Sunday, 21 July 2013

our sense of identity

Some recent discussions among some Christian friends of mine were on the subject of being Counter-cultural.    One said that he believes maintaining integrity with the Bible means always being counter-cultural.

This stirred another musing and reminded me of my undergraduate psychology studies of Social Identity Theory.

As human beings, a large part of our sense of identity comes from comparison with our in-group (where we belong) and our out-group (the others!).

As a travelling Scot, I know only too well that this identity is fluid.  In the city where I live, there are divides depending on where we live.  Jokes are made about the other end of town.  This can be a strong identity, especially during sporting events.  Warmth towards our in-group (as long as they don't violate our core values, but we'll be much more forgiving) and hostility (at times) towards the other group.

Until we have an inter-city rivalry.  Then, we shift our focus and our local differences diminish (along with some hostility) and we face a new "common enemy".

Until we look south (or north or whatever direction your nearest rival nation is).  Then we have a sense of national pride.  This can continue, and no doubt would do so in the event of extra-terrestrial contact...

But how does this relate to Christians?  Well, in our national Church, we've been debating the issue of homosexuality.  This has caused division, pretty much into 2 camps, with some brave exceptions of those resisting the divisive nature of this debate.  As long as the focus remains on a single issue, where people are predominantly in one camp or another, then an in-group and out-group can start to emerge.  I've noticed this first hand.  I've started to feel more than usual warmth towards other Christians who I might not normally spend much time with, because on this issue, we are on the same side of the fence and I feel a need for emotional support and a sense of community.  However, I've equally felt an increase in hostility and irritation towards other Christians on the other side of the fence, and I have begun to associate many traits I disapprove of with membership of this group.

The rational, educated part of me knows what is going on, but the emotional part of me still feels it.

I believe this is in part because I am getting my sense of Christian identity from community membership that is fluid and easily divided.  Bring up another debate (like switching sporting events) and I would no doubt find my sense of identity shifting slightly once more as the defining lines are readjusted.

Christians can run the risk of having 2 groups... The us and them, the saved and the non-believers.  On the one hand, this can help remind us of our mission of reaching the world with the message of God's love.  However, it can easily shift to a condemnation of non-Christian behaviour and a reluctance to associate with the out-group.  Just look through the book of Acts and you will see that this is not a new phenomenon as the Jewish believers were struggling to know how to worship alongside the previously unacceptable gentiles (probably one of the best examples of an in-group and out-group bias).

But is this an unavoidable issue, or can we do something about it?

There are some lovely verses in Hebrews 12 that go:

"Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God."

As we run the race, we must avoid the temptation of comparison with others.  This can lead to pride, arrogance and group blindness (if others we love do something, it must be okay!).  Instead, we need to focus with effort on Jesus and our relationship with him.  Of course, we need fellowship with others and we have a great commission and warnings about being corrupted by the world.  However, it is not here that we should get our identity.  This can lead to the elder brother syndrome of believing certain standards must be met in order to belong or be accepted.  It can also lead to internal division (one of the acts of the sinful nature mentioned by Paul in Galatians).

Instead, we should assess ourselves individually by looking into the eyes of Jesus each and every day.  Instead of looking for approval to our left or right, we need to look up for guidance, while reaching downwards and outwards with love.

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