Tuesday, June 28, 2016

A Matter of Identity

In the hours after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, I received e-mails from English friends who said they were in shock. My requests for them to share their feelings were rejected.

Their feelings were too raw to write about, they wrote. In essence I was being insensitive to their pain.

It was as though there had been a death in the family. I needed to allow a respectable amount of time pass before seeking a post mortem.

If Donald Trump becomes this nation’s next president (as may well happen), I’m sure I will ask for the same respect from my friends abroad.

The reaction to the vote to leave the European Union reminds me of a brief encounter I had with a young man while I was in Italy a few years ago. It turns out he was Dutchman living in Venice, working for a multinational sports apparel company, but when I asked him his nationality he answered without hesitation and with considerable pride, “I’m a European.”

The European Union had literally changed his identity.

Reflecting on this and those e-mails from England, I’ve pondered the phenomenon of identity.

What would a Trump victory do to my sense of identity as an American? The answer for many is found in a vow to move to Canada. America under Trump would be a country many could no longer identify with.

For many Americans, it already is. Trump is Exhibit A.

Trump’s personality, behavior and values are simply antithetical what we believe. “My nation right or wrong” no longer cuts it. We have a loyalty to and responsibility for so much more, including the fate of the planet.

A nation that would elect a Trump is a pariah state.

Now the people of Scotland and Northern Ireland are feeling the same way about being tethered to or even identified with a Europe-exiting Britain.

I think many of us have struggled with our identities for years. I have found myself uncomfortably lumped together with others who happen to share the same label, but with whom I have deep disagreements. My response has been to shed the label rather than to be forced to explain.

Perhaps the most striking example is the label “Christian.”  The more I learn about the history of Christians and Christendom, the more I witness the behavior of avowed "Christians," the less I want to be known as a Christian. (An aside: today’s news tells us that James Dobson, one of numerous “professional Christians” who have made millions off their alleged religious belief, is asserting that Trump is now a “born again” Christian.

Give us a break.

Of course Dobson and Trump are just the most recent in a long series of “Christians” using belief and fear of damnation as levers to power and profit.

Fortunately, they haven’t yet besmirch the historical Jesus (forget the “Christ” part, and no, that wasn’t his last name, nor did he take it upon himself). By claiming to be Christians, the "professionally self-righteous" drive millions away from the religion. Moreover, they have obviously ignored Jesus’ message. Dobson and Trump might start with “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” The Beatitudes are worth a review as well. “Blessed are the meek etc.”

Now I’m even grappling with my own “Quaker” affiliation. I have profound disagreements with most Quakers world-wide. The majority in the denomination are fundamentalists and they oppose gay marriage. They are, as we say, “unwelcoming.”  Surprising to many, the majority of Quakers are East Africans who are deeply homophobic, not unlike "The Christian" James Dobson himself.

Is it time to lose my “Quaker” identity, which I’ve had for more than 50 years? Or can I, should I, distinguish myself from other Quakers by qualifying my membership as that of a “liberal Quaker.” Does that somehow clear me of association by name?

Obviously many Jews and Muslims have similar "identity" problems.

Or how can I live in Portland, Oregon and be a “Portlander” without being pigeon-holed into some weird media stereotype from the TV series “Portlandia”?

Then there are the racial, ethnic, class, age, regional and gender identities. As a friend pointed out recently, many identities we can do nothing about . We can’t just drop them through voting this way or that. Or emigrating somewhere else.

And so we have racial profiling; white male privilege, class “bubbles,” and a host of unavoidable prejudices we both harbor and are afflicted with.

It strikes me that the only time we can truly be free of identities we’ve assumed, been assigned, or are born with, is in death. Of course our identities will still survive among the living, but they will be post-humous. Our identities become posterity’s problems; not ours.

As I think of my friends in England, I’m inclined to tell them that once their period of mourning is over, the legalities of their relationship to Europe may have changed, but they haven’t changed their own identities regarding the continent or the world. If anything, they should more loudly and visibly proclaim their oneness with their neighbors. (Is that not is what Jesus, among others, taught?)

Don’t let your identity be defined by politicians, nations, global capitalists, the media and advertising, or anyone else.

Be yourself. Your true identity may just push aside all the others.

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