

Every Greek in Paul's audience would have included that identity in the 10-item stick figure drawing of himself, as would every last Jew. Perhaps so-called barbarians and Scythians would have used other terms to describe themselves, but their sense of being outliers would also have included a belonging to some significant ethnicity. …

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