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June 09, 2011
Beyond the Borders of Identity
On Saturday, June 4th, FTE doctoral and dissertation fellows attended the panel Scholarship in Dialogue with Diaspora: A Reflective Conversation. Drs. Diakite, Hucks, Braga, Hopkins, and Lartey reflected on experiences with African and African diasporic communities. Among others, the theme of identity played a critical role in the reflections. The thrust of these comments was that theological and religious discourse in both the church and academy must resist the tendency to define Christian identity in terms of a bipolar, exclusionary logic that consecrates a hierarchy in which the Christian is naturally superior to the heathen. As Christian pastors, preachers, and educators, we must begin to think about ways of conceiving our personal, congregational, and denominational identities in ways that admit the ambiguity of distinctive qualities between saved and sinner, church and world, “us” and “them.”
Comments from Diakite and Braga are most relevant for those like myself who are concerned to remain faithful to their Christian convictions and claims even as they fully acknowledge the disastrous effects of a globally destructive American colonial Christianity. Diakite invites us to transcend notions of ‘anthropological poverty’ embedded in our Christian imaginations, narratives and identities. Anthropological poverty is a process whereby persons of nonwestern cultures and religions are constructed as ‘natural’ heathens, resulting in a categorical devaluing of their creativity, dignity, pride, ambition, and right to speak. Its ordinary forms, just as lethal as the exceptional, are exemplified in many Christians’ parochial and denigrating (mis)understandings of other religious traditions, especially those that originate in African countries. Much of our knowledge about non-Christian religions comes more by way of demonizing fables than descriptive facts; we often privilege Victorian interpretations of diasporic religions over more complex portrayals. In turn, anthropological poverty continues to play a key role in imperial processes of civilization. Those robbed of their fundamental value as persons become the ‘uncivilized’; Western Christian imaginations aid in the construction of the nonwestern other as naturally predatory and anti-social. As such, the uncivilized are rendered ready subjects of violent imperial technologies, sanctioned by both state and church, hell-bent on executing the divine plan of civilization, salvation, and progress. As a Christian scholar and minister, my ignorance of Nonwestern religions contributes to current operations of American empire in Africa, the African diaspora, and other ‘natured’ lands.
What to do? First, learn as much as you can about other religions. No matter where one searches, it is always the case that things are more complex than we assume. Braga offers two more tasks that could be of help in reorienting interfaith positionalities and dispositions. First, we should acknowledge the dynamism of our own religious traditions. If we think about it, no tradition or identity is as pure, innocent, or uncontested as we would imagine. Christian unity has only been Christian uniformity in the romantic Christian imaginaire. Perhaps we should begin to think about the ways in which God works with difference, tensions, and ambiguities. Second, we need to begin to acknowledge God’s active grace beyond the bounds of our particular doctrines, denominations, and congregations, and more, beyond the borders of American ontological and political sovereignty. These tasks might be best taken up in an ethical framework. I might ask, for example, whether or not Christian and non-Christian, non-Western religions have any shared virtues, values, or goods. What might we learn from other traditions’ ways of life? Do these traditions bring to light any morally vicious acts within my own faith? Are there shared concerns around which we might found new relationships? In these and many other ways, we can begin to think about new kinds of American Christianities in the twenty-first century, those that resist the tendencies of empire by finding God beyond the borders of our identities.
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