“Do I listen to pop music because I’m miserable, or am I miserable because I listen to pop music?”– Rob Gordon (played by John Cusack) in High Fidelity
“When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.”–Luke 4: 28-29
I had a minor identity crisis recently. I realized that I don’t like Star Wars. This is a big deal, right?
This actually happened once before. In the summer of 1999, my closest circle of friends–with whom I had bonded over multiple shared interests, but the strongest of those bonds were built through shared humor and interest in film–began talking about the Star Wars version of Trivial Pursuit, which had just been put on the market to coincide with the release of Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. We spent the entire month of July together, venturing to one summer camp or service trip after another. For nearly 30 days strait, there would be a regular suggestion offered up by one person or another, “We need to play the Star Wars Trivial Pursuit…for money…and see who wins.” (Quick sidebar: You have no business judging us. We were pop culture geeks in the late 90’s. There was no strong internet culture with easy access to every trivia contest human beings can create. No cell phones even. Just us five or six young people trying to one-up each other with jokes and movie references. It was glorious.) Months later, we finally agreed on a time and place to make this battle happen. A couple of us had gone off to college, so we had to wait until they were back in town. We finally sat down together, we picked our individual colors, we put our $25.00 ante into the center of the board. Game on.
I lasted through two rounds before I quit…due to boredom. 4 hours of work at my part time job, flushed gladly down the tubes when I walked away from the contest as it became immediately clear that I had no business competing in this trivia competition. I had watched the original three Star Wars films many times. I knew character names and quotes. But I had no idea that there were names for the various robots, vehicles, planets, and aliens throughout the 3 films. I knew “Hoth” and “Ewok” (interestingly, my spell check program recognizes “Ewok” but not “Hoth”), but everyone else in the circle was able to note the difference between an AT-AT and a Tai Fighter (among many other things…even now, those are the only things I don’t know about that I can remember) so I folded, awaking to the fact that I wasn’t actually a Star Wars fan at all. I liked the light saber battles, but I hadn’t internalized a vast encyclopedia’s worth of knowledge about a galaxy from a long time ago, far, far away in the manner of a true devotee. I could retain a lot of pop culture knowledge…but a true love of this particular franchise was apparently not in my heart. Mind…blown.
These are probably the most common moments in which most of us actively reflect on our identities…those moments when we come face to face with who we “aren’t.” For the most part, we just live our lives, we move from task to task and day to day without staring into our reflection and questioning in Derek Zoolander-style, “Who am I?” We are what we do. We are “what we eat.” We are where we live and who we root for and what clothes we wear and who our friends are…we don’t worry often with “identity” questions because we are, most often, identifying with our lives. Until we come up against something that has been assumed to be true about ourselves…and we confess, “That’s not me after all.” For some of us, this is the realization that we are attracted to people who we aren’t “supposed” to find attractive. For some of us, it’s the realization we don’t really “fit” in particular spaces due to our skin color or economic status. For some of us, it’s the realization that we feel better when we eat food different from the food that comprises the diet of most of our peers. And still, for some of us, we learn who we really are when we look at the practices and policies that are commonplace in the world and we genuinely wonder, “How can this possibly be allowed…let alone accepted?” I think it’s because this is so often how identity formation works–through differentiation, realizing who/what you are by encountering situations that make it very clear who/what you are not–that we so often define ourselves by what we are against rather than what we are for.
So sometime in the very recent past I heard they were making a new Star Wars movie…and before I had even gotten around to thinking much about it…it was released in theaters. And then I went and saw it. It was fine. I was reminded…I’m not a fan. Not really. I just go to the movies sometimes. In the grand scheme of things…this does not matter, I’ll be the first to admit that. But it remains interesting to me in one specific way: Before I knew I wasn’t a Star Wars fan, I participated in the same conversations with the same friends with the same frequency and fervor. And while they never gave me a hard time for quitting that game…that was the first time I intentionally got up and walked away from them. Shortly after that, we stopped hanging out all together. Did we stop hanging out because I was no longer assumed to be a Star Wars fan? Was realizing I wasn’t a Star Wars fan what lead to our eventual silent falling out? I can’t really say one way or the other. Because that’s how it works with an identity…you just are who you are, until you become someone else…and very rarely can we track the transformation from one state of being to another…because, very often, you reveal who you are long before you are capable of articulating your identity. Often, the world knows who you are before you do.
