Dec  2016 13
An Identity Worth a Crisis

Some years back, it was common to hear that So-And-So was having an “identity crisis.” Certainly, the question of “Who am I?” is not a new one. But it is a common question in the modern world.

Apparently, a person might have an identity crisis if raised without a sufficient community in which an identity might be formed, and there are (arguably) fewer strong communities in the modern world to help found an identity than in the pre-modern world.

On the other hand, it is possible to be raised in a tightly-knit family or community in which identity is imparted by the community, where identity is inherited rather than chosen. Persons raised within such contexts talk about the identity crisis that causes them to push away from a constricted, imparted identity and seek their own path.

Writers such as Chaim Potok made a career of telling that story. I once heard a Roman Catholic express, with appreciation, “At least the Catholic Church imparts an identity that one can have a crisis about!”

Many Protestant leaders, including me, worry that congregations have not formed a sufficiently strong identity to have a crisis about. And a community or society with weak identity formation is a crisis waiting to happen. The right religious leader or national figure comes along and offers what our too-weak communities have left out.

In Howard Thurman’s classic book, Jesus and the Disinherited, he relates a perception about identity formation from a woman who escaped Germany during the Nazi reign.

She described the powerful magnet that Hitler was to German youth. The youth had lost their sense of belonging. They did not count; there was no center of hope for their marginal egos. According to my friend, Hitler told them: “No one loves you—I love you; no one will give you work—I will give you work; no one wants you—I want you.” And when they saw the sunlight in his eyes, they dropped their tools and followed him. He stabilized the ego of the German youth, and put it within their power to overcome their sense of inferiority.

Thurman contends that giving a person a sense of identity rooted in being made in the image of God, being a child of God, provides (my term here) immunity from being drawn into the orbit of those “leaders” who can impart identity—and take it away. “The awareness of being a child of God tends to stabilize the ego and results in a new courage, fearlessness, and power.”

Stable egos and powerful courage that overcomes fear do not describe where the U.S., and a good many religious congregations, are today.

For the past year or more, attention to “identity politics” has grown, with all kinds of judgments (good, bad, and indifferent) about the value of dividing/being divided by attributes. Clearly, identity and a sense of with whom we identify played a huge role in the election. Both before and after the election, fear has grown.

We people of religious faith should be asking how effective we have been, and how effective we might be, in developing the kind of spiritual identity Thurman addresses. What if religious congregations paid more attention to cultivating a sense that each human being is created in the image of God, and that we ought to treat each other as created in the image of God?

It is hard to imagine how we could love God and love our neighbors as ourselves without the foundational identity of being created in, and seeing others as, the image of God. I’d like to see congregations work more at offering our members an identity that is worth a crisis.

Quotes from Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, pp. 39-40. Beacon Press paperback edition.

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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