The Self Under Attack

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Exodus 1:8-2:10 OR Isaiah 51:1-6
Psalm 124
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

We live in times of anxiety about identity. Philosopher Charles Taylor suggests that modern people are especially pressed to play some active role in determining who we are. We construct our identities not only in conversation with others, though this is an important part of the process. We are also involved in a “self-conversation,” as the story of our lives will often be an uneasy weaving of various threads. These threads are born out of the transitions of our attachments and allegiances over time. Moreover, some new threads will be defined by overcoming earlier ones—i.e., the new, fit, and productive me supersedes the lazy couch potato.

How these threads remain together may itself be an important moral task, a task of proper story construction, or integrity. We face a great temptation to protect our identities against attack. It’s a strange war we wage when fighting for our identities, for we project outward a war raging within. It is difficult to locate one’s enemies in such confusion. For instance, I was raised in a Catholic church, a tradition from which I was in a sense orphaned (or, at least, put up for foster care). Later on, I was taken in by a Protestant community. How do I narrate that story? Dark to light? We are tempted, even here, to do violence to ourselves.

Taylor presents this as especially a modern predicament, but as Christians we are in touch with ancient resources for grappling with the complexities of identity. In different ways, this week’s lectionary readings refer to the question of identity. “Who am I?” “Who are we?”

The story from Exodus can be read as loss of self recast as grand, public drama. The narrator refers to the Egyptian king’s poor memory—memory being a key to identity story-making—when noting “He did not know Joseph,” the outsider who had been so useful in keeping the dynasty going. To keep his “we”, and thus “I,” safe, he goes about the work of securing the “state,” reducing outsider peoples to tools for this task.

“The Lord on our side…” We can hear this bit from Psalm 124 as it echoes out from many American Christian pulpits, expressing fear of encroaching Muslims, or gays, or women. These echoes remind us that fear can be woven into our most pious performances. We discover within strange brew consisting in the (mistaken) search for authentic Christianity combined with the need for an “other” against whom to define ourselves. Here again a war within ourselves is projected outwards as an undiscerning and indiscriminate weapon.

Yet the passages also represent subversions of identity. Consider how in Exodus the midwives outsmart the King, undermine his program, and force him to take the next step toward what will prove his undoing. And consider how the plan of Moses’ mother draws on the simple compassion of Pharaoh’s daughter, making an unlikely alliance that will have great repercussions not only for undermining one oppressor but in revealing a source of judgment over all forms of human self-assertion.

In the passage from Isaiah, identity is rendered as re-calling a particular history, and thus a re-membering of God’s people.

Paul’s passage in the letter to the Romans also leads to a description of membership in the church, Christ’s body. But, en route to this “we,” he presents Christian sense of self in terms of its offering up. His reference to the “sacrifice” of our (individual) bodies as spiritual worship, presumes the background of baptism. And, as described in Romans 6, baptism points to the cross,“Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?”(Rom. 6:3)

Identity and the cross. I submit that Paul is presenting us here a radical spiritual exercise, for it is a radical model that he is pointing to. If used as a touchstone for our self-buidling activities, what would be the result–disturbance, interruption, even a sense that we are under attack?

When we remember our baptism, don’t we in a sense utter Jesus’ question—“Who do you say that I am?”—in our own voices?

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