The people of Nazareth assumed they knew exactly who they were. They thought of themselves as God’s chosen people. Life wasn’t perfect, but in the end, God had their back. Or so they assumed. Until one day when Jesus came home for a visit, read the scroll of Isaiah about “good news to the poor” and “let the oppressed go free,” and said to them, “This scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The people of Nazareth had just assumed, “Jesus was raised here, he’s one of us. More evidence that we are doing all the right things.” And then Jesus said to them (essentially), “I am actually incapable of doing for you what I have done for others. I actually claim an identity as God’s chosen…where as you identify simply as ‘Nazareth.’ I’m here for people who are choosing to be ‘God’s chosen.'” And they were so offended…that they tried to throw Jesus off a cliff.
Was Nazareth angry at Jesus for not working miracles among them? Or was Jesus unable to work miracles among them because they refused to allow their assumptions to be challenged? Who’s to say? What we know for sure is that Jesus claimed a very specific identity for himself that day–the One who would serve the outsider, the marginalized, the ones with no one else in their corner–and simultaneously refused to be the hometown hero Nazareth wanted him to be. When he refused to be who Nazareth wanted, so he could serve those in need, he revealed his true identity. He wasn’t one of them at all…and that made him disposable.
Who we claim to be, and who we refuse to be…that is, in the end, what defines us. We’re moving past labels and name tags here…who you really are…who you really choose to be in this world is determined by the juxtaposition between what you claim and what you refuse. The more closely those two things match, the more likely you are to be remembered as a kind of hero…someone who knew who they were and was unafraid to BE that in the world. The wider the distance between what you claim and what you refuse…the more likely you are to be remembered as a hypocrite, or a deceiver…in the words of Holden Caulfield, “a Phony.”
Just this morning, I came across a blog post by John Pavlovitz, “Maybe I’m not a Christian After All.” Reacting to the news that big name evangelical leaders Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr. have endorsed Donald Trump and his campaign to be the next President of the United States, Pavlovitz is wrestling with identity…what makes a Christian a Christian…is it specifically a labeling issue, or does how we live and how we reflect Jesus’ legacy in the world matter at all? I’m going to help my brother here a little bit (though, I suspect his post was primarily aiming for satire): Who we claim to be and what we refuse. You claim to be a follower of Jesus? Well, then you should probably refuse partnership with and access to worldly powers, just as Jesus did. You claim to see Trump as the best possible Christian choice in the upcoming election because he supposedly creates jobs? Well…Jesus himself encouraged people to quit their jobs…he and his followers refused to spend their time earning an hourly wage…they were homeless and nomadic, depending on friends and believers to take them in. Their actions matched who they claimed to be. Unlike Misters Graham and Falwell Jr. who claim to believe in the sovereignty of God, the ultimate power of Jesus Christ, and the action of the Holy Spirit in their lives…Jesus and his followers actually lived out their faith, even when it meant being rejected, even when it meant physical discomfort and torture…even when it meant death on the cross and prison and death by stoning. This is why an entire world religion was founded on their words, witness, and work. And it’s why Graham and Falwell and whatever political despots they attempt to align themselves with will be remembered as charlatans…snake oil salesmen. It’s also why when I meet people like them and their followers…I don’t treat them as I do “Christians.” Christians are my family, they are my brothers and sisters from around the world who I always feel at home with, in solidarity with, free to speak of God’s love and thirsty for God’s justice for ALL people. When I meet power-hungry people of privilege who enjoy wrapping themselves in wealth and influence, and put their arms around individuals and institutions that attempt to accrue power by oppressing and enslaving precious people…I treat them like dim-witted children. I speak slowly and try to educate them about what they are doing wrong. (Some day I’ll have to tell you about the time my grandmother, my uncle and I spent a week on a cruise ship full of such folks. It was hilarious. And kind of sad.)
So let it be known…you can call yourself whatever you want. But when you claim to be a Christian and refuse to tirelessly stand for and with the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, beautiful and precious people in need of justice and reconciliation…all so you can make nice with a billionaire blow-hard who won’t ever be President any way…you’ve revealed your true identity. Phony Christians.
What you claim/what you refuse…let us all be so warned as we enter into the world as…whatever it is we are.