March 6, 2012
On Being an American – and a Jew?
I’ve been reading about US political history a bit lately and enjoying the dialog. I like so much of what the founding fathers believed and incorporated into our nation’s DNA. Freedom of religion and speech are two great ones. But there are the hypocrisies as well: how could they have been so blind to slavery? In fact they were not blind to it, they just didn’t think it was important enough to fight about. Another striking thing: you know the debate about whether our nation was “founded on Christian values”? Richard Hughes (Myths America Lives By) makes a great point about this: the founding fathers made their deistic religious views quite clear. Look no further than the declaration of independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
That is a substantial theological statement, and it fits with the founders’ interest in generalizing religion as much as possible in order to allow room for all varieties. So it’s an odd thing: on the one hand, no religion; on the other, some very generalized religion.
But I digress.
Also recently I was talking with my father about my heritage. My sister works in Norway and it turns out my Grandmothers’ family came from that country. We still have relatives there. On my mom’s side it’s heavy Germanic stock. I do have a slight connection to the American continent via a 128th part Cherokee. At least that’s what we tell each other. In light of all this I thought, here I am thinking about the founders of my nation as though they were my ancestors, those who came before me, those who formed me. In fact they are nothing of the sort. My ancestors were all solid state church European monarchists at the time of the American revolution. And my one connection to America is to the natives who were dispossessed.
This gave me some pause, I admit. Kind of a mental tweak. Something I have known all along if I thought about it, but didn’t really register. I’m not really the descendant of the people who came over here from Europe and created a new kind of society. I’m a late comer. A kind of straggler. And yet I consider myself a fully legitimate American.
To complicate matters even more, I grew up in Argentina and, these being my formative years, I sometimes feel more like a Latin American than a North American! Ask my Mexican friends whether I’m Argentine of “American” – I’m not actually sure that they will all agree. When I travel it is not uncommon for people to assume I just flew in from Buenos Aires. But that doesn’t get me very far either because that fair city is just another racial and cultural melting pot that rivals New York.
And somehow, I’m a Jew, too!
I’ll have to apologize to actual Jews out there in the same way I might apologize to the descendants of Thomas Jefferson when I call myself an American, or to “pure blood” Argentine “porteños” when I think of my self as Argentine; but in a very similar kind of step I’ve also identified with the story of Israel even though I don’t have any real genetic or historical reason to do so. I think of the story of Israel as my story.
Here’s the interesting thing: Both my American and Jewish (as Christian) heritages have this thing in common, that although they are profoundly formative and continuing sources of identity for me, neither are genetic or historical. Under one definition, I was born into them; under another, I happened nearby them. Either way, I’ve claimed them as my own.
Remember that passage in John?
“To those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (1:12-13).
This a really significant theme throughout the New Testament: the people of God are not to be defined as an ethic group, but as a group of people who join themselves to God. This is arguably one of the Apostle’s Paul’s most important concerns, to show that anyone can be joined to the family of God, regardless of nationality, ethnic ties or heritage. And those who join themselves to Israel through faith in Jesus are grafted into the the “olive tree” of historic Israel. They truly and legitimately may lay claim to that Jewish heritage. Check out these passages from Paul, which, I think, settle the question:
- Galatians 3:7 - Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham.
- Galatians 3:8 - Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.”
- Galatians 3:9 - So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
- Galatians 3:14 - He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.
- Galatians 3:29 - If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
Wow. What good news not only for people of non-Jewish descent, but also for us identity challenged Americans. We are people of the now in more than one way. We seem to pop up out of nowhere and go on into nothing. Truly ephemeral beings. But when we place our faith in Jesus, the Messiah of Israel, we claim that ancient heritage as our own and suddenly we are part of a story; suddenly we are anchored. We are coming from somewhere and going somewhere in the company of a great host.
Identity questing dos and don’ts
I think this question of identity and heritage is an important one these days. Modernism told us that it was all irrelevant, that we were just all human beings, no more questions asked. But it’s pretty clear from the reaction to this sort gross over generalization that we do crave particularism. Is it not enough, perhaps, to just to be a generic human? I don’ t know. What seems clearer is that people these days are searching for identity. Here in the US, and perhaps in the American continent as a whole, this makes a kind of historical sense. We don’t seem to belong to anything or come from anywhere, so we reach out the to the stories around us.
But I’d like to suggest that there are several problematic aspects to how people go about claiming the identity they so huger for these days.
- Identity hunting is often seen as the task of the lone individual, which is pretty much a contradiction. Identity is not something that can only come from or be significant in relation to the individual. The whole point of claiming an identity is that it something that defines you externally. It involves factors which are out of your control. It is what has made you, not what you make yourself. I don’t think that crafting your own unique “recipe of meaning” will ultimately bear the weight of identity questions.
- Similarly identity seeking these days is often fictitious. Any story will serve so as it tells a compelling narrative, so long as it gives context. So for example, modern pagans aren’t really that connected to ancient paganism, and I’m not sure anyone really cares that much either. But if there is no historical connection, I suggest, an identity will not in the end provide the meaning people want to derive from it. It may come close, but I don’t think it will go all the way. I think the story that gives identity must be an historical one. Another way of saying this is that stories that give us identity have to be true stories. If not we are back the the first problem: you can’t root identity in self-meaning.
- I really think that when it comes to identity we have to start with the past. We can’t cook up “something new under the sun” and then derive substantial meaning from it. I’m not saying there are no new ideas, new communities, new ways of thinking. What I am saying is that lasting and helpful newness is forged out of the materials that the past has bequeathed us. I’ll go so far as to say that the less you honor the past, the lesser new your “newness” will be. This is because you will miss the hard-won lessons of the past; you will think you are new, cutting edge, avant-garde, or whatever; but you will just be a rehash of yesterday’s tossed out ideas. Oh the irony: those who ignore the past best embody it. Our world abounds with fake newness. Even thinking that we are new is old by now.
So my point, I guess, is that very likely the best way to clothe oneself, as it were, with meaning, is to identify with an historic community. Identity forming power can only come from the past. Newness can only be crafted out of tradition. The internal “I” can only derive meaning from the external other. And this is pretty much what it means to “become a Christian.” It means to claim the story of ancient Israel as your own and to believe what it says about God, the world and about us.
Someone might object that this contradicts what I just outlined, since it is the individual who chooses to join the Christian community of meaning. Fair point. The difference is that when one becomes a Christian he or she does not merely choose; he or she joins and submits. And the choice is not for meaning in itself, but for for truth, history and reality. It is a recognition more than a decision and that is why I think it really can bear the weight of identity.