Self-Identifying

This list of 2008’s Top 10 Christian Bashers from the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission is, to be frank, ridiculous on its face. The vast majority of my brain looks at stuff like this, sighs and moves on, because…what can I say? Most of it is all too predictable, though a little discouraging.

The part of my brain that won’t move on from this particular article, however, is the one that was stopped short by countdown items number 3 and 2. Back-to-back, we’re told that Barack Obama’s declaration of his Christian faith is an act of “defamation” while it was Sarah Palin’s mere self-identification “as Christian” that led to her being heinously attacked. The leap in logic is immediately apparent – we’re expected to accept that Christians are being persecuted by the left simply for stating that they are Christian while simultaneously getting outraged about the overwhelming support and electoral victory garnered by a man who dares to call himself a Christian.

For the most part, this is still depressingly predictable. I find it a little odd, however, that despite the placement of these two items next to each other, the authors seem to have missed the connection between them. I do recognize that without this “oversight”, a great deal of the persecution complex becomes untenable, so I guess I just expected some more significant rhetorical tricks to attempt to cover up the parallel. The thing about the Christian faith is that self-identification is (debatably, I know) among the most important markers of who is and who is not in the group. I’m no scholar of world religions, but what understanding I do have of others suggests that the importance placed on declaration of beliefs is significantly stronger in Christianity (anyone who is a scholar of comparative religions – or really, anyone more familiar with the topic than little ol’ me – can feel free to correct me here, or help me to modify this position). Certain kinds of behaviours matter, of course, and there’s the idea that genuine commitment to Christ will lead towards a specific path – though which specific path varies with sect, with cultural context, with C/church and even with individual practitioner. Even if some (on both the left and the right) wish to place specific limitations, using whatever historical and biblical criteria they deem most relevant, on who is entitled to self-identify as “Christian” without reproach, the point remains that, anthropologically speaking, a person pretty much “becomes” a Christian by publicly declaring themselves Christian (usually through an act of baptism).

I’ve been hesitant to confess that I’ve actually been struggling with that self-identification for quite some time now, and while I hate to admit it, this kind of bullshit article really doesn’t help. I don’t think it’s my own beliefs that have been shifting so much as my understanding of the implications of the words and labels, especially as the readings I’m doing in my academic life continue to point out ever-more-intensely horrifying layers of those implications. Some of this line of thinking takes me in a more personal direction that I’m up for going in this particular post, but in addition to being stupidly busy, I suspect that this struggle might be keeping me from blogging more than I’d like. There’s a weird dynamic of self-identification connected to blogs, which lend themselves so well to categorization and Ven diagrams of collaboration and contact, but less well to shifting positions and permeable labels.

I don’t have a point of closure for this highly meandering post, except to say that it’s kind of a way of dipping my toe into some personal waters in that oh-so-strangely intimate-yet-distant venue of the blogosphere.

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4 thoughts on “Self-Identifying

  1. Dw3t-Hthr says:

    Yeah, Christianity comes down very hard on the whole belief thing — the whole “works/faith” distinction was, at least at the time it was discussed, as far as I’m aware kind of novel, because everyone else in the Mediterranean world was in the “You know you’re doing it right because you’ve performed the appropriate rituals” camp.

    I don’t know how much that’s influenced other things and later religions (like Islam), though.

  2. kisekileia says:

    I can relate to the self-identification issues. I think I’ve also copped more shit for my not drinking (which is because I have a ton of risk factors for alcoholism) because people associate it with my Christianity and think I’m being holier-than-thou than I otherwise would.

    Unfortunately, an awful lot of Christians and Christian groups (especially on the right) have very strict ideas about the doctrinal (and sometimes behavioural requirements) for legitimately calling oneself a Christian. A lot view those requirements as a basic part of “real” Christian faith, in fact. In the last couple of years, I’ve really come to see how problematic such requirements are, and become mostly content to let people self-identify.

  3. purtek says:

    Thanks for the added clarity, Dw3t-Hthr…part of what I’m not sure about as well is the influence that this premise has had on other religions since the spread of Christianity (not just later ones, but older ones that have adapted or whatever). The exact ratio of works/faith relationship, and the kinds of works that matter remains completely unclear, but I’m still convinced that the stress on the “faith” side of the equation is pretty uniquely Christian.

    Kisekileia, I found your comment really helpful…I know you haven’t said much here, but there’s something very comforting about it, so I just wanted to say thanks. I’m glad you’ve started showing up here. 🙂

  4. Dw3t-Hthr says:

    One of the bits of trivia half-lodged in my head was that the persecution of Christians by Rome had a lot to do with their refusal to participate in certain state festivals — specifically burning incense in honor of the emperor (who may have been divinised at the time? not sure).

    Basically, the Roman government was all, “We don’t care what you *believe*, just burn the incense and go home, it doesn’t have to mean anything beyond ‘I am not a subversive out to bring down the government’.” And the Christians wouldn’t do it, because it was a ritual that *meant* that they recognised the emperor as divine or whatever it was, and they wouldn’t *do* it because they didn’t *mean* it, and it didn’t matter if this caused problems for them.

    That’s kind of a degenerate case, but it’s I think illustrative of some of the mindset issues that were current at the time.

    (There’s an anecdote from a current-day African tribal perspective that’s also apropos, which I draw from Ritual by Malidoma Some: there is a particular ritual to be performed in this tribe when someone has twins, lest a horrible fate befall them. A Christian-convert family refused to do the ritual, because it was from the tribal religions, and the expected horrible fates started to happen. Eventually the local spirit worker did the ritual in their name to keep the bad things from spreading — the belief on the part of the family was irrelevant to him, but the practice had to be done.)

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