Career, possessions and body image are today's holy trinity. Is it any wonder we obsess over our identity and feel the insecurity we don't quite match up?
I wonder how you would describe yourself if someone asked? For me, the words ‘over-weight, under-fit, white middle aged Anglican male with a desk job’ would do nicely. Sounds really glamorous, doesn’t it? The only minority status I have in this world is being left-handed, which doesn’t really cut it in the struggle for civil rights.
Personal identity has become such an important question for us today and we are asking it in a very different way to previous eras. Three major forces have hit us in the last century or so: industrialisation, urbanisation and globalisation. The role of technology in life is re-defining both the workplace and how we understand ourselves. The impact of packing more people into less space in our cities means we know almost nothing about the people we shop alongside or travel to work with and as neighbourhoods change, even our locality can feel strangely anonymous. As the philosopher Michael Sandel said: ‘in our public life we are more entangled, but less attached, than ever before’. Meanwhile, globalisation means there is a new and at times bewildering flow of people, money, ideas, goods and services across national borders that re-shape us continually.
The bonds that tie us together have been loosened and we are freer to express ourselves and piece together our own unique identity than ever before. This is allied to a tendency to compete with one another and an insatiable desire to compare ourselves to the next person, in the hope we will come off better. The instinct to co-operate with others, which is written on our hearts by God, is at war with the more destructive impulse to get the better of them.
In this more anonymous and competitive world, many people are left feeling inadequate as in their own minds they do not match up to others when it comes to where they work, what they earn and how they look. Career, possessions and body image are the holy trinity of this new world and there is a host of media which thrusts into our faces on a daily basis the greater success of others. Is it any wonder we obsess over our identity and feel the insecurity that we don’t quite match up?
It is into this culture that Peter utters the words of those who follow Christ: ‘you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation’ (1 Peter 2:9). Jesus said the truth shall set us free and I would invite us to meditate on these words of Peter, because they have the power to re-boot our dysfunctional lives. Our worries today about identity are wrapped up with being an individual. Those modern forces have stripped away much of what it means to be part of a genuine community, leaving us exposed and alone and feeling the need to prove ourselves to others. Yet human identity is formed by the community we live in. Today people talk carelessly about all kinds of communities which are nothing of the sort because its people are dispersed over long distances and rarely, if ever, see one another. A strong community like a church where people meet regularly, pray together, eat together, laugh and cry together, shapes us into the image of Peter’s words. Together we are a people, a priesthood, a nation. And this corporate identity informs who each of us is, person by person. If we are chosen, then I am chosen; if we are royalty, then I am royalty; if we are holy, then I am holy.
There are aspects of this we sometimes do not find it easy to accept. The idea of being chosen is one of them. Perhaps this is because of our belief in equality. We are scrupulous in trying to treat everyone the same way, and the belief that some are picked and others aren’t is a hard sell. To speak of being chosen also suggests we have a problem with our ego; in that wonderful modern put-down, that we should get over ourselves. The selection of God is a mysterious choice, but it calls for a human response which all are free to make and, if we are chosen, it is with a view to living a life for God in such a way that others will make that response too.
There is a sense of separateness in the words of Peter which also challenge us. In human society, priests, kings and queens are usually set apart from others to live, and be treated, differently. The human urge to blend in is almost irresistible, from how we express our opinions, to what culture we admire, to which fashions we adopt. It takes courage and feistiness to stand out from the crowd because difference makes us a target. How the Church expresses its distinctiveness today is a big part of whether our evangelism is successful or not. When we are so blended in with the way others think and act, there is little to commend the Gospel to others. Yet if we become so alien to others that we just look and sound weird, there is nothing that appeals. I don’t think we have got this balance entirely right in the UK, as churches gravitate towards one state or the other: either so similar in character and commitments to others as to be unnoticeable or so dissimilar to others as to look peculiar. How we work this question out as a church defines our mission.
We have to marvel at God’s choices, for he draws together the most unlikely of people to be friends in the Gospel. The Church is one of the few institutions that locates in one place people who would not otherwise mix and where they all accept an equal place at the foot of the cross, in need of God’s grace and with access to his Spirit. We talk of level-playing fields in life, but the Gospel is impeccable in its delivery of this. No-one has a prior claim to God’s mercy.
Peter also speaks of the early Christians as living stones that are being built into a spiritual house. A combination of Roman persecution and Jewish rejection meant there was no secure place of worship for those who followed Jesus then. There was no temptation to put their trust in the majesty of the buildings that faithful Jews and pagan Romans might have felt when they came to worship. Their security and identity was formed in Christ. We have come a long way since then. When the New Testament speaks about the Church it means essentially the people who inhabit the building; when we talk of the Church today it all too readily means the building that surrounds the people. No wonder our grasp of what it means to be a living stone is so shaky.
Obama's Covert Wars
The use of drones is going to change warfare out of all recognition in the next decades.
Through A Glass Starkly
Images of traumatic incidents caught on mobile phone can be put to remarkable effect.
What Are British Values?
Is there a British identity and if so, what has shaped the values and institutions that form it?