Lord Help the Sister


Sunday was Independence Day in the United States, or was it Monday? However the holiday was split, the nation celebrated its declared independence from foreign rule along with its affirmation of the equality of all human beings before our Creator, even if there were a great many exceptions to the equality back in the early years of the nation’s life and even though there continue to be exceptions to equality today in this disturbing time when civil and human rights are held up to scorn by political opportunists playing upon the fear and rage inflamed predictably by our current Great Recession.

My personal celebration of the nation’s birthday included buying and beginning to read Amartya Sen’s short book, Identity and Violence: the Illusion of Destiny. Because I have been doing more writing the reading, I am only about 50 pages into the book, but Sen has already made one of his major arguments quite clear: he objects to the currently popular notion that we are engaged in a great and supremely decisive clash of civilizations. All the rage these days (underscore “rage”) is the pseudo-apocalyptic vision of an Armageddon between Western Civilization and Muslim Civilization. Supposedly the world has also a Hindu Civilization and a Buddhist Civilization. Sen argues convincingly that no such grand, simple, and overriding categories actually exist on the living planet Earth. We human beings are not segregated so neatly into civilizations.

I am in many ways, no doubt, a man of Western thought and world view, although as a lifelong student of the Bible, I also hold and identify myself with many viewpoints and attitudes that I must acknowledge as more Eastern than Western. The Bible is, after all, a collection of ancient Near Eastern writings. But I am also a Christian, specifically (since I’m talking about groups to which I “belong”) a Presbyterian Reformed Protestant Christian. I am an American, a native of New Jersey but also an erstwhile and future resident of Pennsylvania. I am white, an identity which means rather little to me. I am male, an identity I consider very basic though not terribly significant in some situations where others seem to regard it as all-important. I am heterosexually oriented, an identity I celebrate personally but see no reason to advance belligerently in the public forum. I am a son (a truth which still matters even though my parents have died), a husband, a father, a brother, an uncle, a pastor, a friend, a Democrat, a fisherman, a liberal or progressive or something of the sort much of the time, a teacher, a student, a writer, and a reluctant denizen of Facebook. Oh yeah, and a blogger.

What is my strongest identity, the one which commands my deepest and strongest loyalty? Sen points out that my answer may depend upon the present situation that raises the question of my loyalties and priorities at the time. The answer need not be absolute for every situation. Even what would seem my primary identity in terms of commitment, that of being a Christian, may not be easily seen as primary in some particular situation, especially one in which being a Christian is presumed by others to oblige me to be defensive of the privileges of being Christian in the United States and hostile or judgmental toward people of other faiths or of no religious faith at all. In such matters, I am more of a secularist that a religious sectarian, although I take the secularist position specifically because I am a Christian.

Right there comes my first quibble with Sen’s book, although I have not yet read far enough to be sure he won’t come around to my way of seeing things (a smiling emoticon would go here if I used them). He argues, persuasively, that we must make choices about how much priority to give a particular identity within the context of a specific situation in life. Granted, but I think the question is not only, “How much priority in this situation?” but also, “What kind of priority?” I would contend that it is un-Christian to demand special privileges for Christians in the United States or to seek cultural predominance for my religion. More than a few Christians would disagree with me on that point in their anger over the loss of cultural establishment for our particular religion (“Wish me a ‘Merry Christmas’ and not a damned ‘happy holiday’ or I’ll take my business elsewhere!”) And are we to assume that being an American means the same to all Americans? I contend, for example, that it is more faithful to the United States for a citizen to be critical of its actions in the world of nations than to be an America-first! nationalist. The country is served better, I believe, by citizens who care about the quality and integrity of American democratic life than by those who desire only American supremacy.

When the issue at hand is prominence or dominance, I find it also necessary to emphasize my identity as a human being over my principal commitment to being a Christian. Of course, I see such a choice of emphasis as being called for by Jesus of Nazareth, but if we’re thinking only in terms of group identities and loyalties, it might seem I am giving my humanity priority over my Christianity.

What if the demands of being a Christian and a pastor clash with those of faithfulness to my being a husband or a father? Does the faith overrule love?

Sen’s argument is that we human beings cannot be so simply divided into “civilizations” and that so to divide us makes belligerence and violence inescapable.

Way back in 1954, a movie sported an Irving Berlin song called “Sisters.” The lyrics suggest, in lighthearted style, the kind of situational prioritizing of identities and loyalties Sen commends.

Those who’ve seen us know that not a thing could come between us
Many men have tried to split us up, but no one can
Lord help the mister who comes between me and my sister
And Lord help the sister who comes between and my man.

The last line, of course, sets things in perspective. The questions have to include how much loyalty and of what kind a particular identity may legitimately require of us. And when does my loyalty to a larger group become a toxic extension of my own ego or an enslavement to some popular but poisonous notion of what that loyalty should be?