The Space Between and the Migration of Identity

The Space Between and the Migration of Identity August 31, 2016

Today’s guest post comes from Jenny McGill. She is the author of Religious Identity and Cultural Negotiation: Toward a Theology of Christian Identity in Migration (Pickwick 2016). I had the pleasure of reading the book in manuscript form. Here’s my endorsement: “This genre-bending book, drawing from social science and theology, considers the identity construction of Christian immigrants who straddle continents and cultures. Grounded in rigorous research spanning multiple countries, it is a cogently argued and theologically profound meditation on how disoriented religious actors rewrite their identities within faith communities.” –David R. Swartz

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If history has taught us anything, should it have taught us humility, to hesitate before being so sure of ourselves? Broadly speaking, this book heralds that message. My approach in the book is interdisciplinary pulling from psychology, sociology, and theology to discuss the concept of identity, that self-understanding of who we think we are. How do we form who we are? Why? How does that make us treat those around us?

Image result for religious Identity and Cultural Negotiation: Toward a Theology of Christian Identity in MigrationIn a cross-cultural, multinational pursuit, I surveyed 405 international migrants from 64 countries and interviewed those from 9 countries (living in former Communist Europe and South Asia) to investigate how they expressed their sense of religious, national, and ethnic/cultural identities as they alternated between majority and minority group status. All had entered the U.S. as international students, thus moving from being a member of the ethnic majority to now an ethnic minority. All of them had professed an evangelical faith, many of whom then also moved from being a member of a religious minority to now a member of the Christian majority in a southern metropolis in the U.S.

What did this reveal? How did they describe themselves during these multiple disruptions? What can we learn? Their narratives are rich and convicting. Weaving precedent literature from multiple disciplines with their personal stories, I came to this: the formation of personal identity requires movement. Certainly, our self-conception is fixed in some respects, providing a stability for us to make sense of the world. However, our identity-making requires a migration, often out from who we thought we were. Several variables drive this identity negotiation, and I discuss what those were for these internationals in their various relocations.

Most of us hold multiple identities, one of which is more salient in a given situation yet another of which may be more central over time (see the work of Robert M. Sellers). I take a narrative view of life and identity in that the story we write of ourselves can be rewritten. Could one otherwise make space within one’s self to receive another or differentiate from another?

Multiple discoveries were drawn from the qualitative and quantitative data: what was most important to these graduates in constructing their identities, their divine calling and stewardship in migration, the negotiation of their identities based on alternate cultural surroundings. Given their outsider perspectives on U.S. culture, two themes of how they perceived its citizens emerged: our racialization of identity and the conflation of religious with national identities among evangelicals. One participant noted, for example, how strange it was to find U.S. churches segregated along racial/ethnic lines; in Singapore, churches are segregated by language. Additionally, those who returned overseas discussed the unexpected challenges they endured since “home” was no longer the same character of place they had left, neither were the inhabitants, nor were they. They faced new threats and opportunities to their respective identities as a result of their physical movement.

Drawing from biblical literature and sociological research, I explore the negotiation and migration of personal identities. While writing this book, I did not anticipate the points of history in which we now find ourselves that it would strikingly intersect: how we treat the undocumented, our political decisions, racial tension in this country. I have touched on the last elsewhere, so I won’t elaborate how the book relates here. Ultimately, I argue that physical migration is a helpful metaphor for identity formation; indeed, personal transformation intrinsically requires migration, a movement within one’s self.

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