The woman had just returned from a trip to Russia where she discovered some Jewish lineage in her distant forbearers. At our clergy group meeting that week she effusively declared: “I’m a white, black brown, Muslim, Jewish, Christian woman.” (I’m not sure why she ignored the large menu of Eastern religions.) I suggested to her that this was not possible, that she had to choose. I pointed out that being all these things at once, she could not be any one of them with any depth. She countered that her spirit had grown too big for traditional categories of identity. I lost interest in the conversation at that point but did suggest to her that I had some elderly black women in my church who had come North fleeing Jim Crow decades ago who would likely be glad to meet with her to assess the authenticity of her experience as a black woman. I was not sure what part of growing up white in a wealthy neighborhood in Princeton, New Jersey; four years at Vassar; and then ten years as pastor of a suburban church in Montgomery county, the 51st wealthiest county in the nation, qualified her to such an all-encompassing appreciation of the human experience. But as I said, I had lost interest in the conversation.
Having seen a great deal more of the world in the intervening twenty years, I am even more convinced today than I was then that she was incapable of wearing such a broad identity. You cannot be all things to all people. If you try, you quickly become very little to anyone. One might cite the Apostle Paul to demonstrate the flaw in my thinking:
For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings. (1 Cor. 9:19-13).
Paul writes “I became as a Jew…as a one under the law.” I do not think that Paul is saying that he is (any longer) any of these things but that he can successfully relate to and find affinities with these various types of people. I think he is able to do so because he knows who he is in a starkly particular way and is entirely unapologetic about it. Someone who writes “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2)” and “Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I glorify my ministry in order to make my own people jealous, and thus save some of them (Romans 11:13-14)” is a person with a strong sense of identity. Paul knows who he is and what he is living for; this gives him the freedom to engage people who do not share this same identity. He is not trying to be all things to all people; rather he is demonstrating the power and confidence that comes from knowing who he is in Christ and what God has called him to do.
Why do we sometimes feel we need to be all things to all people? We sometimes confuse a commitment to pluralism with a neutrality born of the desire to iron over any tension generated by conviction. As a nation we are committed to pluralism; it is one of the core values of our society. Pluralism, however, does not relativize all conviction and smother all passionate commitment; it does not mean a homogenization of our beliefs. Pluralism says that we deliberately make room for passionate commitment to highly particularized convictions and their expression in our living. Pluralism does not mean we apologize for our faith; it means we are free to practice it with vigor. Baptists have long maintained that only in an atmosphere of freedom—where we can choose otherwise—can we authentically choose for Christian faith. The loving father in the parable in Luke chapter 15 knew that for his younger son to truly choose obedience and belonging, he had to be free to choose otherwise. American Baptists have worked hard to guard this freedom that is so essential to freely chosen authentic faith. I am unapologetically Christian; more than that, I am unashamedly Baptist. Pluralism means that I can openly revel in this identity among others who are of a different tribe.
By choosing to be a Christian of the Baptist persuasion, I am choosing against a multitude of other identities. There are many things I cannot be; one identity excludes others. A piece of knowing who we are is knowing who we are not. We cannot, with authenticity, be all things to all people.
Pluralism provides space for each of us to passionately and unapologetically declare who we are and what matters to us. It does not necessitate that we apologize for our beliefs or suppress our convictions. I am
- a follower of Jesus Christ, being day by day transformed by the Spirit into his image,
- shaped for better or for worse by where and when I was born and those people who have shaped my life,
- called to love to the point of sacrifice those whom God loves,
- being slowly but surely prepared for the day when God’s reign will come in its fullness.
When I claim this identity in an immediate and fresh way, I am better equipped to relate to and find affinities with those who are not quite like me. A strong sense of identity does not cut us off from others, rather it frees us to engage and even love others who are unlike us. The Apostle Paul knew unapologetically who he was and who he was not; thus he was able to build bridges to everyone he met.