Susan Sevier is currently a student at the Virginia Theological Seminary and a church musician at the Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, DC. When she is not pondering the meaning of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, she works as a freelance classical musician and writer. She blogs about her seminary experiences at www.sevierlybaptist.com and continues her musings on the relationship between music and faith at www.singingthejourney.com
A lot of study in a seminary program is devoted to the question of identity: you’re own, your faith identity, and how you walk alongside others in a meaningful way to help them as they discover their own identity, as an individual, as a member of a community, and as a disciple. The questions “Who are you?” and “Who are you becoming?” and “Who do you want to be?” come up often.
As you might guess, my desk is covered with books on this topic, book s like James Fowler’s Stages of Faith and Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian, by the same author. There is one book about identity formation however that has sat on my desk for many months now, waiting for me open its cover and get started. And this week, I have finally granted its wish. I now understand why I waited so long.
The book in question is The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism by Regina M. Schwartz. I am someone who believes strongly that we must study the Hebrew Bible to grasp the roots of our own Christian faith. Our identity as Christians begins there, in those ancient stories. But I, like many others, struggle with the violence and bloodshed in those stories even though as an historian I understand the cultural context.
You know the questions raised by these tales, often asked by someone suspicious of faith and church (and sometimes by those sitting next to you in the pew) – how can you reconcile the God of Love you talk about on Sundays with the God of the stories told in the books Joshua and Judges? How does the God who created all the beauty of the earth extolled by the poet in Psalm 104 allow bad things to happen to good people, allow war and famine and hatred and racism and all the other evils of human history and human society? Schwartz, an English professor and specialist in the works of John Milton, is a self-labeled secularist, but she asks these same questions and comes up with a rather stunning conclusion…it all has to do with identity formation:
…the origins of (this) violence (are)in identity formation, … identity (formation) as an act of distinguishing and separating from others, of boundary making and line drawing, is the most frequent fundamental act of violence we commit. Violence is not only what we do to the Other. It is prior to that. Violence is the very construction of the Other (pg. 5).
We are human beings and therefore flawed. We label, we differentiate, and we create categories to tell us why we are different; we seek to understand by comparison. But by that simple action taken to make ourselves feel more comfortable, more safe, more protected, we create another category – the Other…the one who is NOT US. And as we have seen through human history, that Other, the NOT US, is expendable…we can justify war against them, we can enslave them, we can deny them a right to vote or to have enough food or a right to work or a right to health care because they are NOT US. When we define our identity in terms of the Other, we create a world of scarcity and a world where violence is an acceptable response to that scarcity. And we ignore the beauty and abundance of God’s creation, we ignore the God who provides manna in the wilderness, the words of the Psalmist as he praises creation, the possibilities of what is known as Paradise in the Hebrew Bible and the Kingdom of Heaven in the Gospels.
As Christians, we often run from these difficult parts of the Hebrew text, these ideas that challenge us to look at our own identity and its roots. But we must understand that our faith, too, grew out of this world of violence and differentiation and continues to suffer from attacks against the created Other even today.
I would agree with Schwartz that by editing the text we hear to suit our squeamishness we miss out on important lessons that can help us form a better identity. First, we miss out on stories that would have been well known to Jesus and the Disciples and all of the early believers , stories that are foundational to Jesus’ teaching and the message of the Gospels. Second, we miss the lessons to be learned about our own failings and our own humanity. And, most of all, we miss the possibility that these texts are graphic and violent and horrible in a way that can teach us a deep sympathy for the Other that we in our humanness have created, to teach us that we must remember to embrace the outcast, because we too are that outcast, that Other, that NOT US. And then, maybe there will be hope for us humans yet:
Perhaps when we have grown weary of asserting all of our differences, we will be willing to think more of likenesses, analogies, even identifications – not to forge totality, but to endlessly compose and recompose temporary and multiple identifications (p. 37).
I invite you to spend some time with the Hebrew books. Don’t close your eyes to the violence; don’t close your eyes to the stories of hope and beauty and faith. Read the whole story, because it is your story too…and every time we can identify with someone that society is all too happy to call Other is one more time when the Kingdom of Heaven gets just a little bit closer for us all.